The first releases of their vintage wines confirm that Le Lude, based in Franschhoek, is at the very top end of sparkling winemaking in the Cape. And if you meet and talk to Paul Gerber briefly you’ll soon be convinced that he must be one of the Cape’s most devoted (oh, all right, passionate if you insist) bubbly makers.
And if you look at the prices, you’ll at least gulp, but possibly collapse.
This week saw the release of Le Lude’s maiden vintage wines, from 2012 – all disgorged after about five years on the secondary lees, in May or June this year. There are six, all in minuscule quantities (the largest retail release is 276 bottles of one of them, down to 154 bottles of another; there will be more in later vintages). Just one of them is available in magnum as well as standard bottles. I’ll get back to the gulp-inducing prices later.
Telling you the above is the easy part, as is venturing the opinion that they are all extremely good. Trying to explain all the differences – say, between Vintage Cuvée 2012, Brut Magnum 2012, Brut Agrafé 2012, Vintage Cuvée 2012 and Vintage Cuvée Agrafé 2012 – is altogether trickier. (There’s also apparently an Agrafé Prestige to come?) I’ll try to explain, and hope I’ve got it right.The grapes are widely sourced, so we’re not really talking terroir here, and I hope I can evade that issue. Le Lude have set the bar quite high when it comes to bubbly geekdom – though I’m not convinced how appropriate that is for a category of wine that attracts more enthusiasm than intellectual rigour; bubbly-lovers tend, I think, to consume the stuff while partying and not concentrating deeply on what’s in their glasses. I may be wrong; it’s happened before.
Anyway. First of all let me confess that I’m not absolutely sure about that accent on the e of Agrafé in the wine names. But nor are Le Lude, I fear, for they use both on their website – which is altogether pretty careless and incomplete when it comes to listing their wines: Under the strange heading “Our wine varietals”, the first wine listed is “Brut Non Vintage” and the description starts “The Brut 2012 ….” There aren’t any photos of the actual labels for me to check about this accent business, as I’d assumed there would be when I neglected to examine them closely at the launch. Agrafe (no accent) is the French name of the heavy metal staple which holds down the cork in the bottle of the wines that are not sealed during the secondary fermentation with the customary crown cap. Agrafé would mean agraffed, as it were.
Use of a cork for these years of pre-disgorgement maturation imparts a gentler, softer quality to the wine (to the bubbles, if you prefer to put it that way). At the launch we compared the Brut Agrafé (R1540) with a magnum of the Brut (R1320 – ie nearly half the price, given the volume) which was not agrafé – otherwise an identical wine. Both were pretty profound, beautifully balanced and elegant. Perhaps the Agrafé was more complex; on the whole I preferred the other one, for its greater freshness. Incidentally, when I said this to Paul, he agreed – but said that it’s maybe a question of being in the mood for one style rather than the other.
The conventionally made Rosé (in magnum; the prices for the rosé versions are the same as for the blanc) was also softer than the Rosé Agrafé, and also brighter and fresher. Both had a little echo of fruity-berry charm, thanks to the majority component of pinot noir. Lovely wines both – I’d be delighted with either, so long as someone else is paying.
These distinctions are giving me a headache, and I’m sure if any reader has got this far, the feeling is mutual. Let me just say that the Vintage Cuvée pair (standard and Agrafé) are primarily distinguished from the Brut version by having slightly more pinot noir in the blend, and a tiny percentage of oaked chardonnay. I think there’s some origin difference too. As to pricing, they are, pro rata, a bit less expensive than the non-agrafé Brut.
Pricing. Oh dear. What can I say except that it is extraordinarily ambitious. You could buy one-and-a half, sometimes two, bottles of some pretty grand champagnes, with established international reputations, for the price of 750ml of these maiden vintage Le Ludes (I see, for example, Roederer Vintage wines locally for under R1000). Personally, as a bubbly agnostic, I find most champagne overpriced (again, I enjoy it moderately when someone else is paying); so I have to say that, coupled with some opaque labelling and marketing, I think Le Lude is pushing their luck very hard – admirable though the wines undoubtedly are.
The non-vintage Le Ludes (Brut and Rosé) are undoubtedly better value – also fine wines, at under R200. But for bubbly geeks with lots of money and not convinced that champagne has to be best (are there any?), Le Lude has plenty to offer, if you can work out what is what.