On the Back Bar with David Levasseur

David Levasseur

David Levasseur on family, storytelling, and how Brexit will affect Champagne.

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David Levasseur, Third generation Champagne grower, and producer.

Working in fine dining and luxury hotels, I have often been surrounded by wine and involved in many tastings and training sessions. I used to host wine dinners and have conversations with producers in the many matters that affect the wine world.

But David Levasseur is probably one among a few I count as a friend. David runs a small family-owned vineyard in the glorious region of Champagne, producing around 30,000 bottles a year.

Back in 2018, I took a tour across France to make the grand journey of Bordeaux to Paris, Stopping at Cognac and Champagne on the way. Needless to say, it was a fantastic experience from eating dinner at Chateau Bagnolet, Hennessey’s private mansion to exploring the catacombs of house Taittinger.

One-stop on the way was to meet David and have a tour of his vineyard and cellar. It was a relief to be out in the countryside of Epernay, to see his family-run production. The story of Champagne Levasseur is one of quality and family. His two most recent Cuvee releases, the Blanc de Terroir, and Noir de Terroir were released in celebration of his children being born.

Here are a few highlights of our podcast:

I’m going to try to continue to have this type of relationship with my importer, the quality of my Champagne. The quality of the vines, organic certification, and all the things like that. And try to be my best. That’s my goal.”  

Obviously, it’s not Bollinger. Everybody knows Bollinger. So, when your small grower, you have to have something typical. It means your Champagne has to have something different. And you have to, I think, you have to work more maybe, than the other” (9:00)

Japan, it’s a big market. I have a good importer in Tokyo. And he wanted to have something to match with Japanese food. They say umami, something like that, in Japan. So we tried different dosage together on my Rue du Sorbier.” (13:30)

So we had the guy from the director of Bollinger and the director of Nicola for Yachts, Comparative. And it was very interesting because we have a different point of view of the champagne, and the sparkling, and the Brexit.” (17:00)

But I speak for all the growers in Champagne, it’s a huge market. Obviously, we are a bit scared, because actually, we don’t know what’s going on.” (19:40)

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Full Transcript 

Christopher:  David, thank you for joining us today On The Back Bar. How have you been?

David: No problem Chris. I’m good. I’m good. Champagne. Yeah, it’s a good time after harvest, it’s a bit quiet at the moment, so that’s perfect.

Christopher: And you’ve just finished the harvest, right? How was it this year compared to last?

David: Yeah, so this year it was absolutely crazy. Honestly, a really good, really good harvest, good quality, good quantity and the finishing, it just few days before the harvest. Honestly, I’m waiting for something. But not a question of quality but a question of quantity. And we had a good surprise actually. Maybe I think a lot of vine grower made a mistake, with the estimation of the quantity.

Christopher:  Right. So have you had any trouble with the recent changes in climate? For instance, was there a bigger frost this year or anything?

[04:24]

David:  Yeah, definitely. Yeah. Yeah. First of all end of April it was really good, and we had the bad frost. Depends on, of course of the vines, the situation of the vine, it depends on the area. But yeah, I had the big vines, I lost maybe 60, 70%.

Christopher: Wow. That’s a lot. Okay.

David: Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s a lot. And fortunately, it was just a part of my vines, but it was something like 40, 45, and I have 4.28 hectares, so it means a good 10%. So not a good beginning.

Christopher:  No, not at all. So I know you quite well from previously working with you in England. And your family-owned champagne house, 4.2 hectares. Can you tell us a bit more about the history of David Levasseur Champagne?

David: Yeah, sure, sure. So I’m the third generation actually, my granddad started the business during the forties. And at that time, it was really, really tiny vines and it was more like a garden, not a real job. So my granddad had another job, in order to complete the salary. At that moment, he could not sell bottles, just he sold grapes to the big company. And after, during the 60s, my dad started the vines, continued the business of my grandfather and increased the business. It was a real job of course. And it begins to sell directly, bottles to clients. I think in ‘92, it was the beginning of my job, so, time flies now.

Christopher:  Yeah, sure. How many bottles are you producing a year at the moment?

David: Thirty-five thousand.

[06:58]

Christopher:  Thirty-five thousand, I mean, that’s tiny really, when you think about it. And I know you’re quite selective with who you choose to sell your champagne, right? In the UK, how many people have a hold of the champagne right now?

