The House of Pommery has not always seen plain sailing.
Founded in the 1850s, when Alexandre-Louis Pommery left an early retirement from the textile industry to join with Narcisse Greno. It seems his wife’s unexpected pregnancy had convinced Alexandre-Louis that the family coffers needed restocking. Sadly, he would not have much of a chance, passing away a year or two later.
His wife, Alexandrine Louise Pommery, decided to step in, apparently a surprise to all given her lack of experience in business, let alone the champagne industry. Especially so, given she also had to look after her two children, a 17-year-old Louis and an 18-month-old Louise (this is not a family that is wildly imaginative when it comes to names), but she was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
It is believed that one of her first decisions was to shepherd the House away from the light reds which many think it was making at the time and to start producing champagne, as we know it (only a lot sweeter than we know it). She would later push for her growers to leave the grapes on the vines far longer, reducing the need for the addition of sugar and ensuring a product of a far higher quality.
Madame Pommery had the great foresight to purchase extensive vineyards and also to construct their amazing cellars, still crucial today. She also oversaw an eight-year project to construct the famous Pommery house, designed by the Madame herself. The house was opened in 1878, the year before her daughter Louise married Prince Guy de Polignac. Local legends suggest that the prince’s ancestors would walk the neighbouring hills with a certain wizard, known as Merlin.
Perhaps most famously, Madame Pommery led the charge for drier champagne, for her English clients. The wine was the 1874 Pommery and it was even immortalized in song, the “Ode to Pommery 1874”. The level of sugar was reduced from around 150 grams/liter to just 30 (most standard NVs sit around the 7 to 12 grams/liter mark these days), so it was still much sweeter than we drink. It changed champagne as they knew it.
When she passed in 1890, Madame Pommery became the first woman to receive a French state funeral – 20,000 people in attendance and the French President paying her the ultimate compliment of changing the name of the village in which she lived, Chigny, to Chigny-les-Roses, to acknowledge her adoration of those flowers.
The House of Pommery was largely pillaged, losing precious vineyard assets (some 300 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards and around 450 hectares overall), some years ago when Houses were being swapped about like baseball cards. Many thought that the House would disappear, as others have done. Fortunately, the Vranken family stepped in and the House is on its way to reviving former glories.
At the forefront of this is their prestige Champagne, ‘Louise’. There are three versions – Extra Brut, Rose and Brut Nature (a version of the Extra Brut, but without any dosage). All current releases are from the 2004 vintage. The first vintage of Louise was created by Prince Alain de Polignac (descendent of Merlin’s friend), the 1979 vintage. A fitting and wonderful tribute to a woman who achieved so much.
The 2004s were made by long-term chef du cave, Thierry Gasco. He retired in 2017. The tenth cellar master is Clement Pierlot.
Pommery Louise Nature 2004 is the first sans dosage wine (meaning no sweetness from dosage – a bone-dry style) that Pommery has offered, although technically apparently the 1990 Louise was also a no-dosage style, as that suited the wine at the time, but it was never promoted as such. This wine is entirely sourced from Grand Cru vineyards. $329. It is an intense style with fresh floral notes, spices, oyster shell touches and lemon. Impressive finesse. The intensity was evident throughout and sits well with the freshness of the acidity. The texture is supple and the finish very long, with the merest hint of a smoky flinty note. An exceptional sans dosage style. 95.
For me, the Extra Brut is even better than the Nature. A blend of around two-thirds Chardonnay from Cramant and Avize and one-third Pinot Noir from Ay (the blend is typically more like 60/40), same as the Nature. Fifty-one different plots have contributed; dosage is around 5 grams/liter, and the wine spent more than a decade on lees, building complexity. $269. Immediate oyster shell notes, citrus, lemon and a hint of grapefruit, but also gentle notes in the background of vanilla, toast, and honey. Supple, lovely texture, but the palate fills out (in a slightly superior way to the Nature for me). Fantastic length. 97. Just a brilliant champagne.