In the vast world of sparkling wine, one name stands out above the rest: Champagne. This uniquely French product (remember that unless it’s produced in the Champagne region of northern France, it can’t be called Champagne) always conjures memories of celebrations and conviviality. Whether you enjoy the less costly non-vintage versions from Moet Chandon, Roederer or the various Heidsieck houses, or whether you are willing to sacrifice the mortgage for Salon Clos du Mesnil, Dom Perignon or Crystal, Champagne always makes the dreary bearable and makes good, great.
And why do we prefer one house over the next? Consistency. We can always depend on that brioche and baked fruit tarte of Krug, or that perfume and finesse of Perrier Jouet, or that strength and balance in Dom Perignon. But there’s another seldom seen side of the world of Champagne: the small grower-producer Champagnes.
All Champagne (and all other sparkling wine) starts life like any other wine, in the field as grapes. As in the case of still wines, the grapes are first crushed, then the resulting juice is fermented, producing rudimentary still wine as we know it. Champagne is unique in that this still wine is then bottled with additional yeast and sugar for a secondary fermentation that occurs in the bottle. This secondary fermentation gives Champagne its effervescence and the additional aging on the expended yeast adds another layer of complexity to the finished Champagne.
In the States, we’re accustomed to wineries growing their own grapes either by eventually purchasing vineyard land or signing exclusive contracts with growers for specific vineyard areas just for their use. Still wines in France are no different, with most chateaus growing their own grapes with a process controlled from grape growing to wine bottling.
The large Champagne houses, however, rarely grow their own grapes. Imagine Moet Chandon, which produces 1 to 2 million cases of Champagne annually, growing their own grapes. That would require vast amounts of real estate and the labor that grape growing entails. So how do they do it? By either purchasing grapes from a multitude of growers or in some cases purchasing still wines from primary producers, then blending wine from 70 to 80 different sources for that consistent house taste.
The Recoltant-Manipulant is the Champagne producer that grows the grapes, ferments the initial run of juice, then performs the secondary fermentation in the bottle which eventually produces that nectar known as Champagne. The big difference between the Moets and the little guys is the involvement from start to finish. But what is the actual difference? Since the grower-producers depend just on their own production of grapes, their product will usually have some degree of terroir or uniqueness of soil. And since growing conditions vary from year to year, the end product will vary more than you’ll see in the large Champagne houses.
But you like consistency. I understand. If I could experience that 1996 Noel Verset Cornas after 12 years of bottle aging, or that 1985 Conterno Barolo after 15 years of aging, I would like that experience with every bottle I tried. And while Veuve Cliquot makes a consistently good product, I do enjoy the nuances of difference every vintage produces. This is what you see with grower-producer Champagnes.
One potential benefit of exploring the world of grower-producer Champagnes — other than enjoying a product made like most of the wines of the world — is purely economic. Because prices are based on the usual supply-and-demand theory of economics, grower-producer Champagnes aren’t in as great a demand as those from large houses, mainly because most consumers just don’t know anything about them. Therefore prices are usually a lot lower than the large Champagne houses. A grower-producer’s tete de cuvee or high-end bottling is usually in the same price range as non-vintage Veuve Cliquot. Given the same or better quality and the lower price, I say purchase as much as you can store.
Here is a sampling of a recent grower-producer Champagne tasting held at Vino. The first commentary is taken from either Burghound or Robert Parker. The second set of commentary humbly comes from yours truly.
Philipponnat “Royal BrutReserve”
A pretty, fresh, round, supple style of bubbly with great delicacies. This cuvee is blended from 25 different Crus, mainly Pinot Noir from just south of Montagne de Reims with a small amount of Chardonnay and a dollop of Pinot Meunier. (90 points, Burghound)
With a Chardonnay-like color and a nose of honeyed orange and orange peel with slight mineral notes. Nice richness on the palate with good Pinot character and a long finish. (4/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
Jose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs “Grand Cru”
A terrific “grower” Champagne… 100 percent Grand Chardonnay from the village of Oger in the Cote de Blancs. The most frequent descriptors one hears of this fantastic find… uplifting, pure, sublime, classy, pedigreed. (92 points, Robert Parker)
Straw color with loads of mineral and honeyed citrus on the nose. Concentrated but not heavy on the palate with a seamless flow and a long finish (3.75/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
Pehu Simonet Brut “Grand Cru”
Another STELLAR artisan, handcrafted, “grower” Champagne. Frequent descriptors… malty, meso terroir, firm and savory, sumptuous. (90 points, Robert Parker)
Mineral, lime and white flowers on the nose with honeyed citrus on the palate with good Pinot character. A seamless flow over the palate with a very long finish. (4.5/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
Henri Billiot Rose “Grand Cru”
One of our absolute favorite artisan “grower” Rose Champagnes. Only five hectares of Grand Cru holdings, so the quantities are miniscule. Frequent descriptors include billowing fruit, lacy length, sheer loveliness, superb grip and solidity, tiny bubbles. (92 points, Robert Parker)
Stone, underbrush and orange peel on the nose with a burst of citrus peel on the palate then stone and fruit concentration. Nice flow with a long finish. (4/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
Our tasting group also sampled a couple of other grower-producer Champagnes, including:
J. Lassalle Brut Rose“Premier Cru”
Mineral and red fruit on the nose with a moderate concentration on the palate and a very long finish. (4/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
1998 Michel Dervin Brut
Loads of herb on the nose with moderate fruit concentration with dried red fruit and orange peel and loads of Pinot character with a long finish. (4/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
Jacques Selosse Blanc de Blancs Initial “Grand Cru”
Citrus followed by brioche and spice on the nose with a good concentration on the palate. Rich but also with a nice flow over the palate and a very long finish. (4.5/5, Gochiso Gourmet)
You might notice that these Champagne are designated as “Grand Cru” or “Premier Cru” as you might expect to find in Burgundy. That designation indicates that the grapes are first or second level quality grapes and aren’t simply from designated vineyard areas like the grapes used by the large Champagne houses. And it’s usually the case that great grapes make great wines, which in turn makes great Champagne. Try some grower-producer Champagne and you won’t be disappointed. A votre santé!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawaii and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.