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Lanson Gold Label Brut 1998

There's a good presence of fizz on Winedoctor this week, and particularly Lanson, a Champagne house derided by many but one which I have followed closely over the years, enjoying both non-vintage and vintage wines alike. Today I feature one of the latest vintages to be released onto the market, the impressive 1998. Later on in the week I will have new tasting notes on the Gold Label 1995 and also the non-vintage Black Label, pulled from my cellar very recently after residing there for four years, the bottles having been purchased in September 2005. This might be of interest to those who have recently loaded up with the recent deals on Lanson Black Label that we have had in the UK in the last week or two. Also this week, a major overhaul for my Lanson profile, perhaps understandable in view of all the relevant bottles recently consumed. Also, reviews of two non-vintage Laurent-Perrier cuvées currently on the market, including the seemingly very popular rosé cuvée. The only reprieve for those allergic to fizz will be a new Loire profile for the week, as I try to ensure I have written up all my outstanding tastings from the annual Loire Salon which was - putting it mildly - too many months ago now.

Why is Champagne on my mind so much recently? I suspect it is a consequence of my recent visit to the region, and a recognition that my Champagne guide is due an extensive overhaul, just as soon as I get Burgundy finished. For that reason I have been thinking about various Champagne-related facts and phenomena, in particular the peculiarities that distinguish this region and its wines from the rest of France. They are legion, many more than the simple presence or absence of bubbles. One is the great importance of non-vintage wine.

Lanson Gold Label Brut 1998The distinction between vintage and non-vintage wines is a simple one, but nevertheless I suspect it confuses many wine beginners. Non-vintage wines may be blended from several different years (so there is no vintage year on the label), whereas a vintage wine is the produce of fruit harvested in a single year, which would usually be declared on the label. That's Wine 101 out of the way, now for some of the detail. Non-vintage wines, very much the norm in Champagne but curious anomalies when found in any other region of France, can be produced in a myriad of different fashions. The most common is to build the wine from a base vintage, wine from a single year, which would typically account for about 80% of the final blend, although this can vary up or down a little depending on the house or indeed the vintage. Sometimes there will be more than one base vintage, and sometimes the proportion of reserve wines used will be extraordinarily high or low, or sometimes even zero. Bollinger is an example of the two-vintage base, blending the wines of two consecutive years which account for 90% of the final product, the remainder being reserve wines, whereas others will blend without reserve wines, such as Charles Ellner, who will bring together two consecutive vintages for his wines. Alternatively there may be more vintages, such as in Laurent-Perrier's prestige Grand Siècle, which is generally comprised of three high quality vintages blended in roughly equal proportions.

The base vintage (or vintages) is one important variable and one - especially with an unusual year such as 2003 - that may have a very large effect on the eventual style of the wine. The chef de cave, however, may strive to maintain the house style regardless of the quality of the base vintage with judicious use of the older reserve wines. These may be sourced from just a few vintages, or from many, and some of these may be very mature, adding a great degree of complexity and style to the wine; few houses would exceed 40%, a very significant commitment when utilising your ever-dwindling stocks of mature wines. Perhaps the best example in recent years has been Charles Heidsieck under the stewardship of the late Daniel Thibault, who did much to revitalise this house. One of his great successes was the non-vintage wine, which not only included 40% reserve wines, giving the final blend great character, but also declared the cellaring date (allowing the astute to deduce the base vintage) and disgorgement date (so we could see how long the wine had spent on its lees) on the label. Taking things to an extreme are some of the best houses, such as Krug, where the reserve wines have accounted for as much as 50% of the non-vintage Grande Cuvée in some vintages (even up to 59% in 1988), incorporating up to 50 different wines from up to 10 different vintages. No wonder the Krug family insist that this is not non-vintage, but 'multi-vintage'.

Curiously, there are even those producers who label wines from a single vintage as non-vintage, two notables being Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Moncuit. Quite why any producer would choose to do this I find a little difficult to understand, but I suspect it is all to do with consistency of portfolio. Whatever the reason, in the case of Larmandier-Bernier, the very distinctive Terre de Vertus has been a 'single-vintage' non-vintage, and it is common practise for all the non-vintage wines produced by Nicole Moncuit. At Lanson, however, the portfolio follows a much more usual scheme, the non-vintage Black Label incorporating a fairly standard 15-30% reserve wines. This week's wine, though, is not the non-vintage - discussions of which are always hampered by difficulties in precisely identifying the wine in question, although the appearance of disgorgement dates on the label might make this easier in future - but the vintage 1998 Gold Label Brut from Lanson. So I accept I have cheated somewhat by writing about non-vintage Champagnes, but I hope I will be forgiven that.

Lanson is a frequently misunderstood and under-appreciated grande marque if ever there was one, in part because of the fresh and bracing character of the wines which do not undergo malolactic fermentation. This wine has an attractive, pale straw hue in the glass, and a fine bead. The nose is certainly interesting, starting off with fleeting moments of cheese and funk, but with a little exposure to the air it soon settles down to focus on an intense and linear provision of honey-roasted nuts, and in all honesty I find it extremely desirable. The palate is fresh and crisply defined, full of that brilliant acidity that comes with all Lanson wines, although I recall the acidity seemed less prominent when tasted at the 2009 annual Champagne tasting. It continues with great flavour, linear and bright but with a sappy texture. It finishes long but punchy, and although this just demands to be left in the cellar, perhaps for many years, it is just delicious now. 17.5+/20 (30/11/09)

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