A Champagne epiphany…
The road to discovery in Champagne is long, winding, and full of delightful surprises all along the way. When I first started coming here, no one had ever really heard of “Grower Champagne”. What we knew of Champagne in the US was the big brands – Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Piper-Heidseick, Dom Perignon, and if you were really “in the know”, Krug, Bollinger, and maybe Salon.
Not that some of those aren’t excellent wines, but to me they are officially no longer what Champagne is all about. We have importer-par-excellence Thierry Thiese to thank for first bringing to our attention that there is something other than industrially-produced wine made here, and that these small farmers bottling their own wines are in fact what Champagne is all about.
The stats I’ve seen say there are over 5,000 registered Récoltant-Manipulants (“R-M”) in Champagne – meaning people who grow their own grapes and produce wines from only their own grapes. These 5,000+ RMs own over 85% of the vineyard land in Champagne, yet they produce only about 12% of the wine. Obviously they are selling a lot of their fruit to the big houses. That’s all good and fine, but what interests me most is what they’re doing with the fruit they keep to use for themselves. Interesting to say the least – and in some cases fascinating.
Exploring every corner and nook and cranny of Champagne could take you months – it’s ridiculously vast. You can leave Epernay, hop on the Autoroute and drive for an hour and a half, and you’re still in Champagne! Driving around for hours on end, it becomes quite clear how Moët and Clicquot are producing millions and millions of cases. There are grapes EVERYWHERE, and everybody is selling at least some of their fruit to Moët or Clicquot or one of the other industrial giants.
When all of those grapes from parcels scattered over 100 miles or more are combined to make a single non-vintage cuvee – it’s obvious that any possibility of any terroir character in the wines has been fully obliterated. It’s Coca-Cola, just made with a commodity called grapes, rather than water, high-fructose corn syrup and “natural” flavorings. The concept and practice is the same.
At the other end of the scale, we have small, family operations, some with as little as 5 acres of vines, growing grapes and producing wines of great originality, personality, character, quality, and that are at their foundation wines of terroir – an expression of a specific place. This, this is what interests me most. And I believe will likely interest you the most as a consumer – at least if you have any interest in wines that have something to say. (If you don’t, that’s all-right too. That’s why they make vanilla & chocolate…)
Many parallels with Burgundy have emerged with the rise in awareness of Grower Champagne. Small parcels are the norm, rather than large, contiguous vineyards. Keeping grapes from individual villages and individual vineyards separate is now being seen as important. This is the only way that we can see with precision what the mosaic of terroirs of Champagne have to say. Up until recently we’ve been drinking blends that would be the equivalent of mixing Gevrey-Chambertin with Volnay with Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis. Yes, those are all “Burgundy”, but we know that they are extremely different. Now we finally get see the difference between Cumières and Ambonnay and Mésnil-sur-Oger and Rilly-la-Montagne. You’ve been drinking them all for years – but they’ve been mostly conjoined and cajoled into a lowest-common-denominator mush.
We started importing Grower Champagne just five years ago, and in that time the number of producers exporting their wines has more than doubled. The market share in the US has grown at a staggering rate (though it’s still only about 3% of the US Champagne market.) I’m here to taste, learn, search, and discover, and hopefully add to our portfolio some producers that are deserving of your attention. With your help we can shoot for a whopping 4% of the market in the next few years. Who’s with me?
All of this is not to say that all of the Grower Champagne is excellent, or even good. Proportionally, there may actually be more mediocre, flawed, and downright disappointing Grower wines than there are from the big guys. But the good ones are flat-out emotionally thrilling wines – something rarely encountered in the mass-produced model.
Another thing to consider is that many of the most interesting Grower bubblies are made in such tiny quantities that they can be as hard to get a hold of as some of the rarest Grand Cru Burgundies. (There’s that Burgundy similarity again…)
In the months to come, I’ll be introducing you to some of the most exciting wines I’ve ever encountered. It’s too soon, and I’d be speaking out of school to name names at this point – but stay tuned. Action to come, as they say.
On a related note, I cannot praise highly enough Peter Liem’s fabulous Champagneguide.net – an indispensable resource for all things Champagne, and more than well worth the subscription cost. Peter turned me on to what may be the best wine bar on the planet – Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes. Stopped in tonight for a killer charcuterie platter and a nice Demarne-Frison Brut Nature. Life is pretty good…