Champagne Vilmart & Cie

It has been a lovely seven days tasting and sampling these wines in many and varied ways. Indeed it’s an opportunity I never really had; to do a deep dive into Vilmart, and for nearly a week I tasted/drank very little else. The estate remains a benchmark among growers, even as they continue to plot a course that is nearly theirs alone. If you’re a fan, (and why wouldn’t you be?) here’s what to expect from the wines on the market now.

If you didn't read the Blog entry introducing these wines - then you should, I think it will help you appreciate these notes even more.

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Grand Reserve, Brut, NV.

Disg. 10/2019, 70-30 PN/CH, 30-year vines, 10 months in foudres.

The entry to the range wasn’t usually my choice, as I tended to feel the jump to the Grand Cellier was greater in quality than in price. I offered this as a special exclusive for selected buyers.

Then the wine improved.

As a juicy and Pinot-driven Champagne it’s atypical for Laurent Champs’ wines. Even with two years on the cork it’s youthfully aggressive. Based on 2018 (usually 50%) with reserve wines from 16/17, the dosage is integrated perfectly. As it is such a juice-bomb I’m liking it best from a relatively wide flûte; in effect it doesn’t “need” the Juhlin. Regardless of glass, the length is impressive.

The faint-praise is mostly to do with a lack of synch between me and the wine. That is, I have my “vision” of Vilmart and this stands outside it. Also, my sense of Rilly’s terroir seems to be associated with Chardonnay. As a non-vintage brut the wine is perfectly good but not especially good, and if Vilmart is anything, they are at the very least….especially good.

Laurent won’t be surprised to read this. His is a tolerant nature, it would appear, and we have agreed to differ about this bottling. Finally, it really is best from a flûte; a compact sort of sheath is good for it. 

One can appreciate a certain PN smokiness, but that emerges more “nobly” in the Rosés.

 

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Grand Cellier, Brut NV                                                                   +

Disg 12/2018, flips the varietal proportions to 70/30 CH/PN, 30-year vines, 10 months in foudre. Base vintage is 2017, with 50% being 16/15, so a year older now. FWIW this cork didn’t expand upon opening.

Okay, now this smells like Vilmart. And really, it is a new and wonderful world.

It’s a persuasively delicious mélange of mineral, florality and exotics, with the littlest hint of langoustine sweetness from the casks. Compact, sleek and focused, it has the ethereal glide of fine Champagne, the sense of hovering just above gravity even while it bestows a world of flavors to you. And all that with a silken grace that seems to glaze your palate.

I happen to love this almost sub-aural music, into which I fall in a way that makes it hard for me to finish tasting notes that begin “I taste…” or “I’m getting…”  I mean, what I’m getting is Tilda Swinton minus the edge of creepiness. I’m getting whiteness, white teas, white flowers, and yet there’s also a swell of passion fruit in the center of it all. Laurent’s own notes refer to grapefruit, but he must be eating way better grapefruit than I’ve ever encountered.

I think a wine like this makes us more graceful. We walk to the tasting table but we dance away from it.

Grand Cellier was often a wine that, when young, seemed not quite aligned, as if its pieces were cut improperly and didn’t quite fit together. Time brought about the fondue, the melting together of elements into a gracious and tasty entirety. The new era of this cuvée, with its two years on the cork, starts to show what the wine is capable of. Even so, if you can stand to wait another 3-5 years for it, you’ll get twice the quality you paid for.

An aerial Champagne with minerality and a gingery grip. I love it.

I love it less from the flûte, where a celeriac note emerges (probably from the 2015), but this is an essence-in-miniature of this marvelous grower.

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Grand Cellier Brut NV                                                                    ++

This is fun. My friend Diana brought this bottle over; it’s a 01/2017 disgorgement, and it’s on the way to being the gorgeous Champagne that bottle-aged GC always are.

Fragrance is little attenuated, as (too) many wines are that go through the vagaries of trade channels – but the palate is rocking good. Dried peach and orange blossom lead into the starting surmise of tertiary sweetness, a mass of salts, a euphoria of sweet hay, a swooning length; honestly it approaches the Coeur de Cuvée in the pleasure it delivers. Like a farm butter freshly churned, slowly melted with a few flecks of Meyer lemon rind sprinkled in. The yielding into the finish is enormously seductive and delicious, stretching upward even as it glides downward.

Sure, the palate shows all kinds of ginger, lemon grass, apple, but that jazz is less compelling than the sheer integration of elements leading to this bright and affectionate loveliness. And all you have to do, dear reader, is buy some and wait a few years.

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Granc Cellier d’Or 2016                                                                 ++

Disg. 7/2020, 80/20 CH/PN, 50-year vines, 10 months in barrique.

