After the first kick of alcohol, that’s when biodynamic champagne magic hits hard. Within seconds, you remember all the other times you had great champagne. Instantly, you feel deeply grateful for natural winemakers, grapes and life itself. Sounds spacey and unreal? Not if you ask Hervé Jestin, chef de cave of Leclerc Briant. “Biodynamic champagne isn’t magic,” he says, “it’s simply nature calling.”
Another masterclass at Sacré Bistro
Late January 2019, we drove to Épernay for our second champagne masterclass in Sacré Bistro. Last time, it was Guillaume Selosse who told us all about the philosophy of Domaine Jacques Selosse and how they created a world-class niche. Jacques Selosse is all about family, authenticity and quirkiness- three characteristics that are represented in all of their divine champagnes.
But no family story tonight. This time, it was Hervé Jestin (often misspelled as Hervé Justin) that took the imaginary stage on the first floor of the restaurant. Hervé is chef de cave at Leclerc Briant. This champagne house stood at the cradle of biodynamic champagne making in the 1950s. After the sudden passing away of owner and heir Pascal Leclerc-Briant in 2010, Americans Denise Dupré and Mark Nunelly became the new owners. Many people believe the heirs got into a fight over the inheritance. But in reality, they simply couldn’t afford the heavy inheritance taxes. The family business stopped, but the biodynamic champagne house survived, with Hervé as new spiritual father.
Biodynamic, that’s organic 2.0 right?
I used to think of biodynamic as “very organic”. You know, those kinds of people that take environmentally friendliness to the next, crazy level by wearing dungarees and by refusing to use proper deodorant. Obviously, the truth is more nuanced. Organic agriculture is all about banning chemicals from the fields and vineyards. Biological-dynamic agriculture, however, is based on the philosophy by Rudolf Steiner. He believes the earth is part of a greater eco-system that impacts everything we eat and drink. For champagne makers, this means that everything around them should be taken into account. This includes usual suspects like climate, soil fertility and water quality, but also biodiversity, lunar phases, planetary positions and energy channels. In the 20th century, biodynamical agriculture gained popularity, and the champagne makers were among the first agricultural sectors to integrate the philosophy in their processes*. Driving force? Champagne house Leclerc Briant.
*Interesting detail: during World War I and II, the Champagne region was heavily bombed. This compressed the soil of many vineyards. Biodynamic champagne houses managed to fix the fields within years, by gently bringing the soil back to life.
Leclerc Briant champagne & food
Hervé Jestin had brought 5 Leclerc Briant champagnes, all of them Millésimes (read my review here). This means that the champagne is made with grapes from one single year, as opposed to Non Vintage (N.V.) Champagne, that’s made with grapes from several years. Millésimes are outnumbered by Non Vintage champagnes, as only a great wine year provides champagne makers the luxury of not including grapes from other years. It’s what makes them special, but not better per se.
As for the food, the Sacré Bistro kitchen had prepared matching dishes to go with each of the champagnes:
- Brut Rosé 2016 With a starter of crayfish roll, crab tartare and crab with Timut pepper
- Le clos des 3 clochers 2014 With ricotta & spinach ravioli topped with Parmesan cheese
- La croisette 2015 & Cuvée Abyss 2014 With Saint-Pierre (Google told me that’s a fish) and fennel two ways
- Millésime 2013 With cantal entre-deux (Google didn’t really understand this, but Wikipedia did: it’s cheese from the Auvergne region that’s 3-6 months old) with cubicles of quince jelly
- Cuvée Abyss 2014 With a passion sorbet and an emulsion of oysters and salicorn
As always, the dishes were brilliant. The theme was definitely “ocean”, as there was crayfish, crab and Saint Pierre, and, surprisingly, there were oysters and salicorn in the dessert (which worked well). Out of the five champagnes, it was Millésime 2013 that was my absolute favourite, as it had that depth and kick that I like. Yet, it was Abyss that had the most interesting story.
Abyss- the Leclerc Briant champagne that slept on the bottom of the ocean
Hervé Jestin is known for his extraordinary experiments. His best-known project is where he lays champagne bottles to rest on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Because, and I quote: “what’s more natural than the sea?” At 60 meters deep, you find the most ideal circumstances for champagne “sur lattes”, so after the dégorgement has taken place. Hervé explains: “On the seabed, the current soothes the champagne and de-stresses it, as it’s made from the same elements.”
I don’t know about you, but as I sat there, the story actually made sense. And as we tasted the “deep sea champagne” called Abyss, I swear I could tell the champagne was just as relaxed as I was. It had a softer touch than the other champagnes and a gentle sparkle, like, well, the mystical life at the bottom of the ocean. It matched the dessert brilliantly, which combined passion sorbet with an emulsion of oysters and salicorn. The best thing was that Hervé had chosen his home region Bretagne to put the champagne to sleep, somewhere in the ocean near the island Ouessant. When I asked him about it, he told me he was born near Brest. And like any other true Breton, he loved the region with its raw nature, celtic people and great food. Strange how my French stories always bring me back there.
Stop the kill in the wine cellar
In between courses, Hervé Jestin left his own table to introduce the next Leclerc Briant champagne and to talk about biodynamic winery. Before the last course, he gave an Obama-worthy speech that came straight from the heart:
“There are 50.000 molecules in champagne. Mankind has only discovered around 5000 of them. So I ask you: who are we to say that we know champagne? We should stop trying to control nature and listen to it instead. This goes beyond banning plastics and pesticides from the vineyards. We need to bring the biodynamical mindset with us into the cellars. Many people think you need loads of sulphites and dead yeast to stabilise oxidation and fermentation in champagne, but it’s simply not true. Champagne needs oxygen and alcohol to develop, and what we need to do is observe and adjust. So stop using words like “kill” and “dead” when around champagne, and work with what nature gave you! Of course, without people there wouldn’t be champagne, but we better let nature take its course and make small adjustments along the way.”
Ocean waves in a glass
Having heard the speech of Hervé Jestin, I suddenly realised why biodynamic champagne contains such a range of flavours. No other beverage can give you hints of so many different fruits, nuts, bread and spices through one glass, which I’ve always found fascinating. I even use an aroma infographic as a cheat-sheet so that I can tell Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir apart.
But that Thursday night, I got it: drinking a glass of biodynamic champagne is like making a phone call to nature itself, without knowing who’s going to pick up. On the other end, there might be apples, almonds, cacao beans, roses and minerals, or, if you manage to get your hands on a bottle of Abyss, ocean waves and infinite depth. It’s what makes champagne one of the greatest collaborations between the cosmos and mankind, as both parties have a say in what ends up in the bottle.