Sophie's Glass

Even as I begin to write this I wonder why I’m writing it and I gently chide myself for such silliness, because this piece of prose can only mean less of these remarkable wines for me to drink. I guess there are some experiences that simply cry out to be documented in spite of one’s own best interests.

I began buying Marie-Noëlle Ledru’s wines from Bonhomie Wine Imports at least four years ago when I was working at Astor Wines in the east village – a resounding thanks to Charlie Woods for the introduction. At the time the wines were virtually unknown in New York. Charlie talked me into them, untasted, on the grounds of the story of a woman with very few hectares of vines and virtually no help in the winery or cellar, doing everything herself including riddling and disgorgement. Who could resist? I remember that the first bottle I drank was her Blanc de Noirs, Cuvée Goulté, but I don’t recall the vintage. I liked the wine, but I didn’t get it. I wasn’t quite ready. Let’s just say I’m ready now…Over the past few years – that is since my Astor days – the scarcity and the quality of Marie-Noëlle Ledru’s wines have become commensurate. Interestingly, the prices of her wines have remained extremely reasonable all things considered. In truth, I receive a fraction of the allocation I used to. It’s as though someone tipped off the world: “Hey! That lively little woman in Ambonnay is making insanely good Champagnes and they are a steal!” This may sound like a complaint, but it’s not, really… I cannot sufficiently reiterate that Marie-Noëlle Ledru’s wines deserve every ounce of attention and praise they garner. As her Domaine became much smaller in 2010, meaning that there’s less wine than ever before, I only wish there was more to go around.

I recently returned from my third pilgrimage to Champagne and, within this trip, my second visit to Marie-Noëlle Ledru. While I was charmed at my first visit, I was truly blown away at my second. I attribute this to experience. The more Champagne I taste, the more readily I spot wines of true excellence. Let’s put it this way: there are quite a few very good Champagne growers, but Ledru’s wines are utterly distinct and in a class all their own. Amongst our little group of travelers, Marie-Noëlle became a heroine; no other grower we tasted with was so well-showered in unanimous respect and adoration. After our meeting, she was good enough to send us on our way with a couple of bottles, which meant that stressful and cold days of tasting were promptly addressed at the onset of the evening by a wine from The Viticultrice, shared between five in front of a toasty fireplace.

The back story: Ledru makes wine in the southern Montagne de Reims in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay, known for its powerful and vinous Champagnes based on Pinot Noir.  She is a second generation vigneronne, as her father settled in the region in the ‘60s and founded the Domaine. She has been the “viticultrice” since the 1980s. Once six hectares in total (one in the neighboring village of Bouzy), the Domaine is now only two, managed by Marie-Noëlle herself. The vineyards are tended without chemicals and herbicides, but she has no wish to become certified in organic viticulture. In remaining uncertified, many essentially organic estates reserve the right to use a chemical if it’s necessary to save a crop. When a livelihood depends on production, who am I to argue?

In the cellar, Ledru’s base wines are raised in steel and using a neutral yeast for fermentation. I was slightly startled by these facts when I learned them, only because Ledru’s wines have such texture and power that I expected the base wines to be fermented in wood. Apparently the inherent power and electric current running through these wines, giving their family resemblance as well as their distinction from all other wines, comes from outside the cask. All wines are allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, a process I am becoming increasingly approving of for several reasons, which I’ll detail here though it’s a digression:

Normally stopping malolactic fermentation requires a fairly hefty sulfur addition. Several growers I spoke to about this quoted me 60-70 milligrams to stop malo, which means that, given other sulfur additions (such as at pressing, disgorgement, etc…), the resultant wine will likely contain 100 milligrams of sulfur by the time it reaches your table. I have no wish to beat a dead sulfur horse, but I don’t like the way sulfur tastes and smells. Furthermore, the reason many Champagne growers block malo is that they like the zippy malic acidity in their wines. However, if a grower is working the soil, plowing, eschewing herbicides, etc… the wine will have more than sufficient acidity to carry it through malolactic fermentation with balance and – dare I say – aplomb. It all goes back to the vineyard. And this is not mere speculation or inference based on my feeble palate; it’s born out by PHs, but for that information you must petition Benoït Lahaye or Vincent Laval, but enough, back to Marie-Noëlle…

The wines are aged between three and six years on the lees and disgorgement is done by hand… Marie-Noëlle’s hand, that is.  I have had the good fortune to watch MN disgorge twice now. She makes it looks easy, effortlessly flicking the capsule into a plastic disgorging bin with a wrench before lifting her thumb to allow the yeast to fizz out of the top of the bottle. On the occasion of my second visit to her Domaine, I was further impressed to see her roll back her sweater sleeves to apply freezing cold hose water to the disgorging chamber as well as the winery floor. Not to belabor a point, but it was about 20 degrees outside; the ground was blanketed in snow, and the five of us were looking on in our down jackets and hats whilst blowing our cupped hands and scrunching our toes further into our wool socks and boots.This brings me to my impressions of the woman. There are many types of winemaker, from the gentleman winemaker to the humble farmer to the master of his universe (see future blogging on Pascal Agrapart, who is a paradigm of this type).  Possessed of a soft spoken and jovial demeanor, Marie-Noëlle is the soul of humility, yet the soul of confidence and fortitude. When asked questions such as “have you changed the way you do things much over the past two and a half decades,” she’d reply with something to the effect of “not much, but I’ve found ways to do things with less intervention…” the answer delivered in a tone of vague amusement as though to say “the wines will speak for themselves; I’m just here to open the bottles.” She was the only grower I encountered on this trip who left lists of available bottles on the table in her tasting room so that a visitor could purchase a few if he chose. I find this practice to be quite old school, yet incredibly respectful of the visitor. She could sell everything tomorrow if she wanted to…

