Lanson NV – a great value Champagne

If you’re a serious Champagne lover, and like your Champagne dry and with plenty of acidity, but your budget doesn’t run to the likes of Bollinger (at $240 for the ’99 Grand Annee vintage) there is one house that offers unbeatable value. Lanson. Part of the reason it is good value is that it’s direct-imported by Dan Murphy’s. You won’t find it anywhere outside the Woolworths liquor outlets. Which is a bit frustrating. But it’s the way of the world these days.

Even within the Woolworths behemoth, you’ll find amazing price variation. In Dan Murphy’s the Black Label Non Vintage (tastings) is about $50; in BWS it’s more like $70. Why would anyone buy it at BWS when they can walk away with 14 bottles from Dan’s for the same price as 10 from BWS? Oh well, that’s supermarket thinking for you.

There is something special about Lanson that makes it tastes the way it does. In the words of the export director, Anton Hobbs, “Lanson is the only grand marque house which avoids malolactic fermentation every year across all styles, as a permanent and unchanging policy.” Hence, older wine is part of the approach.

To explain: if you prevent the acid-softening malolactic from occurring naturally, you end up with higher acidity in the wine, and that means you need to age it longer before releasing it. This explains why Lanson has just moved from its 1996 vintage to 1998 when most houses are into the 2002 by now. And both these wines, especially the ’96, have fearsome acidities. So they need to be drunk with food. And then…wow, are they special.

Lanson is not an aperitif wine, it’s a food wine. It goes well with protein, which softens that acidity.

Why bother? Why not do what other houses do – whack it through a bacterially-induced malo and shoot it out a few years earlier with low acid and high dosage (sweetening), then sit back and count the profits?

Well, it seems there are still some in the wine business who place some importance on being different.

It all goes back to the man himself, Victor Lanson, the founder.

According to legend, as related by Anton Hobbs, Victor Lanson lived to 81 and sired 14 children by two different wives: eight from one, six from the other. He set the style of Lanson Champagne, a wine to drink at a Sunday luncheon, en famille. And he reckoned that if you drank Lanson you’d live a long time, and proved it himself. He’s reputed to have drunk 70,000 bottles in his lifetime. That’s 2.36 bottles of Champagne a day, never mind what Bordeaux and Burgundy may have snuck past his lips, and includes his babyhood. It’s a wonder he could stand up, let alone sire 14 kids.

Speaking of age, not long ago the complaint about Champagne was that wines, especially non-vintage wines, were being rushed onto the market too young. The Global Financial Crisis has put paid to that, at least in theory. Champagnes, including Lanson, are coming on sale older than they might otherwise. Before the twin factors of the GFC and a change of Lanson’s ownership about four years ago, Lanson Black Label NV was about 3 years average age. Now it’s three and-a-half to four years, says Hobbs.

Another reason Lanson has maintained its non-malolactic style is the continuity of chief winemaker Jean-Paul Gandon. He’s held that position for around 40 years. Says Hobbs: “This was the style of all Champagne in the past. After World War 2 there were discoveries made about the malolactic, and the majority of houses decided to embrace it. Historically in Champagne, only about 10% of wines used to have it. Now we have global warming, and I think a lot of the other houses will come back to the non-malolactic style – to preserve the natural acidity.”

The 1996 vintage was touted as one of the greatest for Champagne, on account of high acid and high sugar ripeness. The ’96 Lanson had to be the best value for money of all the ’96 vintage Champagnes. It was well under $100. And the 1998 is possibly even better. A 12- year-old Champagne made from grand cru vineyards and selling for $85? Even those nay-sayers who think all Champagne is over-priced must concede this is great value.

The latest Lanson news is that around the middle of this year it will celebrate its 250th anniversary. A celebration wine has been minted: Lanson Extra Age NV (tastings), made almost entirely from grand cru pinot noir and chardonnay and a minimum of five years old upon release. I’ve tasted it, and it’s a beautiful wine as you would expect, but it won’t be ridiculously priced: between $80 and $100 retail, says Hobbs.

What will raise the eyebrows of the collectors is a single-vineyard wine, Lanson’s first, named Clos Lanson, to be released probably in 2013. Made from the one hectare of vines beside the winery in Reims, it’s 100% pinot noir, made ‘in barrel’, and promises to be something out of the box. No malolactic, of course.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 9 February 2010.

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