Frédéric Zeimett, Chief Executive Officer of Champagne Leclerc-Briant
Our Big Apple champagne aficionado chats biodynamics and rescuing this remarkable estate
Interview by Kyle Ridington Courtesy of Kyle’s Champagne Made me Do It
Leclerc Briant was created by Lucien Leclerc and his wife in 1872 through a dowry of vineyards located in a notable premier cru, Cumiéres. Later, the house would relocate to Épernay where it resides today. Bertrand Leclerc begin farming organically in 1947 before and during the chemical treatment crisis, which left most vineyards in Champagne lifeless. In 1999 the domaine was fully passed on to Pascal Leclerc Briant where he applied the teachings from Noël Pinguet of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, to transform his vineyards to biodynamics.
Before the sudden and tragic demise of Pascal in October of 2010, at the age of 60, Leclerc Briant had amassed the largest biodynamic estate in Champagne, 30 hectares. Due to further implications one year later Pascal’s daughters were forced to sell off most of its valued holdings to keep afloat. In 2012 Frédéric Zeimett, previously of Moët & Chandon and a couple from Boston obtained the property and hired Champagne’s top oenologist Hevré Jestin.
What are the most significant changes you’ve made since taking over the domaine?
The house of Leclerc Briant was the pioneer of organic viticulture in Champagne and today it is still the only major house offering a range of wines that is exclusively organic, biodynamic or vegan. Yet Leclerc Briant’s aspirations go far beyond the mere certification process, they involve working with absolute respect for the vines and for the vines to thus bring to market wines that are alive and full of energy. The combination of organics and the style which is so central to wines from Champagne has led me to a concept that I call Bio-Chic which is the true leitmotiv of the house.
What makes your Champagne unique and standout from other houses?
Since then the entire business has been reinvented although we have taken great care to remain true to its guiding principles: on the one hand respecting nature and the wines we create and on the other hand, retaining a very singular character in the cuvées as well as in the way we communicate. New cuvées have been created with the help of Hervé Justin, the ‘pope’ of biodynamics in Champagne, a new visual identity has been developed and new packaging to go with it, as well as a totally renovated winery, cellars and reception centre… everything is new, yet everything remains faithful to what has gone before.
When you are not drinking Champagne what is your preferred drink?
I love wine and not just champagne. My preference, other than champagne, is for Burgundy, especially white Burgundy. What could be finer that sharing a bottle of Meursault, or Montrachet, with a few close friends? I flatter myself that there’s something a little burgundy-like in the chardonnay wines I create here in Champagne.
If you could make wine in another region where would it be and why?
Even if it’s a little premature I sometimes wonder about retirement and I think I’d be very happy to live in a small farmhouse in the south of France surrounded by a few hectares of vines which would allow me to make a few thousand bottles of real garage wine for my friends. Probably a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah… and it would be biodynamic, of course.
What innovations have you seen in Champagne over the past several years?
I’m not sure that you could call it innovation, but it seems to me that Champagne is slowly rediscovering the fundamentals of healthy and sustainable viticulture. You see horses being used again to plough the vineyards, grass and flowers growing between the rows and the gradual disappearance of petrochemical products to treat the vines. What’s really interesting in this return towards traditional practices is that you’re starting to see things like research and development into animal powered ploughing.
Name one Champagne house that impresses you and why?
I‘m a particular admirer of Champagne Jacquesson and for the quality of what the Chiquet brothers have achieved over the past 30 years as much in terms of their wines as their marketing. It’s a real source of inspiration for me.
What are your thoughts on the 2015?
The results for champagne in 2015 have just been announced and the turnover was a record 4.5 billion euros (+5 per cent vs. 2014). It was a good year too at Leclerc Briant: volumes were up 20 per cent and turnover increased by 30 per cent!
Who is your most influential mentor when it comes to making Champagne?
I spent more than 20 years of my professional life at Moët & Chandon and the person whom I regard as my ultimate mentor will always be Yves Bénard, president of Moët from 1980 to 2000. He was a true role model of strategic vision who always promoted the interests of his brand before his own.