Pommery Cuvée Louise Champagne And The Invention of Brut
by Ken Gargett
We’ve touched on this before: the women in Champagne have made an extraordinary contribution to the development and fame of the wines and the region.
Madame Louise Pommery is a case in point. An amazing woman, her life and achievements are justifiably celebrated in the eponymous house’s flagship champagne, Cuvée Louise. These days, Pommery makes three incarnations: the original champagne, Extra Brut; the Brut Nature (a non-dosage style); and the Rosé. The current vintage for all three is 2004.
Pommery was originally founded in 1856 (or 1858 depending on your source or how one prefers to interpret the history). It seems most likely that the firm commenced in ’56 when Alexandre-Louis Pommery joined with Narcisse Greno – Madame Pommery became involved due to the death of her husband, Alexandre-Louis, in 1858, but there are various versions, including one even suggesting 1836.
Greno had taken over the house of Dubois-Gosset in 1836, although no members of the Pommery family were involved for many years. Rather inconveniently, as mentioned, Alexandre-Louis fell off the perch in 1858. It was left to his widow, Jeanne Alexandrine Louise Melin Pommery, known as Louise, to step in. She did so while caring for her two children, a 17-year-old and an 18-month-old, and was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
If we go back serveral years prior to this, Madame Pommery had her first child in her early twenties. Her husband had enjoyed a successful and lucrative career in the wool industry, and the couple had decided to retire and enjoy life.
To their surprise, Madame Pommery fell pregnant again at 38 (their children were called Louis and Louise, so perhaps not the most imaginative of families). Enough of a life of leisure. Alexandre-Louis decided to re-enter the business world and did so by investing in the champagne industry. He joined Narcisse Greno, hence Pommery and Greno.
We should probably say that they entered the wine industry rather than the champagne industry as in those days it is very likely that the firm was making a lighter style of red. The champagnes being made back then needed a lot of sugar to be drinkable (champagne was a “dessert wine” at the time), as the grapes were picked green.
Madame Pommery took the decision to move away from reds to make only champagnes and, in time, she would make the groundbreaking call to push for her growers to leave the grapes on the vines far longer, reducing the need for the addition of sugar and ensuring a product of a far higher quality.
This, however, was not to happen for a few years yet. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the house of Pommery was occupied by the Prince of Hohenhoe, who acted as the Governor of Reims until the German withdrawal.
At that time, Madame Pommery purchased 60 hectares of land to expand her cellars (or possibly 75, again depending on the source), now some of the most famous in the region. The cellars included 120 Gallo-Roman crayères, and anyone who has been to Champagne will surely have visited these amazing caves or be kicking themselves for not doing so.
There were an additional 19 kilometers of cellars acquired at this stage and then an eight-year project to construct the famous Pommery house, designed by the Madame herself.
The result is perhaps more architecturally curious than spectacular, but no matter. It was opened in 1878, the year before her daughter Louise married Prince Guy de Polignac (whose ancestors were said to walk the hills with a certain wizard known as Merlin).
It was not that long ago that Guy’s descendent, Prince Alain de Polignac, was a valued member of the team and responsible not only for the superb wines, but also for representing the company around the world.
I remember meeting him in Brisbane around a decade or so ago (perhaps even longer?) and a more charming and knowledgeable ambassador for both the region and his own house is impossible to imagine.
Madame Pommery was also a pioneer in the treatment of, and benefits for, her workers.
We have, however, bypassed one of the most crucial moments, not just in the history of the house of Pommery, but for all Champagne.
Not many wines, let alone champagnes, have songs written about them. I suppose, recently, we had Jay-Z rapping about Louis Roederer’s Cristal – and didn’t that go well when it was made very clear that the house would rather have nothing to do with him. Other than that?
A song about the 1874 Pommery, however, had a more welcoming response. The “Ode to Pommery 1874,” sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” immortalized this famous wine (and, no, I can’t get it to fit either).
“Farewell, then, Pommery
With reverential sips
We part and grieve that never . . . ”
Quite what comes next I have been unable to ascertain.
But why this wine? This was the champagne that Madame Pommery decided should be made in a much drier style, largely for the UK market. In reality, it was probably still a wine that would have been seen as excessively sweet by drinkers today, but it offered just a fraction of the sweetness that was usual at the time.
Basically, the level of sugar was reduced from around 150 grams/liter to just 30 (most standard NVs sit around the 7 to 12 grams/liter mark these days).
Madame Pommery’s customers in the UK loved the new style, known as Brut, and champagne was changed forever. Certainly something to sing about.
Pommery still has a bottle of the 1874 in its cellars, at least it did when I last visited a few years ago.
When she passed away in 1890, Madame Pommery became the first woman to receive a French state funeral – with 20,000 people in attendance and the French President paying her the ultimate compliment of changing the name of the village in which she lived, Chigny (one of the cutest of all French villages), to Chigny-les-Roses to acknowledge her adoration of those flowers.
The modern era of Pommery
These days, Pommery is in the hands of the Vranken family as the Vranken Pommery firm.
Pommery went through some darker times prior to this, as it was bounced around in a form of corporate two-step and saw much of its priceless vineyards pillaged (to the benefit of the houses of LVMH, but this is nothing if not a business).
At the time, Pommery was recognized as having one of the finest collections of vineyards in all Champagne, eventually losing some 300 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards and around 450 hectares overall.
Considering that the very best vineyards can go for, allegedly around up to ten million euros per hectare (it would seem highly unlikely that any Grand Cru vineyards in Champagne will be changing hands for anything less than a million euros per hectare), it is not hard to see how devastating this massive ravaging of a once-great house was.
