Champagne Lanson has had just three winemakers in the last 50 years. The venerable house, which celebrates its 260th anniversary next year, is a rock of stability. Chef de Cave Hervé Dantan visited Australia recently to launch the 2002 Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut, one of the greatest Champagnes of recent years.
It is a strange business: winemakers like Dantan can find themselves finishing and releasing a wine they did not originally vinify. Dantan has worked for Lanson for just six years – before that he was at Mailly. The base-wine for the 2002 Noble Cuvée was made by his predecessor, Jean-Paul Gandon.
But first, the NV Lanson Black Label Brut. If you have noticed a recent softening of this wine, which has sometimes seemed austere in the past, you could be right. While Lanson is noted as a non-malolactic house, Dantan has relented somewhat. The malolactic fermentation is a bacterial action that softens the sometimes strident acidity of Champagne, which is why it’s normal in the making of most non-vintage Champagne. Lanson had held the line on no-malo, until Dantan.
“I have introduced a small part of malo,” he says, “but this is just for the non-vintage wines, and never for the vintages. I like the malo, but I don’t smash it.” Meaning he doesn’t overdo it (never more than 25%) because it is part of the Lanson style to have fresh, crisp acidity.
The vintage wines are always from great years, so their acidity is always more balanced. As well, vintage wines are matured longer before release, which has the effect of softening the acidity. Dantan continues: “Jean-Paul Gandon was a stickler for non-malo, and his predecessor, Bernard Gasco, was the creator of the house style.”
The 2002 Noble Cuvée certainly did not need any malo. It is a great and perfectly balanced Champagne. It’s drinking superbly at 17 years of age, possibly the last of the 2002 Champagnes to hit the market. The 2002 is an exceptional vintage – impossibly fine and poised, yet spellbinding in its complexity. At A$210 it is terrific value. Most comparable deluxe cuvées are at least double the price, and most ’02 wines have been sold long ago. Noble Cuvée is 70% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir, all from grand cru vineyards.
The NV Lanson Black Label Brut and Gold Label Vintage Brut are well-known as supermarket brands, and represent some of the best Champagne value you will find. But the discounting doesn’t help the image, and so Lanson now has a network of independent distributors across Australia who handle the remainder of the Lanson portfolio. This includes Green Label Organic, Père et Fils, Extra Age, La Vie En Rose Rosé, and Noble Cuvée. NV Lanson Père et Fils is the alternative to the Black Label which is exclusive to Woolworths. Hervé Dantan describes how he has differentiated the two wines, with the intention that Père et Fils will be sold at a higher price: A$70 compared to the Black Label’s A$46 to A$60 range.
They have the same varietal composition: 50% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay and 15% meunier, but Père et Fils spends an extra year ageing on lees: a minimum four years, followed by a year of ‘cork age’, adding up to five in total. As well, the Père et Fils grapes come from higher-rated vineyards: 50% are from grand cru and premier cru vineyards. The proportion of reserve wine is also higher. The latest shipment is based on the 2013 vintage and contains 30% reserve wine, from 10 vintages – 2012 back to 1995.
Black Label tastes younger and fresher, more vibrant and primary, while Père et Fils tastes a little more mature, complex and rounded. I bought a bottle of each to compare and, while they were recognisably different, I couldn’t say I preferred one over the other. It’s a matter of personal taste.