I made my first visit to Vilmart’s charming half-timbered premises in 1996, having been steered there by the writings of two British authors, Michael Edwards and Tom Stevenson, whose praise for the wines was effusive.
Lucky me, all these many years later, to have followed Laurent Champs and his wines on what has been a subtle but decisive journey. In the beginning the wines were stamped; they were expressive as though they wore a sign that said “Expressive,” and while I was generally impressed by what they expressed, what really moved me were a few stirrings of genius I sensed among all those impactful wines.
I was also drawn to Laurent personally. Most people who meet him feel the same. He isn’t voluble, but he is clearly passionate and clearly imaginative. His intelligence is fluid and intuitive, and he is available in a human way, a quality one finds infrequently among us males of the species, and one to which I am drawn.
Those early wines were fired up, one could say, and oak was like a large dog that was pulling them around. Most of the wines were excellent, a few were superb, and another few were rather overt in their cask gestures. Because Laurent is among the minority of wine growers who is truly open to discussion – which can include criticism – we were able to talk about oak, and consider what roles it could (most productively) play.
I’d never claim to have “persuaded” my friend to alter course. In fact I’m sure I didn’t, but I’m also sure I contributed to a “conversation” from which an impulse emerged, and which happened to be one congenial to me. In short, the wines started to become less explicitly “oaky,” and this was part of a larger stylistic evolution in which they also became less imposing and more delicate. In fact (as I saw it, at least) they drew closer to Laurent’s own temperament, his charm and his curiosity and his attraction to the abstractions of light. That phrase is not another (yet another!) random spew of TT-poetry; Laurent’s father was a worker in stained glass, and was deeply interested in the intersection of light and mysticism.
And so it is not a stretch to say that Vilmart’s wines became less brilliant and more gleaming over the years. Their own light grew softer, more allusive. Their voices, their renderings of flavors, also grew less clamorous and more whispery. I like brilliant wines, of course – who doesn’t? But I love whispery wines, because whispering draws your ear to the voice of the speaker in an intimate exchange. Here is something meant only for you, perhaps a secret you are privileged to learn. Among my most firmly held wine axioms is: The greatest wines are never those that shout loudest, but rather those that whisper most urgently.
Are today’s Vilmart wines ethereal, then? Not exactly, or perhaps better said, not often. They are for the most part silky sopranos performing quiet exegeses of beauty. Even the Rosés, certainly more overtly fruity, have a lucid reserve about them, as though they never learned how to be clumsy or obvious.
Vilmart has a well earned reputation for elite quality, and this is seriously heartening to me, because these are not boastful wines. They have class. They could easily be more “ingratiating” but instead they show a smiling, limpid cordiality I find to be quite consoling. They offer a respite from all the vulgarities of the world.
To be sure, any given collection is a summation of its moment and of the vintages in play. The two 2012 wines are certainly strong, and the one 2016 may be the most delicate wine Laurent has ever made. Yet the wines, even at their strongest, seem to me to be interior, implosive, encouraging reverie and study. Maybe it’s as simple as this; introvert-me likes introvert-them.