When ’16 entered the NV blends I was ga-ga over it, but the….let’s call it “interruption” of my professional activities prevented me from tasting many of the vintage-wines from that year.

The at-first reticent fragrance slowly opens to the quince and plum I expected, and then to the complex “mineral” vanilla one often tastes with Vilmart. Wood is more prominent now, but not obtrusively so. The wine seems much drier but actually isn’t; Laurent has never been puritanical about dosage, bless him.

It’s less a question of greater intensity vis-à-vis the foregoing; it’s more a basic alteration of personality. This is more consciously serious. And two other firsts; this is the first wine with a tangible link to white Burgundy, and also the first to really shine in the MacNeil Fresh & Crisp. It’s grippier and more cerebral from Juhlin.

I find it a glorious Champagne, albeit one must allow for (well integrated) oak flavors, which have to do with the rather lean bodies of the ‘16s. It’s a transparent vintage, and this wine shows both dark-bread crustiness and mirabelle jelly – tasting from a flûte could make one wonder whether a mirabelle eau-de-vie was involved – and in any case the wine suggests a compelling arc of development ahead.

Finally it has the limpidity of a calm cold pond, where the reflection of each leaf is outlined in the water as if it were etched there. It’s a wine for introverts, interior and delicate but also fervently expressive in its own quiet way.

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Coeur de Cuvée 2013                                                                   ++

Disg. 12/2020, 80/20 CH/PN, only the free-run juice with the first and last few hundred liters removed, 60-year vines, 10 months in barrique.

Usually an icon of Champagne, albeit one with a particularity that says “grower.”

This is complex to a point of adamance. Again, ’13, being a delicate sort of being, lets the oak show more than usual, but the whole register is an octave lower, and the volume’s turned up markedly. The first impression is of old-vines Puligny, the apricot notes, but also the grip and saltiness. It seems to be one of the more earthbound vintages of this wine – not a criticism, just an observation – and it feels more infantile than usual.

But there’s a smoky power playing here, and a compelling explicitness. A strong, lingering wine, even though much of what lingers – at least today – is wood. Again, and to my great surprise, the wine is best in the flûte, which suppresses the oak and places the vinosity in the center. Just use the least narrow flûte you can find. And bear in mind, the narrower the glass the more minerality expressed, so be sure that’s what you desire from this very high-energy wine.

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Coeur de Cuvée 2012                                                                  +++

Disg. 03/2019, same varietal proportions and wood aging as above.

This feels like a great (if muscular) vintage of CdC. They can’t all be ethereal! Whew…I surrender; this is great Champagne. Especially from the flûte, damn it – now I have to reconsider much of what I thought I “knew.”

All the pieces are seamlessly assembled. The strength of the cuvée allies with the strength of the vintage; the wood is more subsumed, the wine is a glorious hot mess of saltiness and spices, and while you may not be elevated into mystic orbit, you’re actually pretty bloody happy to remain on this ground.

The finish is like the fragrance of someone baking a cake, while on the palate an improbably bright solidity grips you and won’t let go. I would be extremely greedy if I were you, when the Magnum of this wine is released.

I confess I am amazed. ’13 is more my type of vintage, but this ’12 needs a certain homage, to its balance, its power, and its grand harmonies.

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2012 Blanc de Blancs Les Blanches Voies

Disg 03/2017, 60-year vines, 10 months in barriques.

A new-ish program of a highly limited BdB, introduced with the  really outstanding vintage 2009.

The proper tasting sequence would be to taste this between the Grand Cellier d’Or and the Coeur de Cuvée. It’s drier than either, and there’s a certain palate-recoil from the feeling of a dosage deficit. An untrue feeling, but you know, just sayin’.

What I’m feeling is a study-in-Chardonnay, a kind of absorption I tend to appreciate. The wine is by far the leesiest in the range, which does all manner of good. We have lees, mineral, and a chalky brightness. It isn’t just the extracted upper register of Coeur de Cuvée; it justifies its unique existence. The low dosage confers a certain earnestness one likes or does not.  We have higher tones, an herbal element (unusual for Vilmart), a blatant chalkiness, and…a certain imbalance?

I do like the scents of really fresh oyster mushrooms, but I like less the phenolic touch – though this could be a palate thing from having tasted all these wines in a row.

I’ll jiggle the sequence tomorrow when I retaste, and we’ll see. I may even put this first.

I did put it first. Tasting tabula rasa, the leesy fluff persists, along with a certain force that was obscured yesterday. I still find this an atypical wine for Laurent, which I think he scooped out from the Grand Cellier d’Or in order to make a BdB again (he did it years ago when I first worked with him)….but you know? I think this has a below-threshhold cork, the kind you get a micro-flash of on the mid palate. It would explain the sense of suppression of fruit. So, finally, hmmmmm.

