I met Bernard de Nonancourt (c. 1920 – 29 October 2010), also known as “Big Bernard”, in 2001. The affectionate description is entirely justified. At 1.85 metres, Nonancourt was a towering presence. A bear of a man. Very friendly and smiling. A giant full of charm and genuinely interested in people.
We set off in the morning from Tours-sur-Marne where Champagne Laurent-Perrier is based. The 2001 harvest remains one of the most miserable vintages in Champagne. In fact, I don’t know any house producing a vintage champagne that year. It was raining a fair bit in 2001, and the poor state (including rot) of the grapes that arrived at the press houses was not the stuff of dreams.
In response to regular queries from journalists, sommeliers, collectors, and wine lovers around the world who want to know which particular Grand Siecle is in the bottle, Champagne Laurent-Perrier will start numbering the bottles, beginning with cuvée “24”, a blend of 2007, 2006, and 2004. Launched in Tokyo last May, “24” will be in Hong Kong on 17 September and in Singapore and Shanghai in October 2019. The current – unnumbered – Grand Siecle is comprised of 2006, 2004, and 2002. (Every vintage is repeated in three different Grand Siecle cuvées with the most recent vintage comprising 60% of the blend and the two previous harvests at 20% each).
Nonancourt was, however, warmly greeted wherever he went, including at lunch on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking a sea of vines. He was witty, gregarious, full of humour, and did not just talk about wine. Following lunch, when we got back to the recently launched new Peugeot 607, Nonancourt insisted on taking the wheel again. That set the pulses of his staff racing. Which, incidentally, was how he drove. In spite of 2001 being a poor harvest, the visit was vintage for me.
Bernard de Nonancourt (photographed in 2001), was a member of the French Resistance. The tank commander was the first to capture Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s 1,834-metre hideaway in Bavaria, which included his private wine cellar. Hitler had about 500,000 bottles, including hundreds of cases of Salon 1928.
One of Bernard de Nonancourt’s greatest legacies is Le Grand Siecle. Aficionados and journalists alike regard and acknowledge Laurent-Perrier’s prestige cuvée as one of the greatest expressions of Champagne.
First Launched in 1959
Nature was too unpredictable and unreliable to produce an outstanding Champagne every year.
Created in the 1950s, the thinking behind Le Grand Siecle is as clear – or grey – as a Champagne day. Anyone who has visited Champagne will know how temperamental the weather can be. I remember one time (I have been visiting for more than 30 years), how I drove out of Reims on a shivering day in a shirt and cardigan. Proceeding south, I was peeling off the wardrobe. By the time I reached Montpellier, I was just wearing a T-shirt (and jeans too of course).
Knowing full well the vagaries of the weather and how Champagne can deliver such vast differences from one vintage to the next, Bernard de Nonancourt realised that Nature was too unpredictable and unreliable to produce an outstanding Champagne every year. But what if you were able to choose from not one but three years which complemented each other perfectly?
Michel Fauconnet is Chef de Cave of Laurent-Perrier and – in Le Grand Siècle – the custodian of one of Champagne’s greatest expressions. Behind him are the the stainless steel tanks that hold the reserve wines of Le Grand Siècle, a blend of three complementary vintages. The prestige cuvée comprises about 55% chardonnay and 45% pinot noir from 11 of the 17 Grands Crus of Champagne.
Launched in 1959, the first Le Grand Siecle comprised the vintages of 1952, 1953 and 1955. Each vintage, good enough on its own, was even better with the others. It was a stroke of genius worthy of Harry Potter and his magic wand. Anything that is so satisfying should come double.
As befits the bearing and status of the creator himself, Le Grand Siecle is also available in magnum. After all, Nonancourt once said that “A magnum is the perfect size when the other person is not drinking”.
Comprising around 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir, Grand Siecle is composed of 11 of the 17 Grands Crus of Champagne. These include Ambonnay, Bouzy and Mailly for Pinot Noir; and Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for Chardonnay. The wine spends seven to eight years on lees before disgorgement. And can continue to age and improve considerably in bottle after that.
There is a musical equivalent to Le Grand Siecle.
The three-member group was also launched in 1959, the same year as the Champagne. Each member possessed a beautiful voice. However, when they sang together, their combined vocals achieved a musicality that was sublime. I don’t think it too far-fetched to imagine that Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross had also tasted the very first Le Grand Siecle. And were suitably enthralled by the sparkle. They might even have been inspired by the bubbly when they named themselves The Supremes.