Laherte Frères: Grower Champagne Heaven
by Ken Gargett
One of the more interesting debates in the Champagne world over the last decade or so has been champagne house vs. Grower Champagne (sounds like the old Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy comic strip). Far too many champagne lovers have aligned themselves on one side or the other, insisting on the superiority of their choice, often for the most dubious of reasons.
That has always seemed a little odd to me. Surely, the better idea is to drink the good stuff, no matter who made it. At the moment, too many drinkers have taken the view that it can only be one or the other. If you stray, it is almost an act of treachery.
Fans of the traditional champagne houses look to the extensive vineyard resources they have, the winemaking expertise, and the unmatched economic advantages. Supporters of Grower Champagne talk about terroir and the focus on artisanal champagnes. Naturally, there is blurring at the edges on both sides.
I read one article that suggested that the reason for drinking Grower Champagnes was that it made you look cool. If one needs to order Grower Champagne to “look cool,” then perhaps that ship has already sailed.
Another suggested that, “Grower Champagne is a like solo album, while house champagnes are more collaborations.” I would suggest that it is more like a Springsteen solo album up against Bruce working with the full E Street Band. Both can be brilliant, and both have their place; they are simply different. Both will have fans that prefer one to the other but that hardly means you can’t listen to both.
Grower Champagne vs. champagne houses
Champagne is a region of blending: expect the blending different varieties, different vineyards, and different vintages. That might increase the quality of the final product, but it does rather kick the concept of terroir to the curb unless it gets extended to the entire region, which makes little sense.
There are some exceptions, of course, where houses do bottle individual clos or vineyards, but while these can be stellar wines they are more curios than typical champagnes. Typically, Grower Champagnes rarely blend vineyards.
If one wants to look to the technical, the houses are what are called negociants manipulants, identified on bottles with “NM.” Growers are récoltants manipulants, identified by “RM” on bottles. There are a number of other codes given to different styles of producers, such as co-operatives, merchants, and buyers own brands (BOB).
These identifying indicators are not related to levels of quality. Simply put, a negociant manipulant is a producer who buys grapes (or even must or wine) to make its champagne and often owns its own vineyards. A récoltant manipulant makes its champagne exclusively from its own vineyards. Hence, the division between houses and growers.
Figures will change almost as soon as you quote them, but they give a good indication. There are around 15,800 growers in Champagne, but the vast majority of these sell their grapes to the houses. Growers actually own around 90 percent of Champagne’s vineyards.
Some 4,000 growers make their own champagne, totaling around 20 percent of the region’s production. But of that the great majority is in tiny quantities and sold at cellar door or to loyal customers. And it must be said that the vast majority is a bit ordinary at best. The very best, however, should be on your radar.
The majority of the champagnes we have featured on Quill & Pad have come from the champagne houses, which for me reflects the reality that the majority of the great champagnes are made by them. Certainly not all, though.
In the past, I have looked at the wonderful Ulysse Collin, for example. A grower and one of my very favorite producers. Pierre Peters is another, although some feel it is extended past grower status as it is a little larger than most. Also JM Sélèque and Labruyère.
There are other superstar growers, including the operation considered to be the pioneer of this movement, Jacques Selosse. Look also to Agrapart, Egly-Ouriet, Jerome Prevost, Larmandier-Bernier, Jacques Lassaigne, Lahaye, Vouette et Sorbée, Cedric Bouchard, and more.
One of the great positives about the growers is that more and more stars keep emerging. It is much, much rarer to find a new house emerging. The costs, time, and effort make it nearly impossible these days, although never say never.
One grower name that has been appearing on the radar more and more of late is Laherte Frères, run by Aurélien Laherte, a seventh-generation grower. Back around 2012, Richard Juhlin in his wonderful A Scent of Champagne, in which he tastes 8,000 champagnes, gives him a two-star ranking but notes the potential for the estate to reach four stars. I suspect Juhlin would be close to awarding that now.
Rob Walters, in his enthralling ode to growers, Bursting Bubbles (2016), describes Aurélien Laherte as a young grower, “making delicious and unique wines that are getting better and better” and the only grower of genuine interest in the region around Chavot-Courcourt. Walters knows more about Grower Champagnes than almost anyone alive and he must have been impressed as he has added Laherte to his portfolio.
The village of Chavot is in the Coteaux d’Epernay region, southwest of the famous town. Like Olivier Collin at Ulysse Collin, this means that Aurélien Laherte is working with vineyards that do not receive the acclaim others enjoy. That said, the family has a serious landholding in Champagne. The most recent information I have is from Tyson Stelzer’s The Champagne Guide 2020-2021, which notes 11 hectares, confirmed by the estate.
Laherte also has plots at Voipreux (the Premier Cru, Vertus) and Meunier in the Marne Valley at Boursault and Le Breuil. For the family, keeping the many parcels separate is key as it looks to reflect terroir – not easy with more than 70 such parcels (80 according to Stelzer and 75 according to the estate).
The family has been growing vines since 1889. Aurélien joined in 2002 to work with his father, Thierry, and took control in 2005. Total production is around 100,000 bottles annually.
Stelzer also notes an interesting fact: the population of the village of Chavot is a mere 350, almost one-third of which is from the extended Laherte family.
Originally, Jean-Baptiste Laherte, the founder of the estate, worked his “12 acres,” basically selling to local cooperatives. Fourth-generation Michael Laherte doubled the size of the vineyard holdings.
