December 15, 2004

Grower Champagnes

There were five glasses of champagne in front of each of us, each unmarked. All were guaranteed to be the real thing: that is, wine grown and made according to the traditional method within the boundaries of the Champagne region in France. Each was delicious (it’s hard to be hard on champagne), yet three were real standouts — one floral and delicate, a perfect aperitif on its own; another yeasty and rich, the sort of wine fit for a festive dinner of roast goose, yet another mouthwateringly dry and spicy in a way that made me want some roasted nuts and cheese.

After we had all oohed and ahhed over them and clamored for their names, the identities were revealed: Chartogne-Taillet, Chiquet and Gimmonet. Never heard of them? Neither had most the wine lovers in the room at Tante Louise, where this champagne tasting was being held, and neither have most people across the U.S. That’s because the vast majority of champagne is made by a handful of companies that have done such a great job marketing their champagnes as luxury products that their wines are the only ones we know. The three wines we loved belong to a quiet, lesser-known group commonly referred to as “grower champagnes.”

Grower champagnes are made by vintners who grow their own grapes, make their own wine and bottle it under their own name. This is how much of the wine world works, but not in Champagne. The big houses are putting out millions of bottles a year. The only way they can meet such production numbers is to buy grapes or even wine from other people.

So how can Veuve Clicquot taste like Veuve if it’s made from Joe Schmo’s wine? Easy. The winemaker blends Joe’s wine with an array of other wines until he comes out with a wine that tastes like the Veuve typically does. Such blending takes patience, wines from an array of areas within Champagne, each producing grapes with their own character, and a blender with an incredible palate. Major champagne houses take pride in their blender’s extraordinary ability to blend wines from tens to hundreds of lots to come up with a wine that tastes pretty much the same year after year. That way, when people buy Moet's White Star or Veuve Clicquot's Yellow Label, they can be confident that it'll taste just like it did last year, and in the years before that.

Growers don't have the luxury of a hundred lots of wines pulled from all over the 75,000-plus-acre region. They are farmers, after all, and what they have to work with is what they have grown. Typically, that's a dozen or so acres of vineyard in just one or two places, which means the flavor of the wine is already partly predetermined by the climate, soils and grapes grown in that area. Growers can build only on these flavors, unlike the big guys who can use them as notes in complex harmonies.

Disadvantage? Not necessarily. The Champagne growers aren't necessarily better or worse than the others; they are simply different. They emphasize place over style, which isn't to say they have none. Quite the opposite: While grower champagnes rarely taste as polished as those from their richer neighbors, you might well fall in love with their characters. Some, like Vilmart and Chartogne-Taillet, taste more like wines with bubbles than bubbly wines. Others, like Fleury and Chiquet, are as light and gauzy and as graceful as ballerinas.

Taste enough of any grower champagnes, and you can begin to make a mental map of the region, discovering through the wines which areas are warmer and give richer chardonnay, and where Champagne's most important red grape, pinot noir, achieves ripeness and finesse. Even if you aren't interested in geography, you will start noticing the personality of the people behind them. (I imagine Elizabeth Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet to have a light laugh and cheerful demeanor because of her delicate wines; Didier Gimmonet is the guy who likes food so much he designed a Cuvée Gastronome.)

In essence, you might find that it's easier to get to know these wines, as, unlike the large houses, the small Champagne growers are more than happy to share with consumers the provenance of their grapes, their methods of making the wines and their philosophy. (They're also often cheaper.) For the growers, the purpose of making champagne is to show off the land and its fruit, not shroud it in mystique.

Grower champagnes to seek out and sip

To know if a champagne is made by a grower, look for the letters "RM" on the bottle: This means Récoltant-Manipulant, and signifies that it was grown and made by the same person.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post.

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