People: Aurélien Laherte
Place: Champagne, France
Grapes: Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Farming: Organic, Biodynamic
Production: 130.000 bottles
Together with names such as Agrapart, Marie-Courtin and Benoit Lahaye, Auriélien Laherte is part of a generation that's making waves in the region and producing some of the finest terroir-driven wines you'll come across. Aurélien took over the 120-year-old estate in 2005 and began producing a series of tiny production, single-vineyard, single vintage blends from some of their most unique and expressive biodynamically-farmed parcels. His wines are all vinified in used Burgundy barrels, without malolactic fermentation, and are bottled without fining and filtration.
"Since I was 10 years old, I started playing in the winery and was so happy to be in the vineyard with my father. Then I started learning things from him. Then I started studying oenology and viticulture. From there it just started rolling. Besides Champagne, I visited other regions in France, together with countries such as Spain and the US to learn a little bit more about the craft."
Laherte Frères embodies the true spirit and ethos of a grower Champagne. Nestled in the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay, the region just below Epernay between the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs, Laherte Frères cultivates an impressive number of micro-terroirs, boasting an estimated 75 parcels in total. The Coteaux Sud d'Epernay region benefits from the presence of both chalk and clay soils, each contributing distinct qualities to the wines. The chalk imparts shelly fragrances and porous, mouth-coating minerals, while the clay brings forth rich, supple flavors and textures. The combination of these two soil types is nothing short of explosive, and we are enamoured with the way Laherte Frères skillfully brings them together in each bottle.
"When I was studying, I learned the very classic stuff, for example fermentation - add some yeast, keep the fermentation at 18°C and after 7 days everything is done. So I got this sort of curiosity that kick-started in me to explore alternative, natural approaches to achieve something different. It’s important to know and understand how industrial wine is made so that you develop a more defined perspective of what approaches you wish to avoid."
Aurélien’s wines, even for Champagne, exhibit a notable emphasis on acidity. He prefers to use low dosage, with most cuvées containing six grams or less. The Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature, which happens to be one of our personal favorites, is entirely free from dosage and boasts a delightful transparency, along with a zippy and rocky freshness Aurélien has a particular talent for handling Pinot Meunier, and his Meuniers, unlike his other cuvées, undergo malolactic fermentation, which complements the grape's generous character.
"The recognition that terroir - the unique characteristics of a specific region's soil, climate, and other environmental factors - is irreplaceable and cannot be exported, becomes pivotal. In essence, comprehending the fundamentals of traditional techniques allows for experimentation and innovation while still preserving the critical components that make wine unique and reflective of its origin."
Beginning in 2005, a total of ten hectares of land belonging to the estate have been under cultivation, with five hectares devoted to the rigorous principles of biodynamic farming. The remaining five hectares are tended using organic methods, forgoing any chemical pesticides or herbicides. Aurélien aspires to extend his biodynamic practices to additional parcels of land, but encounters obstacles due to geographical distance. Certain plots, such as those situated in Vertus or Voipreux, simply lie too far from Chavot to allow for the exhaustive manual labor required to implement biodynamic viticulture with the utmost care and precision.
"Our family has always had a profound appreciation for nature. My uncle was primarily responsible for overseeing our vinegrowing endeavors. Upon my arrival at the estate in 2005, I decided to embrace biodynamic and organic principles in order to gain a deeper understanding of our vines, accentuate the terroir's expression, and prioritize both our own well-being and the health of our planet. The period between 2000 and 2010 was an important time for me, as I delved into the naturalistic approach to agriculture."
In 2009, Aurélien, in collaboration with his friend Raphaël Bérèche, established the Terres et Vins consortium of Champagne producers. This pioneering collective showcases the Champagnes and vins clairs of a select group of avant-garde growers, such as Agrapart, Chartogne-Taillet, and Benoit Lahaye, during an exquisite tasting event held every April.
"I like seeing people happy and satisfied. It is my belief that we shouldn’t criticize our neighbors who may have different working methods from ours, as mutual respect is essential. I am optimistic that people that work 'industrially' will recognize that we are the good guys making good wines. This may be an optimistic view, but progress is a collaborative effort, and we must work together towards positive change."
Laherte Frères operates with scrupulous attention to detail, meticulously evaluating every action they take. Their overarching philosophy is centered on the unceasing pursuit of equilibrium in their grapes, soil, and vineyards. While their viticulture practices were certified as organic in 2010, their crop suffered from devastating mildew in 2016, necessitating the use of fungicide and the subsequent loss of their certification.
"Although our vineyards were certified organic, there was a crazy period from 2016 to 2021 when we had to resort to a chemical solution to protect our grapes against mildew. Additionally, we have adopted biodynamic practices, not religiously, but with the aim of fostering a positive environment for our vines. Cover crops have been an integral part of our regenerative growing approach for the past five years, and we resort to plowing for other plots. It is important to note that these practices are the result of a continuous process of careful consideration and long-term planning."
Typically, top-tier vineyard properties in Champagne command a hefty price tag, owing to their coveted reputation and strong demand from the local wine industry.
"We’ve just bought a nice plot of Chardonnay, around 0.9 hectares! The cost of it is 1.3 million euros, which may seem steep and unprofitable, yet without grapes we can’t make wines. We don’t just farm organically, but we also put huge attention to detail in the vineyard and rely heavily on manual labor. This increases production costs by roughly 30% compared to traditional viticulture. Consequently, we yield a lower volume of approximately 20%-30% less. Nevertheless, we are happy with that."
Aurélien’s first vintage in 2005 was an opportunity for him to work alongside his father in the winery. He wasn’t primarily focused on that, but rather on the vineyards. He subsequently adapted the vinification techniques to align with the potential of the juices.
"The 2005 vintage was great in terms of richness and freshness and was a vintage that gave me a lot of opportunities to experiment and witness its potential for evolution. I have to say, every year is the same - we try new things (some good, some not) and explore ways to increase quality."
Laherte Fréres doesn’t prioritize a particular style, as Aurélien believes that the terroir and vines themselves imbue his wines with their distinctive character. Consequently, the winemaking has become secondary to that of the terroir, cepage, and vintage.
"I consider myself primarily a vigneron rather than a winemaker. Respect for the grapes is the most important. It’s crucial not to obsess over perfectionism. We take care of our vines, preserving their vitality (allowing them to experience the ebb and flow of temperature changes, slight oxidation, and occasional reduction). By doing so, the wines acquire a strong energy to be able to age well in the future."
Besides the Blanc de Blancs, one of the Champagnes that we love the most is Laherte’s Petit Meslier. Only 8% of the domaine is reserved for this grape, which is around 1 hectare.
"This grape is a cross between Gouais Blanc and Savagnin. We love it for its structure, distinct texture and eccentric aromas that lean towards herbaceousness. It has remarkable freshness and electric acidity as well. Although it stands perfectly on its own, we envision it as a good addition to blends, much like a spice that enhances the complexity of the final product (just 2-5% to bring a little bit more complexity)."
Aurèlien never stops working. After a visit to his winery in April, we got a sneak-peek into his future plans.
"We are always trying new things, never stopping! We are actually renovating our house at the moment, intended to provide a haven for our workers. After the harvest, we are planning an expansion of the winery - adding concrete tanks, tronconic oak barrels and foudres. With this we’ll be able to vinify more wines and age them for a longer time."
[Originally published in May 2023]