Since the 19th century, French Champagne producers have skillfully cultivated an image of full-tilt glamour and luxury, spending millions promoting their brands. That would include sponsoring athletic competitions, society events and the $400,000 in Champagne that Perriet-Jouët supplied gratis for reality star Kim Kardashian's (first) wedding.
Champagne's Grandes Marques — Krug, Dom Pérignon, Bollinger, Pol Roger, Taittinger and about 20 more — each have their passionate adherents. But make no mistake, these are not small, family-run estates. They are huge businesses, producing hundreds of thousands of bottles each, and are owned, in many cases, by multinational conglomerates. Their luxury cuvées are just that and priced accordingly. Somebody has to pay for all that advertising. But at the low end of the scale, those same brands' non-vintage brut? Mostly boring and not worth the price.
Especially when you can find some fantastically expressive bottles in the same price range, or less, from grower Champagne houses. Affectionately dubbed "farmer fizz" by wine importer Terry Theise, who was among the first to champion Champagnes made by the farmers who cultivate the grapes, grower Champagnes make up just 3% of the market. Of the more than 15,000 growers in Champagne, fewer than 5,000 make and bottle their own sparkling wines. The rest sell their grapes to the big Champagne houses who source their grapes from all over the area.
That's why the Grandes Marques, which own only a small portion of vineyards in Champagne and have to buy most of their grapes, champion the art of blending — mixing wines from different vineyards and villages and from different vintages — to create a house style. The idea is that you should be able to buy a bottle of Veuve Clicquot or Krug one year and buy another two years or even a decade later and find the same taste. Some of those Champagnes are exquisite, but at a very high price.
Grower Champagnes can offer a different — and I would argue more compelling — experience in the more modest $40-to-$60 price range. Made on a very small scale and usually from vineyards in and around a single village, they reflect the terroir, which is why grower Champagnes have such a fascinating specificity: The differences haven't been blended out.
In Champagne, grand or premier cru status is awarded to villages rather than specific vineyards. Thirty-eight villages are premier cru, while only 17 are rated the top grand cru. Krug's famous vintage Blanc de Blancs "Clos du Mesnil" from the grand cru village Le Mesnil-sur-Oger sells for up to $700 a bottle. In contrast, the grower Pierre Peters' Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs from the same village sells for about $100. Pretty package too.
For a long time, Champagnes from small producers were reserved basically for friends and family. In Paris, friends of mine would drive out to Champagne once a year to pick up their family's allotment of bottles from the cousin of a cousin. Others searched out grower Champagnes at obscure wine shops.
Then along came a generation of curious, knowledgeable and persuasive wine importers who didn't need or want huge quantities, just quality — and would hand-sell the wines. Theise was first on the scene and developed quite an amazing portfolio of grower Champagnes. Kermit Lynch has been selling Champagnes from grower Paul Bara for years. North Berkeley Imports has Pinot Noir-based Egly-Ouriet. Charles Neal represents a handful of growers too.
These and other importers recognized the handmade character of grower Champagnes and championed them to sommeliers and retailers for their wonderful diversity and value. Now more than 150 grower Champagnes are imported to this country.
This season, why not step away from Champagne-as-usual and pop the cork on some delicious grower Champagnes? They may take some searching. While you're not likely to find any at your corner liquor store, any good wine retailer should have at least a few. Look for RM on the label, which means récoltant-manipulant (harvester-manipulator), as opposed to NM for the négociant-manipulant designation of the big Champagne houses.
Take a bottle home, pop the cork and pour. It doesn't take a connoisseur to notice that this is some very good stuff.