The Institute of Masters of Wine recently did its annual gigantic Champagne tasting in New York (with San Francisco coming up) for the wine press and trade. What was pleasantly surprising to me about the event was the number of grower-producer Champagnes available for tasting--43 percent, 45 of the 105 Champagnes (from 24 growers ) were grower-producer Champagnes.
Grower-producer Champagnes--commonly known as Grower Champagnes--are exactly what they sound like: Champagnes that are made by the estate that actually grows the grapes. Grower Champagnes make up just a small segment of all Champagnes produced; 71 percent of Champagne is still made by négociant houses, especially such large houses as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
Grower Champagnes do get plenty of attention in the press. The whole idea of a grower independently making its own Champagne from the grapes it grows seems a lot more romantic than a huge company buying grapes from many sources and producing a vast amount of branded Champagne. But the reality is that most Grower Champagnes are sold in France; in fact, much of these Champagnes are sold at the grape farmers’ cellar doors. Many French citizens make an annual trip to their favorite grower(s) to buy Champagne and drive off with it in the trunks of their cars.
A few years ago, Grower Champagnes represented less than 3 percent of all Champagne sales in the U.S. They have increased a bit, but they still account for no more than 4 percent here, and even less than that in most other countries.
Grower Champagnes will probably never enjoy the remarkable success of their neighbors to the south of the Champagne region: Grower Burgundies. Before World War II, large négociant Burgundy companies such as Bouchard Pére et Fils, Maisons Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot were practically the only games in town, with a handful of Burgundy grape growers selling their own wines. Today, although a few négociant Burgundy houses are still doing fine selling wines, a majority of Burgundies are sold by the Burgundy growers themselves.
Producing Champagne is more complex. You not only have to own more equipment to make Champagne, but you also must have access to huge storage facilities for long aging of the wines--which large Champagne négociants have. But few grape farmers possess the space or financial capacity to store their Champagnes. Few growers also make enough Champagne to ship around the world to the major markets. It ‘s a lot easier for them to sell their Champagne in France.
For several reasons, I do enjoy drinking grower Champagnes. First of all, grower Champagnes usually express their own terroir--often from a single vineyard or from a small patch of land--much more than négociant Champagnes do. The latter by necessity are made from a blend of many vineyards and areas--often 50 or more wines are blended into the typical non-vintage négociant Champagne. How can such a Champagne reflect its terroir?
Secondly--and this is a huge reason for me--grower Champagnes are generally dryer than négociant Champagnes. Most use a very low dosage of sugar; many are Extra Brut (six grams per liter or less) and quite a few are even Brut Zero (3 grams to no dosage). It is true that some négociant Champagne houses such as Ayala are beginning to make Brut Zero and lower dosage Champagnes. I welcome this trend; my major complaint about many négociant Champagnes has been that their so-called Brut Champagnes in the past have used too high a dosage (up to 15 grams per liter) and have just been too sweet. But the rules have recently changed and brut Champagnes must now contain a dosage of no more than 12 grams; good news!
A third reason I enjoy grower Champagnes is their clean, direct statement of flavors, based, I believe, on the fact that they do not constitute such a huge blend of wines from multiple vineyards, as most NV négociant Champagnes.
There is one problem with many grower Champagnes, however. Because they are generally not aged as long as négociant Champagnes (due to the financial and spatial resources needed), grower Champagnes sometimes taste a bit “green” and tight when you buy them; this is compounded by their dryness. Ideally, you should age them for a year or more before you drink them. This problem of green flavors is more typically found in the smaller growers. Large growers such as Pierre Gimonnet, Gaston Chiquet, and René Geoffroy seem to be able to avoid the greenness, possibly by aging their Champagnes longer.
Some facts about Grower-producers: About 25 percent of them (a little bit fewer than 5,000 of the 19,000+ growers) label their own Champagnes. Of that 5,000, only about 2,000 actually make their own Champagnes; the rest process their wine their wine through a local cooperative where their Champagne is made for them and labeled with their own name. Seventy-five percent of growers continue to sell all of their grapes to négociant houses and/or cooperatives.
How can you tell that a Champagne is a grower-producer’s? By the initials on the bottom of the label. The initials “RM” on the label indicates that this is one of the 2,000+ growers who make their own Champagnes under their own labels and sell it themselves. The initials “RC” indicates that this is one of the 3,000+ growers who sell Champagne under their own labels, but through a cooperative, where it is made for them. The far-more common initials “NM” indicate that this is a Champagne from a négociant house, most of whom buy a majority of their grapes from growers.
The growers you will find most frequently on restaurant wine lists are the 30 or so growers, such as Pierre Gimonnet, who produce 80,000 or more bottles of Champagne annually.
A little over ten years ago, when I wrote Champagne for Dummies, I could find only about 20 Grower Champagnes in the East Coast of the U.S. That figure increased dramatically in a few years; by 2003, 130 grower Champagnes (of the over 3700 available in France) were selling in the U.S. Today, I would estimate that over 200 grower-producer Champagnes are now for sale in the U.S.--but not in every market. New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are among the best markets to find grower Champagnes.
I am recommending some of my favorite grower Champagnes here, the ones that I have had the most first-hand experience with. Some might be difficult to find; I suggest that you seek out boutique wine shops that carry a good selection of Champagnes. I have found that Winesearcher.com is a good source to find the names of wine shops that carry various wines and Champagnes, along with their retail prices. A large number of grower-producers exist on the Côte des Blancs, where they make blanc de blancs Champagnes, made exclusively from Chardonnay. This group generally produces some of the finest grower Champagnes, at least for my palate.