I think most critics expected Pommery to become a minor player at best, but more likely to disappear forever. It speaks volumes about the team at every level that it has not only overcome such serious setbacks but done so so very well.
Fortunately, Pommery now has a long-term and optimistic future. Expect future generations of champagne fans to hold this house in the highest regard. Vineyards are being resurrected. And that is excellent news for all lovers of great champagne.
As mentioned, the prestige champagne is named after Madame Louise, and the current releases are all from the 2004 vintage. It has always been an impressive prestige cuvée although, in all honesty, I was never a great fan of the 1999, but then I have never been a fan of that vintage in general; 2002 and 2004 are very different stories.
First, if I may, a recent extravaganza in Brisbane saw a number of jeroboams of Pommery opened in the presence of Madame Vranken. Large-format bottles seems to be a thing for Pommery.
A few years ago in Helsinki for an extraordinary champagne tasting, we were all on a boat heading up through the lakes to the anointed venue. We were advised that they only had one bottle of champagne for the trip. The horror! There were around 16 of us on the boat.
Fortunately, it was a jeroboam of Pommery (fingers were crossed it was not corked and thankfully it was not). Hard to beat a morning sail in a beautiful location with a great champagne.
Back to the Brisbane extravaganza (some readers may think Brisbane is a curious place for such an event, but there would be few cities on the planet to have enjoyed as many truly astounding champagne events as the capital of Queensland, all thanks to the tireless efforts of one Bernadette O’Shea, a local champagne ambassador, a woman with one of the great palates and a never-ending devotion to this great wine).
They opened three different jeroboams – all of which had come direct from the house’s cellars and all of which were in immaculate condition. One was the 1995 Louise. What a wine.
From three Grand Cru villages – Ay, Avize, and Cramant – it was superb. A fresh salad style with notes of rock melon. Elegant, ethereal, lingering, and superbly balanced. For me, 97.
The other two jeroboams were the standard vintages. A 1990, which we understood was the last remaining one on the planet, and a 1995. The ’95, from seven Grand Cru villages, was all nuts and glacé fruits, especially orange. Complex and mature, bold upfront. The second jeroboam of 1995 (no sense in stinting oneself) was even better, with more length. 94.
The superstar of the evening, for me, was the 1990, even exceeding the glories of the Louise 1995. It had extraordinary length. Complex, balanced, showing finesse and yet richness. Stone fruits, florals, walnuts, spices and more. Champagne does not get much more exciting. 98.
If it was the very last jeroboam of this wine in existence, it could have hardly performed more gloriously.
From a different occasion, the 2002 Louise, a wine I have not seen for a few years, was a champagne of great purity at the time: 65 percent Chardonnay with a dosage of just 5 grams/liter. It was beautifully concentrated with notes of fig, stone fruit, and dried apricots. Toast and honey. A velvety texture with considerable complexity.
Pommery Louise vintages
The first vintage of Louise was created by Prince Alain de Polignac, the 1979 vintage. It was a fitting and wonderful tribute to a woman who achieved so much.
The responsibility for making these wines today rests with Pommery’s tenth cellar master, Clement Pierlot, although the 2004 vintage fell to his predecessor, the long-term chef du cave, Thierry Gasco. Pierlot took over in 2017.
Here is a quick look at some of the latest Louise releases (not the Rosé), although the wines have been available for some time, so hopefully some readers may have had the opportunity to enjoy them already.
Pommery Louise Nature 2004 is the first sans dosage wine (meaning no sweetness from dosage – a bone-dry style) that Pommery has offered, although technically apparently the 1990 Louise was also a no-dosage style, as that suited the wine at the time, but it was never promoted as such. This wine is entirely sourced from Grand Cru vineyards. AUD$329.
The 2004 Nature is an intense style but with fresh floral notes, spices, oyster shell touches, and lemon. Impressive finesse. The intensity is something that was evident throughout and sits well with the freshness of the acidity. As one would expect, a bone-dry style. The texture is supple and the finish very long with the merest hint of a smoky flinty note. An exceptional sans dosage style. 95.
This might be the time to mention issues with sans dosage-style champagnes: unless great care is taken, the wines often have a hard finish and are not ideal for lengthy ageing. The Louise Nature seems to have avoided these issues.
Choosing the right vintage (usually warmer ones) and the ideal vineyards (often those exposed to a little more sunlight) is imperative. Apparently, Gasco attempted to make a version from the 2003 vintage, which on the surface would have seemed ideal, being such a hot year (to be honest, one of my least favorite years), but the finish exhibited that hardness that non dosage wines can get and it was decided, fortunately, to wait for a more suitable year.
Pommery has used the same base wine for both the Nature and the Extra Brut Louise. For me that is a little curious as presumably the base wine would work better as one or the other? Still, the final verdict will depend on what is in the bottle and it does seem that both have succeeded.
That said, for me the Extra Brut is even better than the Nature. This will be a decision relying on personal preference for most, and for me two cracking champagnes. But the winner is . . .
Pommery Louise Extra Brut 2004, a blend of around two-thirds Chardonnay from Cramant and Avize and one-third Pinot Noir from Ay (the blend is typically more like 60/40), same as the Nature. Fifty-one different plots have contributed; dosage is around 5 grams/liter, and the wine spent more than a decade on lees, building complexity. AUD$269.
Immediate oyster shell notes, citrus, lemon, and a hint of grapefruit, but also gentle notes in the background of vanilla, toast, and honey. Supple, lovely texture but the palate fills out (in a slightly superior way to the Nature for me). Fantastic length. 97. Just a brilliant champagne.
Madame Pommery might have had no idea what she was setting in motion so long ago, but she would undoubtedly be very proud of her house today.
For more information, please visit www.champagnepommery.com.