David:  Okay. Actually, it’s true, thirty-five thousand, t’s not a lot. It’s a lot for me, but it’s not a lot for big business. But it’s a bit different in champagne, it’s because we can say, and I like to say, I’m a small grower. But I’m a bit different, because I’m able to sell all my products directly to my clients. So it means I’m lucky, because I can choose my client. And it’s my philosophy, that when I’m happy with one importer, in a country, I’m not looking for another importer in the same country. So it means I have just one importer in London, and not looking for another one. So it’s very exclusive.

[08:14]

Christopher: And for the purpose of this, it’s still Red Squirrel that you import?

David: Actually, Red Squirrel changed a little bit. The name in English, it’s an association with another importer.

Christopher: Right. Okay.

David:  And they found a new name, they formed a new company. It’s Graft Wines.

Christopher:  Graft Wines. So it’s good to know. So you’re obviously like a small producer, around some big houses. What are some of the troubles or I would say some of the challenges of being a small producer in champagne?

David: That’s a good question. Very complicated. The only problem when you are a small grower. Obviously, it’s not Bollinger. Everybody knows Bollinger. So, when your small grower, you have to have something typical. It means your Champagne has to have something different. And you have to, I think, you have to work more maybe, than the other. It means you have to have a good wine. You have to have something different. You have to have a good packaging. And you have to have a good philosophy, which is exactly the same, as your wine, and your label. With new wine, it’s package.

Christopher: Right, Sure. So it’s the whole thing. There has to be a story.

David:  Exactly. And the real story, that’s important.

[10:03]

Christopher: Yeah, I do like the packaging you have. The bottles are really lovely. And I know one of the things is, there are illustrations, a different one on each bottle. Right? Can you tell us a bit more about that?

David: Yeah, sure. Two years ago, I decided to change my marketing company, to have a real, actually, marketing company. And it’s because I know my wine was good, but it was difficult for me to export my wine. And I knew it was because of my labels. So this is why I decided to change my marketing company. And with the new marketing company, we have a good beginning. It means, first of all, they said before working together, we have to taste your wine. And for me, just to make your label without tasting wines, it’s not working.

Christopher: Okay, I understand.

David: So I say, okay, it’s a good approach. I like that. And so, they taste the wine, and after they asked me what I would like for my label, and I said I would like something very simple. A good, what you said drawing?

Christopher: Yeah, illustration.

David: Yeah. The good illustration, black and white. And I want nearly the same label, I prefer my client discover a different taste, but not a different label, if you know what I mean. And they say, okay, why not? It’s good. So they found a good illustrator in-house. He is a bit famous. He’s Mr. Schmidt and he’s very precise and he’s a funny guy, actually. So he drew a circle for me, with all my life inside. It means, the tree for example, we say salt in French and you put it to trunk because I have twins, like details like that. And after, in this drawing, he puts a few details of my aroma in my champagne. For example, for the Rosé, you can find a strawberry jam, with a little spoon. You can find nuts, for example, with my Brut Nature because we have the same aroma. And a lot of details like that, on the… and so, that was the base of my packaging. And we used this circle, and after we picked a few details and put it on the labels,

[13:13]

Christopher: I love that. So it’s actually part of a whole piece and it’s very personal too. That’s great. Let’s let’s talk about some of the bottles that you actually produce. Am I right, there’s four or five in total?

David: Oh, it’s actually eight.

Christopher: Actually eight. Wow. Okay. [laughtter] Fantastic.

David: Yeah. But after, with different dosage and there’s a special Cuvee for Japan.

Christopher: Okay. Oh, okay. Interesting. So how did that come about, the Japan Cuvee?

David:  Japan, it’s a big market. I have a good importer in Tokyo. And he wanted to have something to match with Japanese food. They say umami, something like that, in Japan. So we tried different dosage together on my Rue du Sorbier. Yeah. That’s my basic Champagne. But he wanted another dosage, something sweet, but not too sweet. So we try different dosage, and he decides to have an Extra Brut. So not an extra, I’m sorry. It’s, what’s… I have to find it, sorry. It’s 17 grams Per litres, so it’s Extra Dry.

Christopher: Right, Okay.

David:  Yeah. 17 grams per liter. So it means, a little bit sweeter than the Brut, because my Brut is nine grams, and in comparison with my Demi Sec. 34 grams per litre.

Christopher: Right. And you also have a blanc de blanc and blanc de noir, however you’ve called them Blanc de Terroir?

David: Yes.

[15:19]

Christopher:  And Noir de Terroir, sorry about my pronunciation.

David: No, it’s all right.

