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Champagne Notes 2004

by Tom Stevenson

Champagne Lanson Vertical Tasting

This addendum of mature Lanson vintages that are still commercially available was supposed to have gone online as its own feature soon after the tasting (taken on 29 September 2003), but the promised disgorgement dates - so vital for a vertical tasting like this - were not forthcoming.

The Lanson style is famously non-malolactic, and because such wines require considerable post-disgorgement ageing, its vintages have often appeared austere, characterless even, at the time of release. Consequently Lanson vintage Champagne has been underappreciated, but its regular customers buy it to lay down and seldom broach a case until the next vintage is released. And because the market as a whole has not cottoned on, they do so at effectively a knockdown price. The 1996 currently sells for just £27.50, and it is not only a bargain - it also happens to be the most definitive interpretation of one of Champagne's most extraordinary vintages. In the 2003 revised edition of my Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, the Lanson vintage is rated at 3-stars, above Lanson's excellent deluxe Champagne, Noble Cuvée, which achieves 2.5-star rating.

Historically, the grapes for Lanson's vintage cuvée have come from its own vineyards, mostly grands crus, in six or more of the following villages: Ambonnay, Aÿ-Champagne, Bouzy, Mailly, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Verzenay, Verzy for Pinot Noir, and Avize, Cramant, Chouilly and, Oger, and Trépail for Chardonnay (those highlighted in bold are the most regularly used). Lanson owned one of the most impressive vineyard holdings in Champagne, with 210 hectares of prime sites, mostly built up by Victor and Henri Lanson in the 1930s. In December 1990, Lanson was purchased by LVMH, which stripped the company of its viticultural assets, selling on the brand and stocks to its current owners just four months later. Since Lanson had stressed the importance of its own vineyards for decades, it was inevitable that a questionmark would be raised over the quality and style of future vintages, but all such worries were laid to rest with the excellent 1995 and stunning 1996 vintages.

Prices are UK retail. These magnums are usually sold in wooden boxes of three, one vintage or mixed. See all Lanson stockists on wine-searcher.com

Lanson 1976 Brut (£199 per magnum)
95/100 Disgorged July 1999. 53% Chardonnay, 47% Pinot Noir. One of the best three vintages on the day (the other two being 1988 and 1989), this wine had a deep golden colour, as would be expected for a Champagne that is almost 30 years old from such a hot year. Very rich, intensely concentrated, with hints of molasses, dried fruit and mixed spiced peel on the finish. So seductive and long (my note in Reims two months later was very similar.)

Lanson 1979 Brut (£179 per magnum)
93/100. Disgorged December 1999. 48% Chardonnay, 52% Pinot Noir. Beautiful nose; classic, complex and seductive, with very rich, fruit for its relatively light weight, more biscuity than toasty, and a remarkably fresh finish.

Lanson 1981 Brut (£159 per magnum)
94/100. Disgorged July 2000. 46% Chardonnay, 54% Pinot Noir. The 1976, 1979 and 1981 were a commonly encountered trio of vintages at Lanson for many a year, and I always used to prefer this vintage, whereas most others would be utterly bewitched by the fatter fruit and gloriously toasty 1976. I loved the 1976 too, but this always had a Pinot Noir strength due to frost reduced yields, and it was never so blatantly toasty. However, much of the toast in the 1976 has turned to molasses, and there is no denying that it currently has the edge over the 1981, which has gone the other way, and now has more toast than a full English breakfast. It is still wonderful, with peachy Chardonnay fruit starting to dominate, and a wonderfully cushiony mousse bringing finesse. Very, very long and very, very toasty. Just gets better and better in the glass. A teetotaller could spend all day sniffing away, and be entranced without swallowing a drop.
See all 1981 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson 1982 Brut (£159 per magnum)
85/100. Disgorged September 2003. 40% Chardonnay, 60% Pinot Noir. Rather unfair to taste such a recently disgorged (days only!) Champagne in such company, so it is little surprise that this seemed rather simplistic, with just a touch of spice to add any complexity to the pepperiness on the nose, and sweet, easy-drinking fruit on the palate.

Lanson 1983 Brut (£159 per magnum)
Disgorged September 2003. 44% Chardonnay, 56% Pinot Noir. Ditto above comment about recent disgorgement. There was a pepperiness in the fruit on the palate of this vintage, with some spices, but essentially let down by undeveloped post-disgorgement aromas.
See all 1983 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson 1988 Brut (£139 per magnum)
95/100. Disgorged July 1999. 49% Chardonnay, 51% Pinot Noir. One of the three greatest wines of the tasting, and one of the three cheapest too, which can't be bad! Great acidity from non-malolactic in a highly malic year means that the rate at which the post-disgorgement complexity builds will be slower than for other vintages, but with over three year evolution under its belt, there is nothing actually undeveloped here. The structure and fruit are classically lean, with the mellowing bottle-aromas only just beginning to take effect. Stunning now, after another 10-15 years of cellaring, this vintage could possibly be greater than the 1976 is now.
See all 1988 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson 1989 Brut (£124 per magnum)
95/100. Disgorged September 1998. 44% Chardonnay, 56% Pinot Noir. Well, this is the vintage to drink at a ratio of two or three to one of the 1988, while you await the slower development of that more malic year. A fuller, fatter, riper year, albeit not as hot or as exotic as the 1976, with almost 10 months more post-disgorgement ageing than the 1988, the magnums of 1989 are already showing beautifully rich and complex, with expansive fruit, and exceptional freshness and finesse for the year.
See all 1989 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson Gold Label 1990 Brut (£119 per magnum)
NS. Disgorged July 1999. 46% Chardonnay, 54% Pinot Noir. The deep colour and murky aromas were suspicious enough, but despite the strong acidity, the fruit on the palate threatens to break up. I really should have asked for a second bottle (sorry, magnum) because if this is representative, I wouldn't score it above 45, and I cannot believe it's gone downhill that fast.
See all 1990 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson Gold Label 1993 Brut (£99 per magnum)
90/100. Disgorged 1999. 49% Chardonnay, 51% Pinot Noir. Lanson's first vintage made from purchased grapes, and considering it was a good but not great year, the 1993 was a creditable wine when released (86 points), and attained much more gravitas with an additional 12 months on yeast (88). However, although I expected it to improve in bottle, I never imagined that five years post-disgorgement ageing would bring quite so much finesse, even in magnum. This is a beautifully elegant Champagne, with light but long fruit, supported by a velvety-soft mousse of exquisitely fine bubbles.
See all 1993 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Lanson Ivory Label 1989 Demi-Sec (£124 per magnum)
90/100. Disgorged December 1997. 44% Chardonnay, 56% Pinot Noir. The more sugar in the dosage (and this has 38g/l), the longer required for what the older generation described as marrying the dosage to the wine (and what now is less romantically defined as the Maillard reactions), thus after six years post-disgorgement ageing, the sweetness in this Champagne has become deliciously rich and beautifully smooth. Personally, I'd like to see the 1988 with 60g/l and 10 years post-disgorgement ageing!

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