By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
On Wednesday Scott Beckerley and I were invited to lunch at Spruce Restaurant in San Francisco by Enguerrand Bajiot, the managing director of Lanson Americas. The occasion was the launch of their Lanson Vintage collection- a magnum only program that offers the Champagne fan the unique opportunity to buy disgorged-to-order bottles straight from their deep cellars in Reims. The bottles that we tasted were so fresh that our Lanson sales rep, the charming and knowledgeable Jennifer Guptill had to drive to Sacramento to get them out of customs! They had all been disgorged in April and come by air directly from the cellars of Lanson.
All of these wines have been made available to K&L and to you on a special order basis and they are extremely limited- only six magnums of each vintage. They don’t disgorge it until you order it… Provenance does not get any more perfect than this. It will take two or three months to get the bottles as they need time to label them and then ship them from France, and of course they must clear customs! I would recommend not ordering these if you need them for a specific occasion as they are currently 20 feet underground half way around the world and still on their lees.
Lanson was founded in 1760, making it one of the oldest Champagne houses and Bruno Paillard who now owns the group has a huge amount of respect for that history. Cellar master Jean Paul Gandon has been working at Lanson since 1972, and managed the vineyards before taking over the cellar in 1982. No cellar master of any big house has been running a house for as long.
The wines showed spectacularly and had the sparkle and freshness that one rarely experiences in old Champagne, except for in the caves where they were born. Part of this has to do with the magnum format but the majority of the reason for the excellent vigor of these wines is Lansons non-malolactic policy and the excellent estate vineyards they had up until 1991. All of the wines that predate 1991 in this offering are entirely estate grown- only the 1996 and 2002 use any purchased fruit. All of the vintage wines are approximately 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay and fermented in stainless steel without malolactic.
We started off our lunch with the 2002 Lanson Gold Label Vintage Brut Champagne ($74.99), the only wine in 750ml of the lunch and the only one currently in stock. This Champagne is composed of 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay entirely from grand cru sites. Because Lanson never allows the wines to go through malo, this is a spectacularly fresh 11 year old that has lots of flowery Chardonnay character as the savory Pinot Noir side has yet to fully develop. This will be a spectacular bottle for the future if you can resist its ample charms right now. Chef Mark Sullivan had prepared a fabulous Big Eye Tuna crudo with avocado and olive oil to pair with the 2002 Lanson and it brought out the Pinot Noir character that had been hiding in the wine. It was a fabulous wine, and Lanson’s patience with their vintage program has given the Champagne lover a big reward.
For the next course, we had the 1996 Lanson Vintage Collection Brut Champagne 1.5L ($499- disgorged to order, due in August). I first tasted this wine at Lanson in Reims in 2002 when this was a current release. This Champagne is also composed of 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay and also all Grand Cru. They use four Mountain of Reims villages for the Pinot and Chouilly, Cramant and Avize for the Chardonnay. It is dosed at only three grams per liter of sugar, but labeled as brut- not extra brut. The producers in Champagne call 1996 the 10/10 vintage, because it was so unusually ripe (10% potential alcohol) but also still very high in acid (10 grams per liter of total acidity) and the Lanson is a great example of the vintage. I am positive that I would guess this was 10 years younger in a blind tasting! I found this 1996 completely fresh and transparent. This is electric, high toned, Champagne that almost seems like a blanc de blancs! Chef Sullivan paired this with roasted diver scallops, brassicas and caramelized shellfish nage. It was an inspired pairing, as the rich, buttery scallops needed a wine that could cut them, and this 1996 is like a razor!
Our main course arrived and we were treated to two vintages side by side, both from magnum! The 1988 Lanson Vintage Collection Brut Champagne 1.5L ($749) is a spectacular bottle, from one of my very favorite vintages for drinking right now. This is one of the last “classic” Champagne vintages with a nice, long, even growing season. This wine only showed the slightest tinge of gold in its straw color after 25 years. The nose is developing the white truffle aromas that only time can bring, framed by the savory Pinot Noir character that this house is rightly famous for. This Champagne had a little nutella and smoke on the deep powerful palate. The finish is vibrant and chalk- this wine still has time in hand! Chef Sullivan’s pan roasted salmon brought out the youthful side of this wine, and it would have been very hard to guess that it was a quarter of a century old! I just drank the 1988 Krug on Sunday, and I have to say, this Lanson is fresher. A showstopper!
Also with the salmon, the 1983 Lanson Vintage Collection Brut Champagne 1.5L ($849) was a huge treat. The color of this Champagne was amazing- white gold with even a touch of green- from looking it would be easy to guess that it was a 2007! This toasty Champagne has great aromas of chestnuts and buttery chanterelles. On the palate it is full and rich with a surprising amount of viscosity. Flavors of exotic pear and ripe apple fruit resolve into a clean, dry, mineral laden finish with this 30 year old bottle of Champagne.
Before the dessert the real treat of the lunch was served, the 1976 Lanson Vintage Collection Brut Champagne 1.5L ($999). This was a wine that I had tasted once before- more than 10 years ago when I visited Lanson in Reims. Amazingly, this freshly disgorged bottle tasted far younger than the old disgorgement that I had back then! This vintage was the hottest of the 20th century and a rare (at the time!) August harvest in Champagne. The wine had a light gold color and a super bright nose of wild raspberries- it was so generous that it was hard to believe! On the palate it had tense Pinot Noir fruit that reminded me of Volnay.
This is definitely a bottle for the connoisseur! They saved the best for last with this one, and I won’t ever forget having tasted it.
A toast to you,