Champagne Day: H. Billiot Cuvee Laetitia Brut

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Grower Champagne – that rare bottle of bubbly where the name on the bottle indicates the entire chain of production rather than a branded endpoint – comprises a mere 20% of Champagne’s overall production. And yet, the growers are on a relentless path towards dominating an ever increasing percentage of the highest quality wines of the region. Why should this be the case?

Unlike pretty much every other region of France, Champagne only has a single AOC – meaning that there is no real way to tell where a wine is from by the basic labeling on the bottle. Some might go further and say ‘premier cru’ or ‘grand cru’ fruit, but the villages that have been given these designations consist of a huge number of farmers, each with different vineyard practices and even, potentially, terroirs. How, then, can a consumer tell whether the fruit from which a wine was made was made with care, passion, good vineyard practices and the least amount of chemical additions as possible? The only way for a consumer to know is to invest considerable time and effort into researching a particular house’s practices, and even then one could end up never finding the answer, as the houses are pretty secretive about such things.

This is where the growers come in. While not all growers are producing outstanding wines, they are at least in control not only of the wine making process but also the farming of the vines. By simply looking up where a grower’s vineyards are, a consumer can tell what they are drinking. However, without an official legal designation for particular terroirs, it is almost impossible to tell any of this information from the label on a bottle of Champagne.

Of course, the debate still rages about whether blending or terroir will produce the best wines, but I always find the terroir based approach a bit more interesting, since there tends to be more diversity of philosophies and more argument about what constitutes the most effective approach for a particular place and a particular style. Does the ‘terroir’ approach always produce the best wines? Well I’m doubtful of that since I think terroir is a bit of an elusive ideology for what is actually a debate about the philosophy and science of production. But that’s a debate for another post.

H. Billiot, neighbour to the well-respected grower Egly-Oriet, has his vineyards on the southern side of the famous Montagne de Reims, which is north of the Cote des Blancs where the fruit for most of the Chardonnay based Champagnes are grown. Particularly, Billiot is in the “grand cru” village of Ambonnay.

The soil type here is chalk and lignite deposits (a mineral that is more nourishing for vines than chalk), and while the Montagne de Reims is best known for Pinot Noir, there are also plantings of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the last of which comprises the substance of the Champagne I drank.

This was an incredible Champagne that hit heights greater than many many wines I’ve consumed. I could describe the yeasty apple nose, but that means little. I could also suggest that the wine is hugely fruity and explosive while also retaining fundamental elegance and a profound delicacy, but that could just seem like hyperbole. All that matters, really, is that this wine combines finesse and fruit in the way that you expect the best Champagnes in the world to do. And, it achieves its lofty aim with what seems like minimal effort.

Paired with a truffle/miso glazed sea bass and truffled popcorn that I made, this was the epitome of both the exceptional ability of Champagne to pair with food and of how terroir based grower Champagne can match the best cuvees of the houses at 1/3 of the price.

$130 at Kitsilano Wine Cellar


  1. tricerapops
    March 21, 2010

    i would enjoy hearing your thoughts further on the concept of ‘terroir’ and what it may represent. i find the topic fascinating – and i agree with some of the points you’ve alluded to. in the meantime, i’ll chase down this billiot.

    i’m hearing good things about jerome prevost. perhaps for April?

  2. Shea
    March 21, 2010

    Perhaps! I will definitely be gathering my thoughts on the terroir debate and, hopefully, putting them together into a few posts. The problem is that it is hard to get all of my ideas down into easily digestible blog posts. It’s more of a subject for a 60 page treatise. However, I will try my best to get across the main points.

  3. Matt
    March 22, 2010

    great shea. nice pairing, and i’m glad you guys liked the wine. sounds like it was little more taught than i’ve experienced with the laetitia in the past though? keep ’em coming.

  4. Shea
    March 22, 2010

    Perhaps, or differing palates/food combinations. I found it quite amazingly drawn together despite the opulence. Pretty awesome stuff, really.

  5. Matt
    March 23, 2010

    “amazingly drawn together despite the opulence.”

    no, that sounds spot on.

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