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Cuvée Rubis                                                                                   +

The basic Rosé, disg. 10/2019, 90/10 PN/CH, 30-year vines, 10 months in foudre, base vintage 2018, reserve wines 17/16. The cork expands dramatically; the most so far.

 

Always one of Champagne’s most attractive expressions of Pinot Noir, this wine can offer a gossamer lightness with a  decidedly expressive parfait of PN. I’ve often written such fancies as “an ether of Chambolle” when tasting this remarkable Rosé. I’d write it again now.

What do you respond first to? The ultra-refined fruit, the succulent generosity that never feels heavy, the ludicrous deliciousness? The wood, by the way, is invisible here, except as a surmise of vinosity and echo, that chestnutty burning-leaf thing we think of with Burgundy.

I’m fascinated with a flash of association; this reminds me of Carline Diel’s gorgeous Rosé, as though the two wines were separated at birth. Freshness, class, substance, it’s a rose less of rhubarb or earthiness than of a sort of celestial tomato, or even tomato-water – any chefs reading? You know what I mean…

For me one of Champagne’s most distinctive and precious Rosés.

I tasted it four times over three days, finally from a combo of my wide-ish flûte and the MacNeil Fresh & Crisp, which is designed, among other things, for Champagne. I wanted both to suppress the fruit and to highlight it. Finally, I tasted the three rosés by themselves, as I’d started wondering whether my having placed them at the end of a flight-of-9 was truly fair to them. And sure enough, this time was different.

It’s obvious to put the rosé at the end; that’s how they do it in Champagne, and it makes sensual sense. But if an “issue” arises it’s because of what happens to a palate after hyper-tasting seven wines beforehand. I’m also an in-deep sort of taster, taking 4-5 sips of every wine – so by the time I reached the rosés I’d had 25 or so mouthsful of fizz.

I’m glad I did this! It’s a dignified wine with fruit from the narrow glass, and a rampantly fruity wine with dignity from the MacNeil. The same components, differently arranged. It’s still delicate, as this wine goes, but the overtones of vinosity are more vivid today. And with this clarity, we might well ask: How is it even possible to have a pink Champagne with this much fruit yet this much delicacy, this much complexity with this much limpidity? In its un-showy way, I think this is rosé royalty in Champagne.

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“Emotion” 2013 (Rosé)                                                                ++

Disg 04/2020, 60/40 PN/CH, 60-year vines, Saignée method, ten months in barrique.

It used to be called “Grand Cellier Rubis” and was as scarce as 4-leaf clovers. I like “Emotion,” and I like even more that y’all can actually find it if you look around a little.

It is at its frequent best one of the most seriously gorgeous Rosés in all of Champagne. It has power, fruit-“sweetness”, endless echo on the finish, the dream-feeling of Vilmart at their best, and with this ’13 the seamless blending of mid-tones (especially savory tones of butter dough and puff pastry and phyllo) with high tones (rhubarb and plum-blossom) and higher tones of tomatoes and herbs, all with the obdurate grip of the best cuvées – and this from ’13!

I’m noticing my (unusual) brevity. I’m sure it’s a quality I’d do well to cultivate. But I think I was word-weary, so best to approach it fresh and thirsty. So, tasting #4….and the wine has the implosive qualities of many Grand Celliers, not only depth, but obscure and esoteric depth. Except! From MacNeil’s (wider) glass, it’s orgastically vivid and generous, albeit it will certainly keep unfurling. It’s more intense and concentrated than the “basic” Rubis; you could imagine a Burgundy grower saying “It’s the bleed-off from our Bonnes Mares, so we could give the Grand Cru even more concentration…”

If you’re lucky enough to find this, please keep it for two years, and you’ll own an incomparable beauty.

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“Emotion” 2012 (Rosé)                                                             +

Disg.  01/2018, 60/40 PN/CH, 45-year vines, 10 months in “pieces” (and I’m not sure how these differ from foudres)

2012 being a grand vintage for PN, I’m not alarmed to encounter a  lavish PN aroma….deep, almost powerful, ethereal like certain Burgundies. It’s more of-a-piece than the ’13, but what a piece!

The vinous mass is translucent, almost (but not quite) opaque, so that you taste “vinosity” more than any of the elements that contribute to it.  From the MacNeil it smells like the freshest possible early-season wild Sockeye salmon. The narrower the vessel the fruitier the tones.

We’re into cranberry and rhubarb now, with more brute force than the more articulate ’13. I’d reach for it in a more distracting environment, out to dinner or even entertaining friends at home; it will hold its own with cooking smells and conversation. It would be fascinating to have this as a prelude to a bottle of Burgundy, two octaves of the same chord.