Christopher: Well, what is the story behind the names there?

David: 2011, I decided to create two new Cuvee because I have my twins in 2011, so I wanted something special for them. And so I’ve decided to make this bottle in 2011. So I want it because I have a boy and a girl, so I wanted something very different. I don’t know, the boy and the girl you know, up to you at night. So that was the beginning. And it’s very interesting. It’s, 100% of chardonnay. It’s Extra Brut fragrance. And we had a big success with this Cuvee, so this is why I’ve decided to continue this Cuvee and it’s still on my list.

Christopher: That’s fantastic. Okay. I also see you’ve got the Ratafia, which I really love by the way. And I use this in cocktails, and it’s just, it’s delicious. And it’s not that known, yet. I feel it’s not quite hit the market sales of the, other bottles, but Ratafia is great.

David: Yeah, it’s good. In champagne, you know, it’s famous.

Christopher: Right. Yeah.

David:  It works in all winter. It works really well. With friends for example!

[16:56]

Christopher:  So it’d be good to talk about sort of, a bit about the worldwide phenomenon going on right now with English sparkling wine and Prosecco, sort of taking over the market a bit. What are your thoughts on this? I mean, English sparkling wine has really exploded. And you’ve got people like Rich Few and Night Timber sort of leading the charge. Do you think it’s going to carry on like that? Is champagne sort of stepping back a bit too much?

David: Interesting. Interesting. Actually, at the moment there is a Sparkling Wine Fair in Epernay. And, yesterday I had a meeting about that, but the Brexit and that’s the difference sparkling in the world. So we had the guy from the director of Bollinger and the director of Nicola for Yachts, Comparative. And it was very interesting because we have a different point of view of the champagne, and the sparkling, and the Brexit. So, we are not jealous. It’s not a competition between champagne and sparkling. It’s two different wines. I like to say nobody compares red Bordeaux and red Burgundy. Because it’s red. It’s red wine. But when there’s bubble and it’s white, there’s always comparison with sparking and champagne. You can find a very good sparking everywhere in the world, and you can find a really good Champagne in the world, but it’s not the same wine. We spoke about climate, we spoke about the terroir. We spoke about the rules to make wines. There’s such a huge difference, and it changes everything. And the good thing for me when people taste, bubbles, even if it’s a cover Prosecco or English sparkling, they taste bubbles. It means, it’s a habit to drink a white one with bubbles. So it means it’s good for champagne too.

[19:24]

Christopher: Yeah. Fantastic. I do like where you stand on this. You mentioned Brexit, and as an Englishman, I’m crying about the whole situation.

David: I’m sure.

Christopher: Is this gonna affect you, going forward?

David: Yeah.

Christopher: It will?

David: Definitely, the English market’s a huge market. I’m not speaking about, it’s big market for me too. But I speak for all the growers in Champagne, it’s a huge market. Obviously, we are a bit scared, because actually, we don’t know what’s going on.

Christopher: I don’t think anyone does.

David: I think in England, it’s the same problem. And so we can see, for example, all the importer had a huge, huge, huge stock of champagne at the moment in England, before the Brexit, just in case.

[20:14]

Christopher: Well, we’ll see what happens. I think it’s October the 19th, is sort of the deadline to get out.

David: Yeah. True. You all ready called it.

Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. Great. So carrying on, what’s the future plans for David Levasseur? Any fantastic going on or something in the works?

David:  Ha, ha. We never know. Never say never. You never know. [laughter] I don’t know. I to be happy, first of all. [laughter] That’s my goal. No, I don’t want to increase my business, honestly.

Christopher: Sure.

David: I’m not like that. Sometimes, when you’re happy, you have to say, I’m happy. Stop. It’s alright.

Christopher: Absolutely.

David: Honestly, it’s not my goal to be a huge producer of champagne, and the renown, and blah blah. No, it’s not my style. No, I’m, I feel like I am… Obviously, I’m going to try to continue to have this type of relationship with my importer, the quality of my Champagne. The quality of the vines, organic certification, and all the things like that. And try to be my best. That’s my goal.

Christopher: That’s great. I think your focus on quality is very important. Massively so. And it is a great Champagne.

David: It is.

Christopher: I mean it’s one of my favorites.

David: Thank you.

Christopher: And this is coming from somebody who drinks a lot of Champagne too!

David: Thank you.

[21:50]

Christopher: No, it’s great man. Really. And honestly good luck for everything that happens in the future.

David: Yeah, thank you very much.


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