Winemaker Herve Jestin is doing things differently, both above and below the waves, writes Peter Ranscombe.
AS HE strolls along The Shore in Leith, Herve Jestin is following in the footsteps of his father, who came to Edinburgh after the Second World War to play the Breton pipes at the fledgling international festival.
Now, Jestin is making a noise in his own field by introducing the wines of Champagne house Leclerc Briant to Scotland’s capital.
As he walks beside the Water of Leith, the winemaker is cradling a bottle of Abyss, a Champagne that spent 12 months ageing beneath the waves.
Jestin explains how the tides in his native Brittany form a vortex where the English Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean – I’m imagining the Corryvreckan, but perhaps with a baguette and string of onions trailing through it.
The pressure on the seabed is around six times that at sea level or roughly equal to the pressure inside the bottle.
Away from the headline-grabbing underwater fizz, the work Jestin is carrying out back on dry land is perhaps even more intriguing.
Jestin is a proponent of both organic and biodynamic grape growing and winemaking; while organic practices – avoiding the use of artificial pesticides and other industrial chemicals in the vineyard and winery – are increasingly common in many winemaking regions, they are difficult in cooler climates such as Champagne.
Biodynamics is a whole other level above, using specially-made preparations to aid the vines and carrying out tasks in the vineyard and the winery in sync with the lunar cycle.
It may sound odd – especially when Jestin reached into his bag and produced the meter he uses to read the energy of his vines and wines, a sort of modern-day metal dousing rod.
Yet, again and again, I’ve tasted the difference in both organic and biodynamic wines compared with standard examples; an intensity and clarity in the fruit flavours that’s unquestionable.
For me, that’s more to do with the health of the vines and therefore the quality of the fruit, but sustainability – whether that’s through organic, biodynamic or other methods – has clear benefits for both the planet and wine drinkers.
Going against the grain
Leclerc Briant has a long track record in the field.
Founded in 1872 by Lucien Leclerc, the house adopted organic techniques in the 1960s when Lucien’s great-grandson, Bertrand, who suffered from thyroid problems, recognised the benefits it brought for both his own health and that of his workers.
He also began making single vineyard Champagnes, now a trendy practice, but flying in the face of mass production back in the mid-20th century.
“Now we call him a pioneer, but back then they called him a crazy hippy,” laughs Jestin’s colleague Pierre Bettinger, the house’s sales director.
Bertrand’s son, Pascal, took the practice a stage further by introducing biodynamic techniques in the 1980s.
When Jestin bought the company in 2012 – alongside chief executive Frederic Zeimett and American investors Mark Nunelly and Denise Dupré – he followed in their footsteps.
Biodynamics in action
Hippies or not, the benefits are on display in the taste of the wines.
The 2014 Brut Reserve (£43.50, L’Art du Vin) has rich aromas of red and green apples, cinnamon, brown sugar and biscuit.
On the palate, those flavours are joined by fresher lemon notes, with the intensity of the fruit taming the fine acidity.
It has a relatively-low dosage – the amount of sugar and grape juice added to the bottle before it’s sealed to regulate the sweetness – at only four grams of sugar per litre of wine but doesn’t taste in any way austere.
The 2014 Premier Cru Extra Brut (£49.50, L’Art du Vin) has even lower dosage – at just 2.5g/l – yet it has an even better balance, thanks to the concentration of the fruit harvested from premier cru vineyards.
The biscuit aromas are even stronger and are joined by a tart blackcurrant note, while the length of the lingering taste on the finish is fabulous.
Under the sea
So – how does a Champagne that’s been aged beneath the waves taste?
I suspect the answer owes just as much to the blend of grapes and their origin as it does to the year spent submerged.
Using his foldable meter, Jestin found the bottles aged underwater had 10% more “energy” than those aging in his cellar back in Champagne.
While the physics graduate in me questions the effect that electro-magnetic fields or other forms of “energy” would have on the wine, I’m intrigued by whether equalising the pressure inside and outside the bottle had an effect.
Either way, the 2015 Abyss (Price pending on allocation (POA), L’Art du Vin) has a mix of lemon, green apple and salted almond on the nose, with much tarter lemon juice flavours on the palate.
Those more assertive citrus notes are perhaps due to the equal blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, compared with the brut reserve’s mix of 40% each of the pinots and just 20% chardonnay.
Something even more unusual
While the novelty of trying a Champagne from under the sea drew me in, it was the taste of another special edition wine – the 2012 Cramant (£POA, L’Art du Vin) – that stuck with me.
Made solely from chardonnay harvested around the village of Cramant, the wine is aged in oak barrels, which add vanilla and smoke aromas and flavours to the biscuit, red apple, lemon curd and brown sugar backdrop.
Marking a step-up in quality to grand cru level, the Champagne has zero dosage, meaning all the sweetness to balance the acidity comes from the ripeness and intensity of the fruit.
“Oxygen is not the enemy for wine,” nods Jestin, praising the ability of oak barrels to allow a small amount of air into the production process to help develop flavours and the roundness of the wine in the mouth.
It’s a gorgeous and distinctive sparkling wine, which I can imagine appealing to those who like their white Burgundy buttery and smoky.