To celebrate the relaunch of the Lanson Champagne brand in the United States, chef de cave Jean-Paul Gandon and brand director Enguerrand Baijot hosted a vertical tasting last month of a dozen vintages reaching back to 1959.
Gandon joined Lanson in 1972 and has made the wines since 1986; he plans to retire at the end of 2012. In his 40-year tenure, the overriding goal was to retain Lanson's signature style, preserving the malolactic acidity by preventing the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid. "The style of Lanson comes from no malo," said Baijot. "This is what makes Lanson unique and distinctive and I can assure you that will not change."
Gandon relies on three "pillars" to create this style: fruit, freshness and power. The fruit and freshness come from the acidity. The power comes in the form of Pinot Noir grapes from the Côte des Bar.
As a result of the non-malo style, Lanson's Champagnes are laserlike, with bracing acidity and taut, linear profiles that require time in the bottle to reveal their complexity and multifaceted elements. The 1988, now close to 25 years old, is just beginning to open and reveal some of the complex, roasted torréfaction aromas and flavors that make mature Champagne so appealing.
Lanson was owned briefly by LVMH, which sold the Champagne house in 1991, while keeping the vineyards. Lanson retained a contract for the grapes until 1994. Nonetheless, there was a risk of losing grape supplies after that period. Fortunately for Lanson, the crisis in the market for grapes in the early 1990s freed up some supply. Furthermore, Gandon, who managed the vineyards before becoming chef de cave, also cultivated strong relationships with growers. As a result, Lanson has been able to renegotiate long-term contracts, predominately in premier and grand cru sites. In 2006, Lanson was acquired by Boizel Chanoine Champagne Group, run by Philippe Baijot and Bruno Paillard.
The following Champagnes were tasted non-blind, mostly from magnum. All were disgorged in January 2012, with the exception of the current release 2002, which was disgorged in 2011. With the exception of the 1971, 1964, 1961 and 1959, the older vintages are available through the Lanson Vintage Collection.
We began with an aperitif, Lanson's Brut Champagne Black Label NV, which accounts for roughly 75 percent of the house's production. A clean, racy style, it showed apple, citrus, lemon and grapefruit flavors ending with a refreshing finish.
For the firm's 250th anniversary (it was founded in 1760), Gandon developed a new cuvée, the Brut Champagne Extra Age NV. The second bottling is a blend of the 2000, 2002 and 2004 vintages, 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay, mostly from grands crus parcels with a little premiers crus. It spent a minimum of five years on the lees. Baijot explained that the Black Label represented the present, the Extra Age the future of Lanson, to show its ability to age.
The Extra Age revealed aromas of lemon cake, pear and light toast. It was all about finesse and a creamy texture, very refined and long.
Then it was on to the vintage bubblies. Built on power, freshness and aging potential, these cuvées are half each Pinot Noir and Chardonnay entirely from grands crus vineyards. Lanson's current release 2002 offered ripe aromas of peach, candied citrus, graphite and light toast, followed by a crisp, chalky profile. Powerful yet balanced and harmonious, it finished with a chalky, mineral sensation.
The 1996 (from magnum) was a coiled spring of graphite, mineral, lemon and stone, very powerful, laserlike and racy, if balanced on the tart side. It will require several years yet to reach its equilibrium. Unfortunately, the 1990 (magnum) was slightly corked and there was no backup bottle.
Though still youthful, the 1988 (magnum) was the youngest vintage Lanson felt was ready to enjoy. It featured a beautiful bouquet of citrus, toast, mineral and rose. Elegant, fresh and intense, it was a thoroughbred, with a long, citrus, mineral, roasted almond and honey aftertaste. The 1985 (magnum) exhibited roasted nuts, coffee, smoke and torréfaction bouquet married to a big, powerful, muscular and firmly structured frame. From 1982, another excellent vintage of the decade, came a rich bouquet of honey, toast and candied citrus, very complex. It was about as lush as it gets for Lanson, with ripe apple, peach, toast, smoke and mineral flavors, all long, harmonious and satisfying (magnum).
From the decade of the 1970s, the 1979 (magnum) delivered a picture of finesse. Its citrus, pear, smoke and floral bouquet presaged the fine texture and detail, allied to intensity, power and freshness. The weather in 1976 was hot and dry, resulting in ripe, precocious wines. The Lanson 1976 (magnum) showed a distinctive woodsy, spicy, tobacco nose, warmth and breadth, with richness, smoke and mineral flavors. A tactile sensation completed the finish. The 1971 (magnum) tasted fully mature, showing roasted nut, earth, smoke and dried citrus bouquet followed by flavors of ginger, soy and Asian spices. Piquant and zesty, it lingered with a captivating aftertaste of mushroom, toast and smoke.
As good as the previous wines were, they seemed like a warm-up act for the oldest three vintages. Exuding a bouquet of coffee, hazelnut, verdant forest and autumn leaves, the 1964 (magnum) displayed great balance, harmony and freshness, offering a roasted nut flavor, creamy texture, great finesse and length. The 1961 (magnum) was rich, opulent, complex and packed with honey, toast, coffee and vanilla, delivering an excellent combination of power and finesse, very resonant, fresh, mouthwatering and long.
We ended with a 1959, whose exotic bouquet of candied fruit, smoke and underbrush introduced the powerful profile. A big Champagne, it was concentrated, boasting bracing acidity, mineral and fine ginger-inflected length. More youthful than the 1961, it just kept expanding on the finish.
The tasting aptly demonstrated the Lanson style and testified to their ageability. From a top vintage, these wines need a minimum of 20 years. It would be interesting to compare a 1988, 1979 or the 1961 with bottles that had been disgorged prior to their initial release, to see the difference between aging on the lees vs. aging in the bottle.
Ramos — USA — May 9, 2012 12:48pm ET
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