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Grower Champagnes

10 Dec

By Sharon Kapnick

They don’t have familiar names like the Big Brands. But they do have lots of charm, personality and character. They are–ta-da!–grower Champagnes. Unlike the prestigious Champagnes with household names, they’re made in limited quantities using grapes from choice, small vineyards that are lavished with individual attention.

These handcrafted, artisan Champagnes aren’t meant to taste the same year after year. They’re created by small growers who prize “individually distinctive flavors,” writes importer Terry Theise. That’s partly why growers are now making wines of their own instead of just selling grapes to the Big Houses (aka the Grandes Marques) like Veuve Clicquot or Taittinger.

The growers like to capture the terroir--the unique flavors derived at specific parcels of land–that is often blended away by the Big Brands, which instead strive to maintain a consistent house style. They prefer to keep their wines original and are less bound by convention. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, for example, are the usual grapes used in Champagnes; but Moutard Père & Fils and L. Aubry Fils also use Pinot Blanc and/or the obscure grapes Fromenteau (aka Pinot Gris), Arbanne and Petit Meslier in some of their Champagnes. (These grapes were common in Champagne centuries ago; today these seven grapes are the only ones still allowed in Champagne.) Fleury Père & Fils has adopted organic and biodynamic growing methods, which it claims open “the soil and vines to cosmic influences.”

Grower Champagnes have been arriving on U.S. shores in discernible numbers since the mid-’90s. According to the Comité Champagne (CIVC), the trade association of independent Champagne producers and houses, the volume of grower Champagne shipments to the U.S. is, well, growing. In 2012 it comprised 4.2% of total volume, up from 3.8% in 2010 and 2011. They’ve caught on with sophisticated Champagne lovers in part because, as Theise writes, “it’s nicer to buy Champagne from families [rather] than from factories.”

Savvy sommeliers adore these Champagnes, which appear on many top restaurant wine lists. They bring cachet to the lists. Jacob Daugherty, sommelier at David Bouley’s cutting-edge kaiseki restaurant in New York City, said Brushstroke’s list sticks to  grower Champagnes. There’s not a Grande Marque to be found.  Paul Grieco, co-owner of the Terroir wine bars and Hearth restaurant in New York City, said, “The public’s thirst for uniquely great products allows the smaller estates to flourish. They add luster to the polished sheen the Champagne region already wears.”

All this is available at excellent prices, usually no more, and often less, than famous-label Champagnes. Daugherty said, for example, that the highly respected Vilmart grower Champagnes offer 90% of the quality of the famed Krug at one-fourth the price. Robert Rogness, co-owner of Wine Expo in Santa Monica, Calif., which carries an extensive line of grower Champagnes, also touts the good value of these wines. He said, “The best Champagnes cost much less than the most famous Champagnes because the price of fame is so high.”

To identify grower Champagnes, look for RM (récoltant-manipulant, or grower-producer) on the label. Other producers to seek out include Paul Bara, Henri Billiot , Gaston Chiquet, Egly-Ouriet, René Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Larmandier-Bernier, J. Lassalle,  Pierre Peters and Vilmart & Cie.