Guy Larmandier, Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut Zero "Cuvée Signé François" Vieille Vignes
There is a longstanding tradition among Champagne producers of selecting their best vineyards, best fruit, and best barrels or tanks each year and setting these aside to produce very limited amounts of wine that is meant to express the pinnacle of their offerings. Known as the tête de cuvée, the large Champagne houses have been marketing them as pure, bottled luxury for decades (think of Roederer’s “Cristal” or Veuve Clicquot’s “La Grande Dame”). But savvy sommeliers and connoisseurs know that you can get the same quality for much less if you look toward the smaller “grower-producers.” Today’s discovery is a perfect example: Guy Larmandier’s “Cuvée Signé François” checks all the boxes of a powerhouse tête de cuvée, with very old Grand Cru vines, long lees aging, and additional aging post disgorgement. It is richly, exquisitely textured yet perfectly precise, full of both power and finesse. And it is one of the only Champagnes in this top tier that clocks in under $100, a third of the price of its famous peers. With the holidays fast approaching you need knockout Champagne on hand, so grab a few before they’re gone!
Guy Larmandier is a small estate based in Vertus, on the southern edge of the Côte de Blancs, Champagne’s preeminent Chardonnay growing region. They produce about 7,500 cases of wine each, exclusively from grapes they grow on their 9 hectares of vineyards in Vertus, Cuis, and the Grand Crus of Cramant and Chouilly. To put that tiny production into context, the big houses like Möet and Veuve each release many millions of cases a year. But, that scant number of 7,500 is dominated by Larmandier’s non-vintage cuvées, the “Signé François” represents a tiny fraction of the total, just a few hundred cases per vintage. If you’re looking for Champagne that is both luxurious and truly exclusive, then this is the bottle for you.
Now, let’s talk about the vintage itself. 2011 was, to put it very mildly, a challenging year throughout Champagne. A promising start to the growing season gave way to an unusually wet June and July, and though August brought some respite, many of the wines suffer from a pronounced lack of ripeness. But, and this is a big but, there were a few exceptions for those growers who have excellent, old vines and were patient in their harvest time. François Larmandier (Guy’s son) can count himself among the most fortunate, as he has some ancient vines in the Grand Crus of Cramant and Chouilly, and he can also take credit for his meticulous, patient attention to those vines. The natural depth, power, and richness of the precious few clusters that these vines produce was the perfect elixir for an onslaught of difficult weather.
The other key to success in 2011 was, and is, time. The “Cuvée Signé François” spends a whopping 60-plus months aging on its fine lees in the bottle during secondary fermentation. And now it has additional years of bottle age to boot. Combined, all these factors add up to one of the most profound, against-all-odds successes of the vintage, and it also happens to offer some of the best pound for pound value out there. Serve this showstopper cool, but not ice cold, in your best all-purpose or Burgundy stems, and buckle up for a heartstopping ride through rich, golden-hued textures, fantastically tiny and elegant bubbles, and racy, chalky minerality. Baked apples, fresh brioche, bartlett pears, lemon curd, orange blossoms, and sea salt dusted figs are all layered over a powerful structure, and culminate in a long, oyster shell finish. The real kicker is that François and team Larmandier accomplished this without any added sugar, yup, this is true Brut Zero wine. It’s a remarkable feat, and one you have to taste to believe!