With regards to climate, Chef de Cave Hervé Dantan believes 2017 is the inverse of 2016. “It was a very difficult year,” Dantan began. “August 25th was the special day – it rained in the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne, but not in the Côte des Bar. In a few days, the grapes changed a lot.” Dantan attributes the difference in quality between vineyards to the rainfall on August 25th. “The places where it rained were not so good,” he said.
Due to relentlessly high temperatures and humidity (30 degrees during the day and 25 degrees at night) in the final days of August, the harvest was very complicated and Dantan decided to pick quickly. “We now know when we have an early vintage, it is not necessarily a good vintage,” he said, citing the 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 vintages as examples. Lanson were also forced to reject some of the grapes as they arrived at the pressing houses, as the quality was just not good enough. His frustration was not solely a consequence of the difficult weather – Dantan thinks that the overall quality of the harvest in Champagne can, and should, be improved.
He believes this can be achieved by increasing the subdivision of plots within vineyards, which would allow for more selective picking; hiring more skilled labour to improve grape sorting; and dialling down picking windows more precisely. “Sometimes dates for picking are based on availability, not grape maturity,” he told us. One factor influencing picking dates is a new payslip law, which requires temporary workers (such as pickers) to be issued separate payslips for August and September, whereas in the past they were just issued one. As such, in the event where the grapes may be ripe and ready for picking on August 31st, some growers might be tempted to delay picking until September 1st, in order to avoid having to produce two payslips for each worker. In the meticulous art of Champagne production, a one-day delay can have significant consequences for the quality of the crop.
Grape supply is a competitive business in Champagne, with lots of producers seeking to purchase a limited supply of grapes from the highest rated Crus. As such, vine-growers risk being spoilt with price and power. Further, some purchasing relationships are decades-old, established by the grandparents of the growers and producers in charge today. “It is not easy to reject grapes… we have long-term relationships with many growers,” Dantan said. “But if there are more bad harvests, then a smarter approach is needed. We have to be more vigilant and precise.”
Vins Clairs 2017
We began with Chardonnay vins clairs from the Côte des Blancs, which had favourable weather on the pivotal day of August 25th. Dantan was particularly excited by Bassuet, his home village 80km south-east of Reims. “This is very easy to use this year,” he commented. The wine from the famous Le Mesnil was much less overt than typical and will therefore go straight into the reserves. “It isn’t open yet… it needs time,” Dantan added.
The final Chardonnay we tasted was from Trépail, which experienced a 40% loss of vineyards during a hailstorm on July 31st. Dantan showed us a picture he had taken in the vineyards the day after – hail the size of small eggs had not just damaged the grapes but had put holes in the wood holding the vines in place. Overall, the Chardonnays were good but Dantan remained disappointed. “The maturity in the Côte des Blancs was very impressive but the grapes were too ripe… fast maturation is not good, the harvest needs to take time to open.”
|Montgueux | Autre Cru, Côte des Blancs
Lots of bright apples, nice balance of fruit and acidity. Some pear fruit on the palate and ripeness with hints of tropicalness like guava.
|Bassuet | Autre Cru, Côte des Blancs
Pineapple and ripe apples. Quite good balance.
|Le Mesnil-sur-Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs
Lots of ripe fruits and guava and lychees. Very fresh acidity as only mid weight of fruit so acids dominant
|Trépail | Premier Cru, Montagne de Reims
Lots of ripe apples, very fresh and very clean. Slight smokiness and great chalky fine texture.
The Pinot Noirs however, were even more complicated. With high heat and humidity in late-August, botrytis spread quickly and resulted in many of the Pinot Noirs showing undesirable musty, earthy, mushroom flavours. Dantan relayed how the winemaking team had to taste each tank around seven times, as the wines kept changing character. “We tried to clean [the Pinots] with yeast from Chardonnay. It worked, but then one month later, the flavours came back,” he said.
Worst hit were the villages of Verzenay and Ville-Dommange, in the Montagne de Reims. Despite describing the latter as the “eye of the storm”, Dantan let us try samples of both for educational purposes. Although lacking the usual texture and structure, there were elements of clean fruit in both and neither were undrinkable.
|Bouzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Bundles of strawberry and hints of blueberry. Quite thin but okay. Some peaches come through with quite a good finish.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Has a lot of dustiness and wow acidity and very light red fruits.
|Ville-Dommange | Premier Cru, Montagne de Reims
Wine is clean despite the nightmare weather. Lots of strawberries, raspberries and cherry and showing pretty well.
|Verneuil | Autre Cru, Vallée de la Marne
Lots of strawberries and acidity. Very clean. Dantan “An example of good viticulture.”
|Damery/Cumières | Autre Cru/Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne
Has some softness and roundness with hints of peach and ripeness.
|Loches-sur-Ources | Autre Cru, Côte des Bar
Hint of smokiness and roundness with good balance of red fruits, pretty good.
We also tasted a few reserve wines, from as young as 2016 to as old as 2003. The 2016 wine was a blend of Pinot Noir from Grand Crus in the Montagne de Reims, some of which we sampled with Dantan during our vins clairs tasting last year. This blend had been kept in oak casks, hadn’t undergone malolactic fermentation and was showing promising maturity already. Of particular note was Bouzy 2003. Now fifteen years old it was still surprisingly fruity, jumping out of the glass yet with an intriguingly mellow acidity.
|Pinot Noir 2016 | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Nice red berry fruit, cherry and apple and peaches with some tropical hints and peach coming through.
|Verzenay 2015 | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Smokey and toasty with hints of ginger and raspberry.
|Chardonnay 2008 | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs
This has some power and very toasty, loads or really ripe lemon and red apples, racy and refreshing.
|Bouzy 2003 | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Very smoky, pineapple with hints of lychee and a great and bold finish.
