Julien and Sarah Launois made their first champagne in 2015, and they already export 90% of their production. We visited Julien and Sarah in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and tasted their delicious champagnes around harvest time this past season. We also discovered that you can spend the night here at their B-and-B, buy a bottle of whisky and even a whole barrel of wine.
Julien and Sarah have 15 acres of vineyards. This is a very comfortable size in Champagne, especially if you have it all in the much sought-after Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a grand cru-village in the Côte des Blancs, the chardonnay lovers’ paradise.
Julien’s father belonged to the cooperative, but Julien wanted to make his own champagne. He named the new domain after the couple’s son, Paul, eleven years old. At first, Julien had a couple of consultants to help him, especially with the blending. But he soon realized that he could do it all on his own. It suits him better, and he has free rein for his creativity.
We came to visit in the middle of the harvest. It is a wonderful time to travel in Champagne, if you can access to the producers, which is not always easy in this busy time. We even arrived just in time for the pressing of the grapes, which for a visitor is a very special moment. It is even more special if the producer, like Julien, uses a basket press, the traditional champagne press. They had just started filling it with grapes when we arrived.
According to Champagne’s precise rules, the press must be filled with 4000 kilos of grapes and always with whole bunches. This type of press, the traditional basket press, demands a lot of hard, manual work, not least the part called la retrousse, but it is still popular with many producers in Champagne. Most people in Champagne used it until the late 1980s, but many have now replaced it with modern pneumatic presses or PAI presses. Just under 30% today use the basket press.
You make la retrousse after one hour of pressing. It consists of four persons scooping the thick and hard press cake back into the middle of the press. The pressing then continues.
When the press is filled and closed, I take the opportunity to ask Julien how the harvest is going. “We lost quantity because of the downy mildew attacks. But the quality was not affected”, he says. He is happy with his harvest workers as they do the sorting and remove bad bunches already in the vineyard.
He makes 35,000 bottles a year and exports 90%. All the grapes are chardonnay from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Sarah is a graphic artist, and she is the one who designs the stylish and amusing labels. They are different and attractive.
The champagnes are crispy and elegant with a refreshing acidity that I like very much. The dosage is only a few grams of sugar. But even as little as that makes a difference, says Julien and adds that you should be careful with zero dosage; it can be too harsh. The base wines always go through malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity. Some producers in Champagne want to avoid the malolactic fermentation, but then they have to block it with sulfur, and Julien does not want to do that.
Their first vintage was 2015, and we taste Champagne Paul Launois Portrait 2015, vintage champagne from this exceptional year. It has a long life ahead of it if you want, but it is delicious already now. It has the elegance of the chardonnay, is full-bodied with aromas of white flowers and citrus and very fresh acidity. After three years of ageing on the lees, Julien disgorged it in December 2020. A drawing of a portrait-like Julien with a pitchfork beside his basket press adorns the label.
Champagne Paul Launois Cuvée Monochrome, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, is mainly from the vintage of 2018 (70%) blended with 30% reserve wine. It was disgorged in June 2021. It is a crisp, almost steely chardonnay, typical of the terroir here, says Julien. There is a hint of salinity. It is complex with finesse, balance, an excellent mouthfeel and a velvety finish.
Champagne Paul Launois Composition Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
Here, 48% oak-aged reserve wine gives intense aromas of attractive ripe fruit. There’s also citrus on the nose, a good balance, a fresh acidity that softens towards the end. It has been on the lees for three years.
The Single Barrel Project
In 2016, Julien asked the local cooper, Tonnellerie Artisanale de Champagne, to make some oak barrels from staves that had been left to dry for four years, which is a year longer than for typical high-quality oak barrels (the longer the better some think). He also asked for different degrees of toasting, i.e. how much the barrel has been charred on the inside (all wine barrels are “toasted” to different degrees). He filled them with wine from some of his best plots of land in the village. This was the beginning of The Single Barrel Project, which now accounts for 20% of production.
The wines stay in the new oak barrels until the bottling in July. They all have their own unique character, says Julien, depending on the wood, the toasting and the origin of the grapes. He started with six barrels in 2016. In 2019, he made 10 barrels.
One barrel results in 216 bottles (a bit more actually, but Julien keeps some for the “library”), and the bottles from one whole barrel are sold to one single customer; it can be a professional, e.g. a wine importer or a wine-loving individual. Not only that, the customer gets to choose the barrel already at the outset.
Between April and July, potential buyers of wines from The Barrel Project come to the cellar to taste the “base wine” in the various barrels. The “base wine” is the still wine, before it gets the bubbles during the second fermentation in the bottle. They choose the barrel that they want. For example, some prefer strong toast, others light. He (or she) thus becomes the “owner” of the barrel, or rather, of the finished champagne bottles from that barrel a few years down the line.
In July, ten months after the harvest, the wine is then bottled directly from the barrel. The second fermentation in the bottle transforms the still (base) wine into champagne. The buyer will then decide when to disgorge (between 3 and 10 years after the harvest) and how much dosage (sugar) should be added. All bottles are numbered to emphasize exclusivity. No doubt with a beautiful label designed by Sarah. A rare possibility to tailor-make your own champagne and a decidedly unique project in Champagne.
Julien and Sarah do bed and breakfast and have five rooms. If you go there, do ask about the whisky, and you will get the whole story.