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Dames du Champagne

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Dames du Champagne

Kevin Peterson


In 2006 Angéline Templier-lassalle moved from Paris to Chigny-les-roses, "leaving one form of haute couture for another." Quitting fashionable Paris for the country south of Reims, she joined her mother Chantal and grandmother Olga at the celebrated house of J. Lassalle. There the three generations of women currently produce dazzling Premier cru champagne.

Balance is key. Champagne is one of the northern most wine-growing appellations in the entire world, yet its proximity to the sea tempers the climate. Additionally, the chalky soil works as a natural humidifier, warming the vines from the ground up. It's the perfect site for the early ripening pinot noir and chardonnay, along with the workhorse pinot meunier.

Jules Lassalle broke ground here in 1942, on the slopes of Montagne de Reims. In order to best express the terroir he harked back to ancestral methods of wine production. The grapes for all of Lassalle's wines are picked by hand, rigorously sorted, and pressed slowly, allowing minimal skin contact, in order to preserve a pale color. The first press is called the cuvée, and it is the only pressing used to produce wine at J. Lassalle.

After Jules's death in 1982, Olga and Chantal took up the reins, continuing to pick by hand from their 16 hectares of family owned vineyards, all of which are located within 10 kilometers of the winery. Keeping up with tradition, the wines are clarified by a process called riddling, where the bottles are held sur point, upside down, by a wooden table called a pupitre. The sediment that had been giving depth and character to the wine now gathers on top of the cork, to be removed. After the dégorgement cane sugar blended with the best reserve wines is added to the juice. Cork inserted, the wine returns to the cellar and mingles with the newly added dosage, fruit balancing out high acidity. Lassalle's wines are classified Brut, as less than 12 grams of residual sugar per liter are present.

Considering the traditional winemaking methods that les Dames Lassalle practice, one might argue they are fulfilling the vision of Jules, the lone male in the winemaking pedigree à la maison Lassalle. But the story has more depth, as progressive techniques are at work in tandem with the original philosophy. For instance, Lassalle is one of the few producers in Champagne to utilize malolactic fermentation, giving a modern twist to the ancestral methods. Additionally, the house exports over 80% of its annual production, a bulk of which is shipped to the United States. In a recent interview Angéline even went so far as to compliment America's appreciation for the "dimension humaine d'un vin," words that a Frenchman would not have dared utter in Jules's time.

Les Dames Lassalle certainly contribute a refreshing feminine touch in male-dominated Champagne, but once again there is more to the story than first meets the eye. In the wine world the word feminine describes a certain delicacy, notably associated with the silky texture of pinot noir from select appellations of Burgundy. Given the racy nature of the grape when harvested from the Montagne de Reims, the descriptor doesn't stand the crossover, regionally or in any other sense. The wines of J. Lassalle are not so much feminine as they are complete. Red berry fruit balances chalky astringency. A saline nuttiness, complemented by hints of toast, leads to golden apple. The wines are full bodied and dry, and the firm acidic quality of the pinot noir marks them great companions to food.

The 45 parcels at J. Lassalle are classified as either Grand cru or Premier cru, which, in addition to low yields from the first pressing, guarantees a level of excellence. The house produces around 120,000 bottles per year, under five separate bottlings. We carry the Préférence, Rosé, and the vintage Angéline, named by Jules after his granddaughter.

Expect consistency from the non-vintage Préférence and Rosé. They are pale in color, with the rosé picking up a hint of pink. The wines are marked by fine minerality up front, crystallizing into rounder fruit: golden apple in the blanc; cherry and strawberry in the rosé. The Pinot Noir can even offer notes of licorice and fennel. Great for a toast or a pairing with light fair and meant to be drunk young.

The Angéline 2008 is more mature. The color is pale but there is more depth. Licorice is evident on the nose along with mint, leading to golden apple fruit. Chalky minerality up front mellows into pastry notes of almond praline, and its overall saline quality stands up to more substantial food pairings. The project was launched in 1978, the year of Angéline's birth. Drink now or hold onto a bottle for up to five years.

The house of J. Lassalle is in the hands of three visionary women. Recently Angéline gave birth to her first child: a baby girl. Perhaps the house will see a fourth generation, and that is to say, another great winemaker.