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  1. Tasting Notes
January 30, 2024

Vilmart & Cie: This cordial liquid miracle

Tasting the very special Champagnes of Laurent Champs.

By Terry Theise

Terry Theise steeps himself in the latest releases from Vilmart & Cie, wines that “surround and envelop you like a shawl.”

I sometimes wonder whether the accumulation of aesthetic memory turns eventually into a felt sense. I don’t know, but if it does it makes it easier to love Laurent Champs’ wines, and also harder to “assess” them, because I’m already tasting the experience before I’m tasting the wine. In such an instance, the only thing I can do is to incorporate both sensibilities into my “notes,” and ask that you realize I approach the wines with expectations of bliss. I’m way far away from “objectivity,” but I am as close as ever to saying the truths of the moments of each wine. Sometimes they show that lit-from-within quality of Champagne Vilmart, that can make them seem almost beatific, but I do not read it in—or I hope I don’t.

What seems to be categorically true is, the wines don’t come at you like the sharp edge of a fencer’s sword; they surround and envelop you like a shawl, like an atmosphere. You don’t so much “taste” Vilmart as you steep yourself in them. I realize I am describing what we generally think of as umami, and yet within this ethereal brew are definite, describable flavors arranged in sensuously logical patterns, such that you receive a best-of-both-worlds impression, delivered, as so many great wines are, with delicacy and tact.

At last the Vilmart experience resists devolving into a question of Laurent Champs’ “status” among Champagne growers, nor does it care very much how “good” a wine happens to be. It offers, instead, a reminder we don’t realize how much we need until it arrives—that such a thing can exist, this tenuous musical ether in liquid form, this cordial little miracle.

(I’m using the information on the back labels to suss what’s in these, and can make inferences by looking at last year’s assemblages. I’ll reach out to the proper parties to check my assumptions, but the parties may or may not respond.)

Vilmart & Cie “Grand Réserve” Brut Premier Cru NV

Deg. Dec 2022, and as always 70-30 PN-CH. His website shows a majority 2020 base, with (typically) 30% reserve wines from 2018/19, but it does not ID a particular disgorgement.

The “basic” NV has been improving in recent years. The fragrances are comely, fruit-driven, and inviting, with Pinot Noir expressing its smoky side. The palate shows a symmetrical pivot between plumpness and lift.

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Minerality isn’t the point here; nor is the wine made to be “racy.” When it works, as it almost does here, it offers a creamy and generous texture and a balance of fruit, earth, and dosage. (Laurent Champs is no puritan where dosage is concerned, in case you’d forgotten.)

It’s at the very end where a little scrape of coarseness arrives. This is less prominent than it used to be, but I think it’s inherent to the cuvée in some basic way. In a platonically perfect world this would have another two grams per liter of RS and another 2-3 years on the lees, but we do not live in that world.

Yet what we see in this world is appealing, especially when the wine’s in the glass for ten minutes, and even more when I taste it outdoors (dry, sunny, about 43º). It’s the outlier in the Vilmart range, but as a study in PN, you can easily see the dialogue of fruits, herbs and that “artichoke” thing PN sometimes shows.

Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Premier Cru Brut is “still the months in large casks, yet the whole business of ‘oak’ is really nowhere to be seen” in the wine. Photography courtesy of Vilmart & Cie.

Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier” Premier Cru Brut NV

Deg January 2023

For me the “true” entry to Vilmart. It’s a very fresh disgorgement by their standards, especially if it actually is based on 2020 (as per the website), but there are many things to observe happily.

It’s still ten months in large casks, yet the whole business of “oak” is really nowhere to be seen here, except as a little sleeve of nuance from the smaller Juhlin stem (the one I call his “2.0”).