We began our tasting with MN’s Extra Brut, a bottle that had been disgorged for two months. The cépage here is 85% Pinot and 15% Chardonnay and the wine is half and half 2006 vintage and reserve wine. The slightly older vintage and reserve wine suits the Extra Brut style, and the wine gives an impression of maturity along with its rich, shelly character and bone dry, chalky finish.Next was tasted a 2002 Ambonnay Brut Nature, a wine I had tried once before. The same cépage as the majority of MN’s wines (80/15 – Pinot/Chard), my notes read “grippy,” a quality her wines share across the board. Think of this as a comment about their finishes, which lay a lingering coating of chalk across the drinker’s tongue. I continue to question the lack of dosage in this wine, though my compatriots loved it. A faint voice crept in wondering what it would have been like with a gram or two…

MN’s 2010 base Brut Reserve brought us to the question of 2010 as a vintage; MN reported that it was challenging but very good, a recurring review of 2012 as well, a vintage in which quality is high but quantity is very low. Brut Reserve and 2007 Ambonnay, which followed it, are both dosed at 6-7 grams and feel impeccably balanced. In the past, I’d have said this is high for me, but dosage is a slippery bugger and its role is to balance the wine, to enhance aromatics, to help the wine age, and well-chosen dosage will make a wine feel effortlessly balanced. I rarely assert a preference for low dosage wines these days. I will say, however, that MN’s wines seem drier than they are, which is likely due to their mouth-watering acidity and intense minerality.

2008 Cuvée Goulté Blanc de Noirs, from older, mid-slope vines offered a rush to my midpalate, highlighting the ripeness and high acidity of the vintage. The word “Goulté” is an old Champenois word for the best juice from the press. I’ve heard Goulté described as a single vineyard wine, but it’s from a selection of parcels. Delicious in every vintage, this wine is an achievement in 2008 and it’s so powerful and tightly coiled that it will assuredly age for quite some time.We moved on to Rosé. 2010 base Rosé d’assemblage was very dark in the glass with 15% red wine. Intense and hardly fruity, I liked the wine very much though it paled in comparison to the 2008 Rosé de Saignée. Macerated for 13-15 hours on the skins, this is, essentially, a red wine with a deep sense of earth and chalk mingling with cranberry and tart, wild strawberry fruit.At this juncture, I asked what happens to MN’s Rosé wines with age and had the good fortune to find out. I inquired because I believe that, though fine Champagne can generally age for quite some time, it’s often so pleasurable young that aging it is a question of taste, an instance of what I like to call “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Unlike Mathieu Baudry’s Chinon “Croix Boisée” or “Le Bourg” from Clos Rougeard (I am using these examples from Domaines I recently visited though there are, of course, countless examples), which are virtually undrinkable young, structured Champagne turns out to be absolutely delicious young. So why age?

MN left us for moment following my query and returned with two bottles. The first, 2005 base Rosé d’assemblage, was the only wine of the tasting that wasn’t great. It has been disgorged for two years and was oddly reduced with a funky fruitiness and a marked lack of cut. We’ll blame the vintage, which was not the best. The wine was followed by a stunning 2004 Rosé de Saignée, which gave me more than an adequate sense of where these wines go with time. Savory notes and cranberries emerged from the glass along with an irony minerality and a hint of drying red berries.  MN told us that she had macerated the grapes longer than usual in 2004, a vintage that produced grapes of more color. It was a tour de force that made me wish I had more patience and a proper cellar.We finished the tasting with three very special bottles. The first was a Blanc de Blanc that MN only made in 2004. It was a toasty and laser like wine that was especially zesty as it had just been disgorged, which gives the bubbles a certain manic quality. Our penultimate wine was a freshly disgorged Ambonnay from 1986, MN’s first vintage. What a treat! This wine was astonishingly youthful, mineral, and energetic after many, long years aging on the lees, and the finish was incredibly long, yeasty and chalky. An intriguing foil to the ’86, our last bottle was a 2000 Ambonnay that had been disgorged since the mid 2000s. Having been off its lees for over half a decade, the wine was quite evolved with the mellow, nutty salinity of mature Champagne. It was a stately wine, the bubbles having receded, and it seemed to provide closure to our tasting. We sat around the tiny table in MN’s cozy tasting room taking in the aroma of grape vines smoldering on the fire.