December 08, 2022

Daniel Le Brun, New Zealand's Master of Sparkling Wine

Cameron Douglas MS writes...

Spend just five minutes with Daniel Le Brun and I guarantee you’ll want to spend five hundred more. Daniel has a wealth of knowledge about wine, he is a Methode Traditionnelle wine genius, knows Marlborough like the back of his hand, and he is a modern wine pioneer of Marlborough and New Zealand. Most importantly though, Daniel is a family man.

Daniel’s formative years were in Epernay, Champagne, he grew up post WW2 in the 40s and 50s, he recalled a strict upbringing with his brother and sister, “my parents had to be thrifty, they taught us to be respectful and if you worked hard, you would be rewarded; we were expected to take over the family business”, says Daniel. He recalls doing whatever was expected of him, from pruning and tending the vineyard, to helping his father and grandfather in the winery, learning the ropes from two generations. He doesn’t remember ever going on holiday “it was all work, work, work”, life was working in the vineyard and making wine. Daniel is a twelfth generation Le Brun, the family lineage dates to the 1600s. Today there are four branches of the family that make wine – Champagne Alexandre le Brun in the Monthelon (Marne), Champagne Glavier le Brun near Cramant, Champagne Jorez le Brun in Ludes and No1. Family Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand.

Daniel went to a local primary and secondary school where it seems he was a very good student, suggesting in our interview he was in the top 50% of his classes, but I suspect he was in the top 5%, he enjoyed learning and his recall of facts and history is on point. Daniel also went to wine school in Champagne to learn the theory and practice of making bottle fermented sparkling wine. I asked Daniel about the opportunity to experiment at wine school, test different techniques, some freedom to explore. “There was no room for innovation or experimentation in Champagne and in wine school, the rules were laid down and strictly regulated from how to plant vines, how to prune, when to harvest and make wine.”

Expansion of the vineyard territory in Champagne doesn’t happen very often, but in the early 60s, soon after Daniel graduated, there was such an expansion to meet the growing demand for more grapes. An area to the south was grandfathered into Champagne, around the town of Sézanne. “It was basically a gold rush, everyone knew the land was perfect, chalky ground that was reasonably cheap, and to me that was a bonanza. I said to my father – we’ve got to go there it’s perfect, only 40 km from Epernay.” His dad thought it was too far. A decade later they did buy land there, paying 10x the price they would have paid if they’d bought when Daniel suggested they should invest. Subsequently they could only buy 1.2 hectares. Some years later Daniel’s father admitted he was right. Harvests from this land in the first few years was sold to pay the mortgage and by the late 60s and early 70s Daniel needed to lease additional land to source extra fruit, he knew that to be profitable the family would need more acreage. Sadly, his father did not see it that way, again thinking it should stay the way it was for him, his father, and generations before. This became a time when Daniel and his father would clash more often over the future of the family business. They did complete some renovations to modernise the winery, there was an old press on site dated 1791. Daniel thought it should be replaced with a more modern press, but again his father said no. That old press is still on the property, a show piece now.

Daniel started taking some time out to travel, mostly around Europe. He recalls being in the UK around February 1974 where he met a girl, she invited him to come back to New Zealand with her. “Coming to New Zealand was a revelation, totally different, a different culture and the life there seemed so much easier. I was totally convinced there had to be a better life here than working you’re a**e off in Champagne.” Daniel had decided to make a major change in his life, he returned to France, applied for a visa and in six months he was back in New Zealand, to live.

Daniel says it took him about five years to learn better English and learn about New Zealand. His first job was at Selaks in West Auckland, he earned $50 a week. At the time he was living in Sandringham and even back then he was spending a reasonable amount of gasoline each week to run his Austin Mini to and from work, no motorway back then. While working at Selaks, Daniel recalls one time they were encountering problems with their sparkling wine called Champelle, they weren’t able to get the pressure right inside the bottles. Daniel is giggling a lot in telling me this story “we had to wear protective gear in the cellar, just in case.” Daniel discovered the bottle fill and yeast sugar ratio for the entriellage needed adjusting.