For all its class and richness, this wine is vigorous, chattery and jumpy. Considering its “animated” approach it is remarkably poised and balanced for a young Grand Cellier. If you’re new to Vilmart—in which case you have a lot to look forward to—this cuvée used to be one of a host of impressive pieces that weren’t fitted terribly well together until the wine had 4-5 years on the cork. Considering this wine’s youthful brashness, it actually delivers a harmonious whole.

I’m guessing the reserve wines (from two warm vintages) provide the adumbrated and almost syrupy richness on the mid palate, a striking umami that offers a delicious counterpoint of vim and richness.

The cork was shrunken on the bottom, which might have favored the development of those rich tertiary notes, but I’d much rather give Champs the benefit of the doubt and rejoice in the twitchy yet refined energy of this young but promising Grand Cellier. It’s especially yummy from the smaller Juhlin.

Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier” Oenothèke T-15                              ++

A late-release consisting of a 2014 base with reserve wines from ’12-’13, deg Feb. 2017 and aged four years in bottle. 900 bottles were made.

Laurent knew of my opinion that his Grand Cellier needed several years post-disgorgement to knit into the wine we knew it could be. (He knew it because I’m Mr Blabby-pants, but maybe others made similar observations? I’m sure I’m not responsible for this excellent development, but y’know, you’re welcome….)

A zillion years ago I read in some wine book somewhere that if you cellared your NV Champagne for five-or-so years, you’d obtain “at least twice the wine you paid for.” The truth of that assertion is on gaudy and gorgeous display here, in this fabulous bottle of Champagne as-it-should-be. In fact when you taste it you may well wonder “What’s the point of making all these “top” cuvées when you can get this from the “regular” one with a few years on the cork?”

Because this is simply beautiful wine! And it makes a number of…let’s call them observations….that we do well to consider. One is the amazing benefit of time on the cork for Champagne, and possibly for most sparkling wines. Another is the expression of “perfection” without recourse to exceptional material; that is, ancient vines or special selection or anything that ostensibly elevates a wine beyond the estate’s prevailing norm.

To be clear, I love Champagne from particular material, whether vintage or vine age or terroir, where you can easily taste the results in the glass, all the “extra” flavor you paid “extra” money for. But here is at least a plausible surmise of those elements in a “normal” setting, and we’re reminded that wines can be superb by their quality of flavor alone. They/we do not require “intensity,” which is not the same as rejecting intensity, but is a useful notice to taste the taste and not the degree of the taste.

Meanwhile, here it is a couple weeks from Christmas, and I have a Champagne that tastes like the best gingerbread I could ever imagine. What a multitude of gifts live within these 900 bottles of wisdom and bliss.

Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier D’Or” 2018 Premier Cru                    +

Deg July 2022, 80-20 CH-PN, 50-year old vines. In the interim the estate has moved in to a 2019, but this is what’s available to me.

It has that pan-2018 aroma that’s beginning to emerge throughout northern Europe (as I smelled in Ziereisen’s Pinot Noirs just last week) and which I quite like.

A long-time fave of mine, this one is almost a non-Champagne Champagne, coming on the heels of the archetypal bottle-aged Grand Cellier. For whatever reason, we’re replete in mirabelles here, a whole basket of nearly overripe ones that sit in a sunny corner and perfume your entire kitchen. The wine is absurdly delicious, and also a blatant example of what I’ll call “the wisdom of dosage,” because you absolutely could not obtain the hypnotically beautiful salty finish without such a perfectly judged and poised dosage.

But that’s “politics.”

I’ve written rapturously about Laurent Champ’s wines many times over the years. I do not disavow a single scintilla of feeling and if my prose was maladroit or mawkish, well I ain’t perfect. But this wine seems to subdue the impulse toward description. I’ll meet you at jasmine-and-mirabelle, but beyond that I’m finding the wine expresses a seamless grace in its own skin that asks me to write less and love more.

I have a lucid dream of a few friends sitting around a bottle of this, the kinds of friends who like to talk about a wine, but when this Champagne is tasted all they can do is nod affirmatively to one another—yup, here it is, no discussion needed—it’s All This.

