Vilmart Pere et Fils – Grower Champagne Brilliance

It’s always good to get back to Vilmart for a visit; helps calibrate the really insightful and vocational producers from the rest. For the record, Vilmart falls into the first category.

They are, of course, one of the leaders of the grower producer movement who have revolutionised the way consumers and trade think about the world's most famous sparkling wine. He, alongside several others like Pierre Peters, Egly-Ouriet and their ilk, have championed the concept that Champagne is a wine not just a sparkling beverage in a nice bottle! It’s a product of the unique terroirs of the region in the same way that any other great wine of France would be. Moreover, it’s a wine made by individuals with their own unique philosophies, part of a creative process rather than a homogenous thing as espoused by the big house brands. Champs epitomises this creative and holistic approach, best encapsulated by this quote: I do wine first, Champagne afterwards.

Neither is Vilmart a Johnny-come-lately. The house has been around since 1892 and today they farm 11-hectares on the slopes of Rilly-le-Montagne. Somewhat unusually though for the area, Vilmart is planted predominantly to chardonnay rather than pinot noir, falling out at a rough ratio of 60/40 across the estate. Indeed, one of their best vineyards sits on a bed of chalk and is ideal for the production of fine chardonnay. All the vineyards are farmed using organic principles and that has been the case since Laurent’s fathers time, effectively predating the modern penchant for all things organic and biodynamic and again illustrating the heretic vein runs deep in the family! The other thing Vilmart do a little differently is the fermentation and maturation in oak; with all pre 35 year old vine material going into the larger format foudre and the older vine material going into smaller wood and then NEVER any malolactic fermentation.

The net result, and one that has drawn comparisons with Krug in particular, are wines that are both decadent but hold the line maintaining superb finesse. No doubt the lack of malo also acts as a hand-brake on the wines stopping them becoming too heavy. Its this balance of competing elements that makes the wines so appealing and make no mistake, this is not easy to achieve. It takes a winemaker as thoughtful and talented as the quietly spoken Champs to pull this off. He’s talks quietly but with authority about his wines and his craft and you are left in no doubt that he is one of those rare talents in the world of wine who just gets it!

Wines:

Grand Reserve NV

The rare pinot dominant wine in the range at 70/30. It sees 10 months in large oak and of course, no malo. High percentage of reserve wine. At time of writing (4/2017) the base is from 2012 and 2013 vintages. Its approachable but shows good tension. Delicious wine.

Grande Cellier

I love this wine. Always delivers stupidly good value for a wine that presents like it should be $100+. This current disgorgement (made only with the cuvee) comes from a base of 2013 with 2012 and 2011 blended in from reserve. It’s 70/30 chardonnay and delivers more grapefruit nuanced by saline notes and a chalky backbeat.

Grand Cellier D’Or 2011

80/20 Chardonnay/Pinot. Disgorged October 2015. 45 year old vines, aged in small barrels. Pure, vinous and balanced. Decadent but fine. The last of the 2012 before moving to 2012.

Couer de Cuvee 2009

80/20 chardonnay/pinot noir. 55-60-year-old vines and only juice form the heart of the press. Champs calls the vintage “friendly”. The wine is more open and expressive than we’ve seen from previous vintages at the same stage. Still has the hedonism that wine is famous for but one to be ready earlier.