During his time at Selaks Daniel learned that Montana Wines had planted 1500 acres in Marlborough, he was told that it would never work, too cold, but this piqued his curiosity and thought he better go and have a look. His next job though was driving heavy machinery for a firm in south Auckland.

One of Daniel’s hobbies is hunting game, so he decided to move to Rotorua for that purpose, more on that later, but this is where happen to meet a young lady named Adele. The story goes that Daniel’s flat mate worked for the local paper and so did Adele. On one particular occasion, one of Adele’s colleagues needed a partner for an event they were writing about, Adele was going as well and it was mentioned that their co-worker’s flat mate was a Frenchman, he must have a suit and might be available. This event is where Adele and Daniel met, as you might imagine they were rather smitten with each other and started dating. In just three months they were engaged and six months after that were married.

Daniel’s dream to grow grapes and make wine in New Zealand was always in the back of his mind so he and Adele started exploring the north island wine regions. Eventually Daniel did head down to Marlborough to look around, it was 1978. What he found he describes as unbelievable, “the place was in perfect condition that summer, there’s wasn’t a clump of grass anywhere, the place was roasted, they had emptied the land of any livestock, I thought this has to be the place”. He also thought he better check the soil and find out what if the profile was right “there was just a small amount of topsoil then nothing but gravel, fantastic”. Daniel had a plan.

Adele and Daniel needed to stay in Rotorua for a while longer, so Daniel rented a plot of land in Rotorua and started a grape vine nursery, gathering cuttings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. By September 1980 they were ready to buy land in Marlborough. To do this Daniel sold his share of some family land in Champagne to his brother to fund the purchase of 30 acres in Renwick. The architecture and layout of the vineyard is all Daniel’s work, the cuttings he had gathered the previous season planted 18 acres. With additional cuttings from Nelson, he started another on site nursery planting the rest of the vineyard the following year. Eventually replanting the Pinots Noir and Meunier for better clones.

Daniel and Adele have two children, Virginie and Rémy, both growing up immersed in the wine business, yet unlike their father there was no expectation to join the family business unless they chose to. Virginie had a successful television and stage career while Remy pursued film and sports fitness studies. Some years later Virginie did join the family business and is now the domestic and international sales director for No1. Family Estate. Rémy also decided to join the business graduating with a degree in viticulture and oenology through the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, an offshoot of Canterbury University.

Adele is the marketing and business development genius in the family, having built two successful brands, Daniel Le Brun and No1. Family Estate. Together Adele and Daniel have built the No1. Family Estate range. When you see and hold any bottle of No1 and notice the detail or admire the packaging, that’s Adele. In 1998 when the production for No1. Family Estate began in earnest, they also offered contract processing to other key sparkling wine producers in New Zealand including dégorgement and finishing.

In addition to growing up in a Champagne family Daniel also learned to hunt, red deer and wild boar had to be dispatched to protect the vineyards, this was part of farming, this was also intergenerational, Daniel’s first gun was a hand-me-down. It’s a hobby now, Daniel still enjoys hunting travelling New Zealand and overseas when he can, most recently to Africa. In Champagne, even today groups of hunters roam the fields for upland game, and along forest roads for deer & wild boars. When I interviewed Daniel we were in his garage, sipping on a glass of No1 while we chatted, there were no less than a dozen trophies mounted on the walls, local and international, and several pelts from previous targets.

Today, the No1. Family Estate brand is a story of success, but that has come on the back of incredibly hard work by Daniel, Adele and the team they surround themselves with. The wines they produce, in this writer’s opinion, are the best in New Zealand and easily rival other cuvées from around the globe including many from Champagne. The No1 Cuvée Blanc de Blancs, Reserve Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée Virginie, Cuvée Rémy, Assemblé, Rosé and the vintage Cuvée Adele are fantastic wines you should try.