I always start my grower Champagne recommendations with two imported by Kermit Lynch (Berkeley, CA): Paul Bara and J. Lassalle, both are two of the larger producers. Paul Bara, located in Bouzy on the Montagne de Reims, is one of the first growers to make his own Champagnes, dating back to the 1920s. Bara’s Champagnes use only Grand Cru grapes from Bouzy, all Pinot Noir-dominated, powerful and intense, and age very well. J. Lassalle (in Chigny-les-Roses, Montagne de Reims) is unique in Champagne in that it is run by a mother-daughter team. Even though Lassalle is located in the heart of Pinot Noir land, it makes an excellent blanc de blancs. Its best Champagne is probably its vintage Special Club (60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir).
Henri Billiot (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims) is a fairly small but excellent grower Champagne to seek out. Billiot’s all Grand Cru Champagnes, with both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are very concentrated and benefit with a few years of aging. Look especially for Billiot’s Cuvée Laetitia.
As grower-producers go, Guy Charlemagne (Les Mesnil-surOger, Côte des Blancs) is one of the largest, making 10,000 cases annually. Charlemagne produces Grand Cru blanc de blancs Champagnes from one of Champagne’s premier villages, and at very reasonable prices.
Pierre Gimonnet (Cuis, Côte des Blancs) and Gaston Chiquet (Dizy, Vallée de la Marne) are two of the largest growers, with 16,500 and 12,500 cases produced annually. Gimonnet’s well-priced blanc de blancs Champagnes are generally available in many parts of the U.S. Chiquet makes an unusual and very good Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ, the only blanc de blancs made from the Pinot Noir-dominated village of Aÿ.
Diebolt-Vallois (Cramant, Côte des Blancs) makes some of the very best Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagnes around, from old vines, all from the great village of Cramant. Try its Brut Prestige. Diebolt-Vallois is mainly available in New York, New Jersey, and California.
Egly-Ouriet (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims) has a strong following in the U.S. for good reason; it’s definitely one of the great grower Champagnes. Egly-Ouriet makes powerful, Pinot Noir-dominated Grand Cru Champagnes, a fine Blanc de Noirs, and a Brut Zero Champagne.
René Geoffroy (Cumieres,Vallée de la Marne), with 9,000 cases annually, is one of the larger growers. René Geoffroy, grape growers since the 1600s, has a strong presence in the U.S.
Larmandier-Bernier (Vertus, Côte des Blancs) makes excellent blanc de blancs Champagnes, especially its Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes (old vines) de Cramant Blanc de Blancs, one of the best blanc de blancs Champagne available today, and a fraction of the cost of Krug’s great Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs.
Pierre Peters (Les Mesnil-surOger, Côte des Blancs) and Alain Robert (same village) are two of the Côte des Blancs’ star producers. Pierre Peters, producing 12,500 cases annually, now can be found quite readily in the U.S. Peters’ Blanc de Blancs, made from old vines, have been compared to those of Salon, but at less than half of Salon’s prices. Robert’s old vines blanc de blancs are big, full, and rich, typical Les Mesnil Champagnes, but are not inexpensive.
Jacques Selosse (Avize, Côte des Blancs) is another super-star among grower-producers. It is a small producer, 3,300 cases annually. Selosse’s Champagnes are extremely difficult to find and expensive. Anselme Selosse, the winemaker, ages his Champagnes in new oak, a controversial topic. I must confess that I’ve never tasted mature Selosse Champagnes, which some critics swear by. His younger Champagnes are too oaky for my taste, but that’s me. You might like them.
Vilmart & Cie (Rilly-la-Montagne, Montagne de Reims), a small producer in a Pinot Noir-dominated area, happens to own some excellent Chardonnay vineyards, and his best Champagnes are Chardonnay-dominated, including his star, Coeur de Cuvée—3/4 Chardonnay,1/4 Pinot Noir.
Other Champagnes whose wines I own and recommend are those of Agrapart, Jean Milan, Jean Lallement, Camille Savés, José Michel, and André Clouet.
Some grower Champagnes that I tasted at the Masters of Wine Champagne event and recommend include the following:
• Champagne Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Cuvée Oenophile” 2004 Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne Pehu-Simonnet “Transparence” NV Extra Brut
• Champagne L. Aubry Fils NV Brut
• Champagne René Geoffroy “ Cuvée Expression” NV Brut
• Champagne Marc Hébrart “Selection” NV Brut
• Champagne Laherte “Les Clos 10” NV Brut
• Champagne Lallement NV Brut
• Champagne A. Margaine “Cuvée Traditionelle” NV Brut
• Champagne Moussé Fils Noire Réserve NV Brut
• Champagne Hubert Paulet “Cuvée Riseus” NV Brut 1er Cru
• Champagne Chartogne-Taillet “ Cuvée Ste.-Anne” NV Brut
• Champagne Vilmart & Cie “Cuvée Grand Cellier” NV Brut
• Champagne Pierre Peters “Cuvée de Réserve NV Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne Varnier- Fannière “Cuvée Saint-Denis” NV Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne José Dhondt 2006 Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne Moineaux 2004 Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne Vazart-Coquart “Grand Bouquet” 2004 Brut Blanc de Blancs
• Champagne Henri Goutorbe “Cuvée Special Club” 2004 Brut
If you have not tried grower Champagnes yet, perhaps because of lack of familiarity with the names, I urge you to try some of the Champagnes I have recommended in this column. I do not think that you will be disappointed.