Close to the grand cru village of Bouzy, Laurent-Perrier’s bucolic Château de Louvois lies not far from the house’s bustling HQ in Tours-sur-Marne. The 7.5-million bottle business is, lest we forget, a hugely successful ‘top 10’ Champagne, unique in the region’s upper echelons in still being independently owned; despite a quotation on the French stock exchange, all the shares of the Laurent-Perrier empire remain in the hands of the de Nonancourt family.
At Louvois, we seem far, far away from all that. I am hosted by Lucie Pereyre de Nonancourt, granddaughter of the redoubtable paterfamilias Bernard. The château and its gardens provide an idyllic backdrop; beyond the moat, which dates from medieval times, the fabric of the extant buildings recalls the epoch of François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, who was the Minister of War to Louis XIV in the 17th century – the Grand Siècle. The template for the buildings and gardens was overseen, respectively, by Mansard and Le Nôtre, two of the names behind the Palace of Versailles. Thereafter, the property followed the weave of French history itself, briefly owned by the family of Louis XV, partially burned down in the Revolution, serving as both barracks and hospital in the world wars and latterly restored as a corporate flagship.
If all that sounds a little chaotic, the property itself is far from it. Le Nôtre’s symmetrical gardens, his orangerie (with its original Mansard roof) and the two grand fountains nestle in woodland behind a walled figure-of-eight terrace. Beautifully calm and understated, it is, perhaps, a little like Grand Siècle itself.
At a time when only Cristal and Dom Pérignon aspired to rise above the pack, de Nonancourt wished not only to challenge this hegemony but to create something a little different. His vision for the launch of the house’s prestige cuvée was a multivintage rather than a vintage label – something unique, in other words, to preside over his legacy. ‘My grandfather felt that fine Champagne was more than an apéritif but did not wish to lose the fundamental energy of a young wine,’ says Pereyre de Nonancourt. ‘His solution was to match the lively vivacity of a young Champagne with the complexity of an older Champagne, with a third vintage bridging the gap between the two.’
Grand Siècle has been addressing this enigma since 1959, though only 25 times, with each outing since 2019 named and labelled autonomously as an ‘iteration’. So, in 2019 we welcomed iteration No.22 in magnum and No.24 in bottle; and now, in 2022, we are treated to iteration No.23 in magnum and No.25 in bottle. Beyond this quartet, all formats of older Grand Siècle will be impossible to distinguish from looking at the label alone. Only the cognoscenti in Louvois and Tours-sur-Marne will know the secret of their actual chronology, and therefore of their de facto iterations. The exceptions to this rule are two late-disgorged Grand Siècles, iteration No.17, which was released to celebrate the house’s bicentenary in 2017, and the soon-to-be released iteration No.20
At a time when only Cristal and Dom Pérignon aspired to rise above the pack, de Nonancourt wished not only to challenge this hegemony but to create something a little different
Confused? Don’t be. The underlying message is clear; the house cleaves to a new spirit of transparency in the name of highlighting rather than undermining de Nonancourt’s vision. Each wine should showcase the merits of three complementary vintages, with a tension between freshness and the complexity earned by maturity. De Nonancourt’s other stipulations have not been forgotten: the wine should only be sourced from a maximum of 11 grand cru villages (and no premiers crus) in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs; it should be made in stainless steel rather than oak (a radical imprint at the time); and its blend should marginally favour Chardonnay over Pinot Noir.
Pereyre de Nonancourt ‘joined’ the family company in 2019, although she finds such an idea somewhat amusing. In a sense, she is the company. She lives in nearby Epernay with her Spanish husband and young daughter and has very much warmed to her role as the face of Grand Siècle. ‘My task is to maintain the vision of my father and my grandfather – and for me, the house and gardens here at Louvois perfectly capture that vision,’ she says. The chinoiserie, Second Empire furnishings, Louis XV clocks and elegant tapestries all bear testament to such a sentiment; the winery at Tours-sur-Marne, while far from industrial, is, by comparison, a far cry from Louvois – hardly surprising given the scale of production for the house’s non-vintage wine.
‘I agree with my grandfather entirely that fine Champagne can be every bit as complex as great Burgundy,’ says Pereyre de Nonancourt. ‘Here at the château, there is a discreet and conservative elegance, something that is captured in the wine. Just look at the delicate swan’s neck of the magnum format…’ There seems to be a subtle desire to forge a completely separate identity for the Grand Siècle from the rest of the house; even the Laurent-Perrier name is inscribed in significantly smaller letters on the bottle than the brand identity. Neither the modesty of production, not the discretion of marketing will do either brand any harm, I suspect. I think of the relationship between Dom Pérignon and Moët & Chandon, albeit on a vastly inflated scale – but when I voice this thought, de Nonancourt does not seem entirely welcoming of it.
Pereyre de Nonancourt is directly involved in the tasting of the vins clairs and subsequent assemblages of each new iteration. Would she call herself a winemaker, then? ‘Not exactly,’ she says with a laugh. The fact that Laurent-Perrier’s long-standing chef de cave Michel Fauconnet has already come back from retirement once – the appointment of Dominique Demarville, who was ‘poached’ with great fanfare from Veuve Clicquot a couple of years ago, only lasted a few months, itself somewhat mysterious – suggests there may, at some stage, be a vacancy, though it is unlikely to be taken up by Pereyre de Nonancourt. ‘I am only involved with Grand Siècle,’ she maintains.
Iteration No.25, the current release, is made up of 60% Chardonnay, which is a little higher than usual; a 55/45 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has been the norm over the years. Bernard de Nonancourt was also keen on low dosage in his flagship wine; at the time, 8g of sugar per litre (g/l) was appreciably lower than average. History has caught up a little, and today’s dosage of 7g/l does not appear unduly low. Very little else has served to challenge the founding principles of Grand Siècle, the main difference being the change of emphasis brought about with the explicit recognition of chronological provenance via the introduction of the iteration series.
‘One should now be able to understand the subtle stylistic differences that come from the differing sequences of vintages in each iteration,’ Pereyre de Nonancourt says, adding that not for a moment has her grandfather’s key message been forsaken, namely the aspiration to produce ‘a perfectly poised and timelessly elegant Champagne’.
The word ‘iteration’ – in its purest mathematical sense, at least – can be defined as ‘the repetition of a process, particularly as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to a solution’. The explicit acknowledgment of progress and, implicitly, of progress towards perfection, makes for a glorious challenge for Grand Siècle. The house, thankfully, appears to have made some progress towards its realisation.