In Champagne: Vilmart et Cie

Continuing their journey through Champagne, Ring and Goode visit Laurent Champs at Vilmart, and discover wines of elegance and purity

We met with Laurent Champs (pictured above) at his Rilly-la-Montagne winery, a quiet Premier Cru hamlet nestled in the Montagne de Reims. The house was founded in 1872 by Desire Vilmart, and Laurent is the 5th generation, overseeing operations since 1989.

“I make wine first, and the bubbles afterwards” 

Laurent Champs

The Montagne de Reims is generally a Pinot Noir-dominated region. However, Vilmart has 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, which is unusual. ‘Vilmart has a high proportion of Chardonnay,’ notes Laurent, ‘so I play a lot with finesse and elegance.’ 

The vineyards are located very near the winery, which is also a rarity. ‘For a house of this size, we should have 90 plots,’ says Laurent. ‘Instead we have just 12 plots. And instead of working out of five or six villages, we are 80% in Rilly-la-Montagne, and 20% in the neighbouring village of Villers-Allerand.’ 

This means that all 11 ha of estate vineyards are within 800 meters, which makes it easy to attend to and work with. 

They were utilizing biodynamics as early as 1989, but now are farming sustainably, and are certified Viticulture Durable, Ampélos, and Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE). They plough the soil and use no insecticides or chemical fertilizers. ‘We are as natural as we can be,’ says Laurent, ‘but the point is to get the best quality harvest. I try to adapt every year, in combination with the weather. We are a northern region, and we have to be very careful. Sometimes biodynamics works, but I don’t want to be closed by this. I don’t want to say narrow minded, but I prefer to take the best of every method. I don’t think that only one pure method is the best one. I prefer to be open minded. Sometimes we have very dry years, like last year (2018); sometimes we have very wet years. I adapt.’

The house is well known for their well-handled use of oak barrels. ‘The heart of our house is fermentation and ageing in wood only,’ notes Laurent. Everything is in 228 litre Burgundy barrels, from first alcoholic fermentation until bottling, approximately 10 months later. This is a relatively long time for a base wine, especially for a house that doesn’t practice MLF. ‘I want to keep the fineness and freshness, the density and the tension of the wine.’ Malolactic is naturally blocked, he says, by the low pH of the wines, among other things.

He uses a traditional Cocquard vertical press, with a very slight sulfur dose at pressing to prevent excess oxidation. The winemaking process is pretty gentle, with everything done by gravity, and no pumping between pressing and the first racking. For the NV wines, he uses 3 vintages, with the base coming from the most recent, and the reserves the 2 previous vintages prior.

They produce around 110 000 bottles per year. 70% of their production is exported, mostly within Europe. 


Vilmart & Cie Grand Reserve Brut Première Cru NV, Champagne, France
This is based on 2016, with some 2014, 2015 in the mix. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, with vines from 35 years and older, this was dosed with 9g/l RS. The base wine spent 10 months in older oak before bottle, with no MLF. Citrus streams along a tight, fine, elegant and finessed palate, with a gentle oak-aged cushion underlying biscuit, lemon dough, and green apple. Textured with chalk, and taut thanks to no MLF. Disgorged June 2018. 92/100 (TR)

70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, based on 2016 with 2014 and 2015. Disgorged June 2018, 9 g/l dosage. Fresh and focused with lemon and tangerine notes, showing lovely delicacy and good acidity. There’s a really nice precision to this wine which shows elegance and purity. Such a lovely wine. 93/100 (JG)

Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Brut Première Cru NV, Champagne, France
Based on 2014, with 2012, 2013 in reserve, this spent 10 months on lees in oak foudre and barrel (no MLF), prior to bottling, with 8 g/l. Light oxidative notes swirl in through the tight lemon, grapefruit, tight white fruits and subtle white florals. Very elegant, finessed, precise, and lively, to a very grippy, chalky finish. Disgorged August 2017. 30 year old vines average. 93/100 (TR)

70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir. Based on 2014 with 2013 and 2012. Disgorged August 2017. 8 g/l dosage. This is tight and focused with lovely brisk lemony fruit, and some nut and spice notes. Has brighter lemon and grapefruit character, demonstrating more of the Chardonnay character with lovely brightness and precision, as well as a bit of structure. Vinous and with a tensile character, this could develop nicely. 93/100 (JG)

Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier d’Or Brut Première Cru 2014, Champagne, France
50 year old vines from the super chalky Les Blanches Voies Bas vineyard, in Rilly-la-Montagne, this 80/20 Chardonnay / Pinot Noir has up to 6 years aging before release. This bottle was disgorged in June 2018, with 7 g/l dosage. Oxidative whiffs at first, this then moves into lemon blossoms, pith and peel, textured with chalk, and finishing with a lingering salty wash. Very concentrated and complexed, lively and finessed, with lovely precision throughout the long and elegant palate. 95/100 (TR)

50 year old vines, made in small barrels, four to six years old. Disgorged in June 2018, 7 g/l dosage. Les Blanche Bois is the name of the plot, with pure chalk just 25 cm in. Fresh, focused and really linear with taut citrus fruit and some lovely acidity, as well as fine notes of almond. This is very fresh and direct with lovely purity. Pure, fresh and precise with lovely focus. Great potential here. 95/100 (JG)

Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée Brut Première Cru 2011, Champagne, France
From 60 year old vines, this very fine cuvée only uses the very heart of the press, hence the name. This blend of 80/20 Chardonnay / Pinot Noir is fermented and aged in 228L barrels (1-3 years old) for 10 months, with no MLF, and aged 6 years on lees before a 7g/l dosage. Dense chalk and streaming oxidative notes gives heft and depth to the wine. Lemon pith, dried apricot, dried orange peel, fresh hazelnuts, and burnished salts team throughout this precise, lifted, and exceptionally lengthy fizz. Very characterful; many years to go. March 2018 disgorgement. 94/100 (TR)

Very old vines, and during the pressing he doesn’t take the first 200 or last 500 litres but just the 1400 litres in between – the best from the press. This was a challenging vintage, and he picked the grapes late. Disgorged March 2018, 7 g/l dosage. In 2011 they had to wait to get the right maturity. Fermented and aged in 1-3 year old barrels, six years on the lees. Subtle toast, almond and herb notes on the nose. The palate is elegant and fine with nuts and fine toast, alongside concentrated, fine cherry and citrus fruit. There’s a hint of oak here in the mix. A concentrated, fine wine. Vinous. 95/100 (JG)

Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée Brut Première Cru 2007, Champagne, France
From 60 year old vines, this blend of 80/20 Chardonnay / Pinot Noir is fermented and aged in 228L barrels (1-3 years old) for 10 months, with no MLF, and aged 6 years on lees before an 8g/l dosage. This bottle was disgorged May 2014. Showing a deeper yellow hue, vibrant acidity keeps this precise and tight, with a nervy, chalky, hum of acidity. This skips along with a verbrato of minerality, with licks of oxidation swirling around the finish. Lovely balance; drinking beautifully now. 93/100 (TR) 

Laurent Champs kindly opened an older bottle of this wine, and it was fabulous. Disgorged May 2014, 8 g/l dosage. This is stunning. It is still fresh and focused, but there are layers of complexity here. Shows subtle toast and spice, with crystalline citrus fruit and a bit of white peach. Very precise with lots of citrus character, and keen acidity. Nervy, chalky and a bit saline. Compact and fine with great concentration. Subtle hints of cabbage and herbs. 96/100 (JG)

Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Rubis Brut Première Cru 2011, Champagne, France
This rosé blends 60% saignée Pinot Noir with 40% Chardonnay (from 60 year old vines) just prior to bottling. Each lot ages ten months in 228L oak barrels (no MLF) prior to the blend. My bottle was disgorged in June 2016. Pouring a lovely salmon hue, this is up front and present with wild cherry, wild flowers, subtle patisserie and fresh herbs, with a wash of salts that lingers on the finish. Very light and fine and charming. 92/100 (TR)

60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. I like the complexity of Pinot, but I add 40% Chardonnay to keep the Vilmart style. June 2016 disgorgement. Made with saignee method. Pale pink/orange colour. Shows complex, savoury toast, pear, peach and citrus fruit, with hints of cherries, nuts and marmalade. Complex and powerful with nice depth, and a savoury, warming, spicy finish. Lovely stuff with an almost eternal finish. 94/100 (JG)

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Treve Ring

Treve Ring is a wine writer and editor, judge and speaker, and perpetual traveller. [She is also Correspondent Anorak.]