I first visited Champagne Paul Launois in 2019, since then I’ve watched tentatively from the sidelines as Julien and his partner, Sarah, iteratively crafted what is a considered, artistic and exciting project. Their winery, once a press house belonging to Billecart-Salmon, can be found nestled among the tightly-packed ruelle of grand cru village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a stone’s throw from Krug’s iconic Clos du Mesnil. Having traditionally sold their grapes to the village cooperative, three generations of the Launois family have tended to a little over 6.5 hectares of Chardonnay vines. Following nine years working abroad, in 2015 Julien and Sarah completed their first harvest together. A year later Julien began working on the single-barrel project, a personalised and intimate expression of Champagne shaped together by winemaker and wine lover. Following my first visit, it was the nature of their project that had left me enthralled. In a contracting market of growers, Julien and Sarah stood out to me as being among a small number who may well buck the trend. Though the project had impressed me in 2019, this time around the wines took centre stage and Julien’s evolution as a winemaker was clear. Though growing in volume, their range of 4 cuvée is each year entirely outstripped by demand with strong interest from keen buyers the world over. I spent a late-summer morning with Julien tasting from his single-barrel library and discussing the future.
Sarah Launois is a talented artist and graphic designer, her influence and expression are evident upon every turn in both the winery and in the pairs immaculately kept B&B. While locked down earlier this year, Sarah painted the walls parallel to the large, still functional, traditional basket press with a depiction of winegrowing from vine to bottle. From the cellar, where Julien’s barrels are suspended eerily in darkness, to each cuvée, whose labels depict a formative element of their being, Sarah’s vision forms a core component to the estate’s identity. This identity being one which wholeheartedly embraces the value and importance of tradition while concomitantly toying with both creativity and communication as a means to both express one’s character and translate this vision playfully to customers the world over.
In the winery, Julien is equally as artistic albeit expressed alternatively. He is a colourful and friendly character not constrained by tradition and keen to explore the potential of his raw material. In 2016, Julien began his single-barrel project, having oak barrels manufactured by Tonnellerie de Champagne with 4-year old staves all exposed to varying levels of toast. To fill these barrels, Julien selects his best parcel of Mesnil which remains in the barrel until the decisions are made by each buyer as to their specificities. Between April and June, future buyers then come to taste the clear wines in order to select the barrel they wish to purchase. They also determine the number of bottles or magnums and decide on ageing (between 3 and 10 years) and dosage. To date the single-barrel project’s iterations are as follows:
|Vintage||No. of Plots||No. of Barrels||No. of Toasting Levels||Vinification|
|2017||1||10||5||5 barrels with 5 barrels without MLF|
|2018||2||20||5||10 barrels with and 10 barrels without stirring|
|2019||1||10||5||5 barrels with and 5 barrels without stirring|
This project is as much an opportunity for Julien to explore the potential of his terroir as it is a chance to build truly unique relationships between wine lovers and the wines they buy and enjoy. The vast majority of winemakers are afforded at most 40-45 opportunities to refine their skill, each vintage an opportunity to toy with a range of variables, each influencing their finished wine. While micro-experiments and alterations on a vat-by-vat basis are common, these remain to some extent limited. After just four vintages, the single-barrel library contains a total of 46 wines. These 46 wines represent 46 opportunities Julien has had to better understand a range of influential variables, opportunities to test boundaries, to sketch out a blueprint he is able to then overlay on his core cuvée. Previously a selection of the single-barrel project was sold at auction, the demand is now such that Julien feels the true value of the project can be better achieved by selling the entirety of each vintages production privately.
Julien tends to 6.5 hectares of Chardonnay with an average vine age of 25 years (his entire production is by proxy Blanc de Blanc) over 19 plots in Les Mesnil-sur-Oger, where 99.6% of 433 hectares of plantings are Chardonnay. The majority of these 19 plots are in the middle part of Les Mesnil where the land is relatively flat. One of these plots, a 1ha plot with roughly 50cm of sediment on top of a soft chalk subsoil, is less than 1km from the winery and faces north-east on a slight slope. Called Haut d’Aillerand, this is the site the pair uses for their single barrels and the site which forms the ‘spine’ of monochrome. Julien is also in the process of converting his vineyards to organic.
In 2019, Julien’s 2016s were very good, this year his 2017s were excellent, speaking to both his own growth as a winemaker and the evolution of his ability to tease out the potential of both terroir and fruit. Monochrome is 17% reserve and 83% 2017, 2 years on the lees and just 2g/l dosage. Lean, chalky and crisp with precise citrus fruit, a hint of grapefruit pith and a concentrated yet delicate palate pinned together with lively acidity. Composition is 48% reserve, 52% 2017 of which 40% is fermented in stainless steel and 12% in 1,2 and 3-year-old oak barrels, with 5g/l dosage. Juxtaposed to Monochrome, richer and more expansive on the nose with aromas of candied pear and freshly baked pastry with medium-body and a lengthier, sapid finish. Illustration is 15% reserve and 85% 2017 of which 75% is fermented in 1 and 2-year-old oak barrels and 15% in stainless steel with 4g/l dosage. Toasted biscuit bits, white flowers, and pear on the nose, medium-bodied with hints of orange oil and tightly-packed citrus fruits, a pleasent midpoint between Monochrome and Composition.
Following a masterful demonstration of disgorgement à la volée, an ancestral method of disgorgement Julien opts to retain for his single-barrel wines, we tasted SB1602 (his first edition), SB1701, SB1806, and SB1818 (his latest edition) The wines underwent varying levels of battonage and are exposed to several grades of toasting, the more mature examples are ageing well, maintaining vigour and structure while developing complex aromas of toasted caramel fudge and citrus oil. Evident as one tastes his more recent wines is that Julien has truly found his feet, though all good wines, his latest single-barrel wines are clean, accurate and speak to the potential of this wonderful village.
I cannot, though I would like to, claim to have by virtue of skill, identified Julien and Sarah as rising stars, our first meeting was entirely serendipitous. What I can be sure of though is that I’m truly excited by this partnership and their wines, wines which are selling increased numbers as each year passes. Though there are indeed several thousand growers in Champagne, only several dozen are recognised globally, and as this market contracts each year the fight to gain ground in global markets becomes more ferocious. I am convinced that together, as the pair continue to carve out their vision in the chalky soils of Les Mesnil, that they may well one day be amongst that hallowed handful of growers fanatically sought after by wine lovers the world over.