Technically, this is a house rather than a grower. Why? It is designated NM. The reason for this is that different members of the family own different plots among the holdings, who “sell” the grapes to the operation. Aurélien also purchases biodynamically farmed Pinot Noir from a friend in the Montagne de Reims as well as other grapes. All this means that Laherte legally qualifies as NM, not RM. Despite this, Laherte is a grower in all but name.
The one thing on which every critic seems to agree is that the wines just keep improving. Peter Liem, in his essential Champagne (perhaps the very best book on the subject), notes that with Aurélien’s commitment to sustainable and biodynamic viticulture, the wines now reflect the family’s “diverse terroirs” and that the wines “have become more precise and expressive.”
He notes how Laherte makes an extensive range of wines, “all of which are worth seeking out.” He particularly admires the Les 7, perhaps the only champagne made that blends together all seven authorized varieties (for the record, the latest is a blend of 10 percent Pinot Gris, 18 percent Chardonnay, 18 percent Meunier, 15 percent Petit Meslier, 8 percent Arbanne, 14 percent Pinot Noir, and 17 percent Pinot Blanc).
More than 50 of the parcels they work are certified organic. Old and traditional Coquard wooden champagne presses are used; Laherte has two. Wines are moved only with the aid of gravity, and fermentation is natural yeasts only.
Around 80 percent of the harvest is fermented in oak – barrels between four and 40 years in age – and foudres (large wooden vats) between three and 100 years. They have around 350 barrels alone. Five small barrels are purchased every year from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which previously held the DRC Montrachet. Someone has good connections!
This is a producer not afraid to share information with the consumer – oh, that all producers in Champagne were so open! Things are certainly improving, but there is some way to go.
I recently sourced some magnums of Laherte Frères for the cellar. The back label on Ultradition Extra Brut gives me all the usual and required information. Also that the grapes came from eight different villages in the Coteaux sud d’Epernay and the Vallée de la Marne. The wine comprises 60 percent Pinot Meunier, 30 percent Chardonnay, and 10 percent Pinot Noir. Soils and viticulture are mentioned. Vinification was in foudres, tanks, and barrels with malolactic “partially realized.” We also have the date of disgorgement and dosage at 4.5 grams/liter.
The Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature notes the use of 40 percent reserve wines, aged in barrel, as well as the rest of the information as above. No doubt that there are many who enjoy champagne who could not care less about such information, but many do. Great to see it being included.
One question has been raised by the efforts of Laherte Frères and also Ulysse Collin, among others: if they are truly relegated to supposedly dismal corners of the region and forced to work with such second-rate land, how on earth are they making such cracking wines?
Perhaps there is a lot more to the Grand Cru/Premier Cru and the rest of the divisions that are in place now (this is under a long-term review, but don’t expect too much to change) are simply wrong? Sure, the Grand Crus often provide scintillating wines, so there is something to it, but there is much more to be revealed over time. It will be thrilling to watch, and even more thrilling to drink!
Laherte Frères tasting notes
The opportunity recently presented itself to taste some of these wines. Granted a small sampling from the overall range, but certainly enough to confirm that these are wines worth chasing. Prices will vary greatly for all the usual reasons, but so far these are reasonably priced, especially when we see the explosion of the cost of quality champagne that is happening today. The wines mentioned are based on the 2019 vintage.
Laherte Frères Ultradition Extra Brut NV – Aurélien describes this as back to basics. As mentioned, 60 percent Pinot Meunier, 30 percent Chardonnay and 10 percent Pinot Noir. There is 40 percent reserve material in use, no doubt a major factor in the complexity of the wine. Pinot Meunier is often considered the poor cousin of the three key varieties and the theory is that growers use it because they have no other option – it is what their vineyard contains. Wines like these and those of other growers and Meunier specialists are proving that theory perhaps not as valid as once thought.
This wine is fresh, clean, and bright with notes of strawberries. There is a plushness to it. The generosity of the Meunier comes to the fore. Alongside the red berries, a hint of citrus and florals. Lingers beautifully. Utterly delicious. 93.
Laherte Frères Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature NV – Zero dosage and 100 percent Chardonnay, of course, but with 50 percent reserve wine. Beautifully focused with notes of citrus, florals, almond, gun smoke, and a hint of stone fruit. Lean and minerally. A fresh sea breeze note.
Perhaps needs a fraction more length – and may develop it with a little time in the cellar – to be absolutely top shelf, but it is a delightful Blanc de Blancs. Good intensity throughout. A champagne absolutely brimming with life. 92.
Laherte Frères Rose de Meunier Extra Brut NV – From the Vallée de la Marne and 100 percent Meunier, this also has 50 percent reserve wine used and a dosage of just 2.5 grams/liter.
This is such a good example of rosé champagne. An attractive neon pink color, this is bright, welcoming, and voluptuous. Has some serious grip behind it along with a cornucopia of red fruit notes.
It is made by 60 percent fruit pressed, as is traditional, making a white wine and this with 30 percent reserve. Thirty percent is made as a saignée rosé, with the juice given a little contact with the skins. Finally, the last 10 percent is blending in red wine. Both of the last two techniques are legal in Champagne, but I have never heard of a champagne in which both are used in the same wine. Fascinating stuff. And a really good wine. 93.
Perhaps the best thing that growers like Laherte Frères have done is to show the world that champagne is a multifaceted jewel and that there are options beyond the large houses. There is room for all, and savvy champagne lovers take advantage of this.
For more information, please visit www.champagne-laherte.com.
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