Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Masterclass - 25/02/16
“We are always looking for the perfect balance between structure, elegance and freshness,” says Michel Fauconnet. I am lucky enough to be sitting next to the man who has masterfully blended Laurent-Perrier Champagnes for over 40 years and we are tasting through a series of 4 recently disgorged Grand Siècle in magnum, ranging from wines not yet released through to those no longer available. The idea is to see how the wines are evolving. A serious tasting and a serious treat, thanks both to Laurent-Perrier and their Hong Kong importer ASC Fine Wines.
The history of Grand Siècle started in 1955 when owner of Laurent-Perrier, Bernard de Nonancourt conceived the idea of creating a Prestige Cuvée that would fly in the face of conventional notions that a prestige cuvee had to come from a single vintage year. Instead, he believed Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Cuvée had to offer a unique style exemplifying the art of blending taken to extremes – a blend of wines taken from three great vintage years made from the very best grapes from the top cru vineyards.
Each of the three chosen vintages for each Grand Siècle must add one of three key properties – structure, freshness and elegance. To keep the identity of the house, which is focused on maximizing freshness, elegance and purity, the majority of the blend is always based on Chardonnay, with a smaller proportion of Pinot Noir. The wines are aged solely in stainless steel to avoid any form of oxidation which could result in loss of freshness and premature ageing.
The first Grand Siècle we taste is a blend of the 2004, 2002 and 1999 vintages, a wine which has not yet been released. 2004 was a very fresh vintage, Michel tells us, very young, taut and vibrant and makes up 60% of this particular blend. 2002 was used to add structure and 1999 the elegance and finesse. Pale gold in colour with fine persistent bubbles the wine shows toasted almonds, lemon citrus and floral touches on the nose with a wonderfully elegant texture and a linear chalky mineral finish. It is full of tension, nerve and freshness. Still young but with lots of potential.
According to Michel, the challenge in Champagne used to be reaching full maturity. Now, with the effects of global warming and improved viticultural techniques, both flowering and ripening are earlier, with ripening occurring much faster than before. Great care must therefore be taken in the vineyard to monitor this process to ensure that grapes are picked at the perfect balance of sugar, acidity and flavour to make a great Champagne. 40 years ago it was difficult to achieve this balance, now, Michel believes it is much easier.
This overall improvement in ripeness and balance has led many Champagne houses to reduce their dosage levels in recent years. At Laurent-Perrier, due to their inherently fresher style, dosage has always been fairly low, and now sits somewhere between 6-7g/l residual sugar for the Grand Siècle. Michel says they haven’t been influenced by consumer preferences for lower dosage wines, as the wine has always aimed at being more of an aperitif style as well as able to be paired with food.
The second wine we taste is a blend of 1999, adding elegance, 1997 bringing freshness, and 1996 adding structure. Intense notes of grapefruit and patisserie with a smooth, supple texture and toasty brioche notes lasting through to a refined, chalky finish. A much more integrated wine than the first, ready to drink now but with the ability to develop more toasty, honeyed character over time. Really delicious.
Winemaking at Laurent-Perrier is highly reductive. They avoid contact with oxygen throughout the vinification with rapid extraction of juice and fermentation at 16-17°C to preserve maximum freshness. The commercial yeast strain, CHP, is one of two preferred strains which gives them aromatic subtlety and finesse and the quick fermentation they are looking for to protect against oxidation. They avoid lees contact for the base wines, letting them settle after fermentation then racking to clean tanks as quickly as possible. Malolactic fermentation is carried out soon after using their own strain of bacteria which they have isolated specifically for the job. For Michel, wines that have such a high proportion of Chardonnay need to go through full MLF in order that they can be enjoyed sooner, evident by the sheer drinkability of these wines.
The final two wines we taste are blends of older vintages. Wine 3 is a blend of 1996 giving structure, 1993 lending elegance and 1990, an outstanding year for Chardonnay, used for freshness. Lovely mineral citrus notes, toasty, floral with a richer mid-palate texture compared to the first two wines. The reason behind this was the addition of a higher percentage of Pinot Noir, apparently needed to balance out the richness of such high quality Chardonnay from the 1990 vintage and thus create consistency within the Grand Siècle style.
Wine 4, for me, is the most complex and impressive wine of the line up. Showing intense notes of brioche, apple skin, mixed citrus fruit, patisserie and toast with huge power on the mid-palate, lovely texture and finesse with an incredibly harmonious balance between freshness, fruit and structure. The vintages in question: 1990, one of the best Chardonnay vintages, 1985 a top vintage for Pinot Noir and 1988 bringing austerity to balance two such opposite, yet equally fine vintages. No longer available for sale, this Grand Siècle clearly demonstrates that although these wines can be enjoyed young, with the freshness and nervy vivacity of wines 1 and 2, they are also capable of significant ageing developing the toasty complexity of wines 3 and 4.
So when would Michel drink them? “Now!” he tells us without a moment’s hesitation. I’m inclined to agree with him. It would be rude not to, I think, as I pick up and drain my glass.