The Vilmart & Cie vineyards, which include some very old Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Photography courtesy of Vilmart & Cie.

Vilmart & Cie “Coeur de Cuvée 2015 Premier Cru                          ++

Deg March 2022, as always 80-20 CH-PN, very old vines, only free-run juice used, with the first and last portions removed, thus the “heart” of the cuvée.

I am wary of the 2015s, and approach this wine with an attitude of “what will this be?”

It is, in some ways, a typically “green” 2015, and also a typically lush Coeur de Cuvée, and one of those things has to prevail and in this case it’s the wine, so much so that the grassiness of ’15 becomes a pleasant nuance in an otherwise classic vintage of this iconic Champagne. I am delighted and surprised, and reassured.

Having tasted this wine in every vintage since 1990, it has, with a single exception (2011, with its insurmountable problems) been a triumph—even the difficult 2005 was viable. I’ve loved it best in the “little” years— ’97, ’01, ’07, ’10—when it added a crack-the-whip of stinging intensity to its prevailing concentration. But the great years were regal and commanding and gorgeous, and so this is a true ideal of Champagne, an exemplar of the thing at its most uniquely beautiful.

It bears mentioning, again, that “oak” as-such is no longer a prominent element of discussion for Vilmart. It’s there, in among the panoply of materials from which these wines are fashioned, but at this point a micro-focus on wood is no more pertinent than a micro-focus on dosage.

The smaller Juhlin glass just adores this wine. Quince, ginger, sea-salt caramel, toasted brioche, chanterelles, fresh-churned butter…and all with a sensible degree of intensity. How lovely to reside in the world that contains this wine, and the man who presents it to us.

Vilmart & Cie Blanc de Blancs 2013 Les Blanches Voies             +++

Deg April 2021; the second vintage of this wine (as far as I know), from 60-year old vines from this single parcel.

A jumble of impressions, in no particular order … one cognate for this masterpiece may be the Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millenaires … I am partial to ’13, yet that doesn’t matter … it’s less blatantly great than its predecessor (2012) but it’s got the sinews of a long distance runner … it’s the “French toast” of your dreams in liquid form … the degree of chalky refinement here is off the charts … the wine only seems “light” at the beginning, because it ambushes you with a stunning richness and intensity at the end …

… and finally it appears that the shape of a wine is as important as its discrete flavors, because it’s the contour and the arrangement of energy that makes this wine dance and soar. The flavors are amazing but we’ve tasted them before. (Chiquet’s Blanc d’Aÿ comes to mind). What’s amazing here is the gingery precision, the forward-rushing momentum of diction, the very meticulous 2013-ness of fruit …

Yet it is Champagne of a special nature, thrilling but not (yet) seductive, complex but not (yet) transfixing, and while I deeply approve of it—of wines like it in general—I do wonder how much of its potential I’m seeing today.

I’ll tell you tomorrow!

Ha! It wasn’t much. This is simply great wine, the best Champagne I’ve tasted in several years.

Vilmart & Cie “Emotion” 2015

Deg Feb 2022, 40-60 CH-PN, and only in small print on the back label does this indicate that it is, in fact, a Rosé

It smells like ’15 and like serious Pinot Noir (in its ethereal Champagne voice) and its inscrutable Champagne-ness. 2015 is registering brusquely at the moment. I am also spoiled by what I’ve been tasting.

(Has any taster ever done that in print? Or must we all affect this simulacrum of perfect professional accuracy whereby “my palate is always 100% amazing regardless of the circumstances, ergo 94 points…” Right now my palate is pretty good and I’m allowing for its distorted condition, but I’m not the receiver to which the transmitter of this wine is broadcasting, so when I taste again, as I will, I’ll taste this wine first.)

I did that, and also had a glass with dinner, where I wondered if food would file away the rough edges. It didn’t, actually, and so this wine, usually so compelling, is rather an enigma at the moment.

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