To conclude our vins clairs tasting, we sampled the 2017 Black Label NV and Rosé Label NV blends. Whilst Dantan admitted it had been more difficult to do the blends this year, he said it thankfully wasn’t as challenging as he had expected. “We added more malo for depth and generosity and increased the reserve wine content this year,” he told us. Due to the high amount of malic acid in the 2017 wines, Dantan did more malolactic fermentation this year (30%), compared to last (25%). The reserve wines in Black Label and Rosé Label span from 2016 to 1998 and from 2016 to 2014, respectively. The Rosé Label also contains 6.5% red wine from Bouzy, Cumières and Les Riceys.
|Lanson Black Label NV | 2017 Base Year
50% PN, 35% CH, 15% PM | Base Year: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 35%
Light fruit at present. Seems very ripe and has a generosity and nice balance of apples and guava. Now we just wait for the bubbles!
|Lanson Rosé Label NV | 2017 Base Year
50% PN, 35% CH, 15% PM | inc. 6.5% Red Wine | Base Year: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 30%
Nice cherry nose, full of redcurrants and apple. The intense fruit character comes from the Aube.
“The cuvées will evolve very quickly in 2017,” Dantan said. Despite the many challenges, he did manage to produce a Clos Lanson 2017, although spring frosts and rain on August 25th resulted in a much smaller yield – just 2,500 bottles will be produced. “These harvests are a big problem. We cannot fully reconstitute the reserve wines even with a good harvest next year,” he concluded.
To begin our tasting of finished champagnes, Dantan shared the latest releases of Gold Label, Clos Lanson and Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs. Gold Label 2009, with Pinot Noir from Verzenay and Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, is yet to hit the market but promises to be quite special when it does. “2009 was a very good vintage, with no malo and rich, generous fruit,” Dantan said. He also compared the consecutive vintages of 1988 and 1989 with 2008 and 2009, noting the strange similarities between the fresher vintages ending in ‘8 and the richer vintages ending in ‘9.
|Lanson Gold Label 2009
53% PN, 47% CH | Lees Ageing: 7 Years | Disgorged: October 2017 | Dosage: 8 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
Very generous fruit. Lots of peaches and apples. Finishes clean with a hint of salinity and refreshing. 17.5+/20
|Clos Lanson 2007
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: January 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 14 Months
The nose is first dominated by charred and toasty notes from the barrel ageing then you start to see ripe lemon and lime and pineapple. Great finish. 18/20
|Lanson Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 2002
100% CH | Dosage: 6 g/L
Lots of richness. This seems to be opening up since my last taste 6 moths ago, lots of pear and apples and creaminess. The texture is all there and goes quite creamy on the end.18+/20
Vintage Collection Magnums
Our final tasting experience was one to remember. In the 1970s, the Lanson family instituted the Vintage Collection. The idea was to keep vintage magnums on the lees under crown cap to be disgorged at a later date – by which time it was believed they would reach a new platform of complexity and decadence, assisted by the larger format bottle size. Every year, a few magnums from the Vintage Collection – including the first vintage 1976 – are released to a limited circle of enthusiasts and connoisseurs.
We tasted five vintages with Dantan, from 1979 to 1990. “They need to recover after disgorgement… around one year is good. After this time, they will be more complex and less fragile,” he told us. His absolute favourite is the seminal vintage, 1976. Of the ones we tasted together, he showed a preference for 1989. “I love ’89, I really love it. It was a ‘left out’ vintage… overshadowed by ’88 and ’90, but tastes much younger than the 1990 even,” Dantan said.
A range of Lanson Vintage Collection Magnums, from 1976 to 1998, are now available on our website.
|Lanson Vintage Collection 1990 Magnum
54% PN, 46% CH | Lees Ageing: 26 Years | Disgorged: January 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 14 Months
Has lots of nuts, dried fruits and richness. Nice acidity, quite dry and will get more complex after about a year. Has a good balance. 18/20
|Lanson Vintage Collection 1989 Magnum
56% PN, 44% CH | Lees Ageing: 27 Years | Disgorged: January 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 14 Months
This has white peaches and apricots. Lots of fruit and nuts and fresh acidity. This is well balanced and agree with Herve, it does seem youthful for its age. 18.5+/20
|Lanson Vintage Collection 1988 Magnum
51% PN, 49% CH | Lees Ageing: 28 Years | Disgorged: January 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 14 Months
Creamy and really quite subtle and alluring with dried apricot and bundles of nuttiness and a drizzle of honey. Wow this is rather lovely has made us all want to taste this again! 19+/20
|Lanson Vintage Collection 1985 Magnum
52% PN, 48% CH | Lees Ageing: 28 Years | Disgorged: January 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 14 Months
This is very interesting. Has some banana that has been smoked and a vibrancy on the palate. Loads of lime and acacia blossom and that soya character. 18/20
|Lanson Vintage Collection 1979 Magnum
52% PN, 48% CH | Dosage: 3 g/L
This seems so young! All apricots and white truffle. This is like Sauternes with orange marmalade and acacia and when you go back after time in the glass you also smell oyster and iodine. 19/20
Not quite finished treating us just yet, Dantan had one more surprise up his sleeve. Whilst sharing a marvellous dinner in Reims, he opened an incredibly rare bottle of Lanson Red Label Brut 1964, a truly once-in-a-lifetime bottle of champagne.
|Lanson Red Label Brut 1964
Very pale and youthful in appearance; fresh lemon, ripe apples and creamy caramel. Showing no signs of age and no oxidation. Amazingly fresh on the palate with a citrus zest, some grapefruit and mango. Chalky fine texture and nice creamy lees character. This is amazing for a champagne over fifty years old, seems only as mature as a late 90s vintage! 19/20