If you have had any interest in Champagne, you probably understand that true Champagne is only made from grapes coming from the Champagne region in France. This is a branding technique the French have used for decades to give their sparkling wine notoriety.
What you may not know about Champagne is that nearly 90 percent of it is made from the “big houses,” such as Roederer and Mumm. Because the big houses produce such mass quantities, they have to buy grapes from any number of the 19,000 Champagne growers in France. Sometimes as many as 80 different growers may have grapes in that bottle of Champagne. This has forced the big houses to have a house style that is consistent year after year.
While this consistency is admirable, it lacks what many wine connoisseurs are looking for. It lacks terroir, or a sense of place. Terroir is an all-encompassing term that means the land and natural influences control what the wine tastes like, more so than humans making the wine.
For centuries French wines have championed the concept of terroir in their wines. It is what sets apart the great Burgundies and Bordeaux. Yet, in many cases Champagne has not followed suit, at least not for Champagne in the affordable price range.
For those looking for a sense of terroir in your Champagne — and don’t want to spend $150-plus — you should give grower Champagne, or “farmer fizz” a try.
Grower champagne is simply sparkling wine made in the Champagne region that is produced by the same estate that owns the vineyards from which the grapes come from. Of the 19,000 growers, only about 25 percent do this and only about 1 percent export to the U.S.
Since these wines are only coming from a single grower, they are able to be more terroir-focused and artisanal in nature. These Champagnes are also typically organically grown and released sooner than the big producers due to the high cost of aging.
While grower Champagnes have become trendy, the marketing budget of these wines are a fraction of the big houses. Subsequently they still represent a small chunk of the overall sparkling wine market.
A common criticism is that grower champagnes have variable quality, especially from vintage to vintage. This is true, but many consider this a strength because the wine truly shows the sense of place and purity of the grape. The large Champagne houses are getting grapes from all over the region, and some may call the mass-produced Champagne non-distinctive. Opinions may vary about the quality of grower Champagne, but I believe many of them are a delight and show the true craftsmanship and special terroir that is evident in Champagne.
If you would like to actually try a grower champagne, look for the initials RM that appear before a number on the wine label. This means Recoltant-Manipulant. Other initials you may see are:
• NM for Negociant-Manipulant: This appears on the large Champagne houses that buy the majority of their grapes.
• RC for Recoltant-Cooperateur: This means a wine is sourced from a single grower, but it is made for him by a co-operative winemaking facility. While the grower grows the grapes, they often have little involvement in the winemaking process.
• SR for Societe de Recoltants: This is company set up by two or more growers who share the winery they use to make the wine. In this process, the growers have significant involvement in the winemaking process.
Sam Kolas is co-owner of Apollo Wine & Spirits. To contribute to Cocktail Hour, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some favorites to try:
Pehu Simonet Grand Cru Brut ($60) made from a Grand-Cru vineyard and tended by four generations. The land is famous for producing “farmer fizz” of power, structure and nobility. It is a deliberate effort that speaks of the local traditions, people and, above all, the land from which it grows.
Gaston Chiquet Tradition 1er Cru ($55) The Chiquet family has been tilling the vineyards since 1746, but started in Champagne in 1919 when two of the brothers started production of Champagne. Thirty-five years later, half the family went on to start Jacquesson. Gaston stayed with the original vineyards and passed it on to his son and two grandchildren, who now run the business. Because of the age of the vines, production is low and quality is high. The family refuses to use the modern high-production clones, preferring the classic methods. He also does not use oak aging, as he feels the land already gives the wine plenty of body. This produces a pure and clean flavor that is not too weighty. “We are not making wines as winemakers,” says Nicolas Chiquet. “We are adapting our methods to the land.”