Timing is everything. That’s why I’m writing a Champagne article a week after New Year’s.
Aside from the predictability of New Year’s Eve themed Champagne pieces, I rue the idea that Champagne is just for celebrations like weddings, anniversaries and New Year’s Eve. Champagne is actually one of the world’s best food wines. It complements everything from grilled cheese sandwiches and popcorn to lobster, roasted chicken and a myriad of Asian dishes, just to name a few. Here in Utah, I was recently reminded by Libation wine purveyor Francis Fecteau that this is a particularly exciting time to be thinking about Champagne. A healthy selection of “grower” Champagne has recently hit the state, providing an opportunity to discover great new Champagnes, some of which could even be considered affordable.
What is grower Champagne? By “grower,” we’re referring to the folks who actually grow the grapes used to make Champagne in France. Although the big Champagne houses of France produce 80 percent of all the Champagne made, these megawineries own a mere 12 percent of the vineyards. Moet & Chandon, Pol Roger, Krug, Roederer, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, et. al.—called grande marque producers—purchase the bulk of the grapes for their Champagne from independent growers throughout the Champagne appellation, often as pressed juice or already in the form of sparkling wine, or sur-lattes. This basic juice is then manipulated by the big boys to create their house styles of Champagne.
Well, savvy Champagne aficionados increasingly are turning to the source for their Champagne: the small, independent growers who also produce small batches of their own Champagne. These are handcrafted, diverse, artisanal wines which exhibit in flavor their unique terroir; think of Beehive Cheese versus Kraft. Best of all, these distinctive Champagnes—Fecteau calls them “idiosyncratic”—often are available for a lower price than Champagne from the grand marques.
How can you spot a grower Champagne? A Champagne label marked with “RM,” for recoltant-manipulant, indicates that the wine was made by a single person or family and that the grapes it was made from came from their own vineyard. This is a virtual guarantee of quality. By contrast, bottles marked “NM” (negociant-manipulant) is evidence of mass-produced wine from the large houses. When you drink grower Champagne, you’re actually drinking some of the same juice that you’d pay big bucks for in a bottle of, say, Cristal, but with less manipulation, marketing and overall interference, since you’re getting it from closer to the source. Plus, you’re paying less money for that juice. It’s a win-win.
Another reason to investigate grower Champagnes is that it’s simply a blast. You think you know Champagne? Imagine a whole new world of bubbly opening up right in front of you. You can be the first kid on your block to pop open a bottle of Varnier Fanniere Grand Brut! You’ll be the envy of your Champagne-soaked pals.
If you’re an individualist who cares about the origins of the stuff you put into your body, then you probably go out of your way to purchase organic products, locally sourced foods such as Morgan Valley lamb, farmers market produce and so on. Why should Champagne be any different? If you’re up for exploring some daring, eclectic, spunky new wines, you should get your paws around grower Champagnes. A few names to look for in Utah: Vilmart, René Geoffroy, Jean Lallement, Jean Milan, Chartogne-Taillet, H. Billiot, Varnier-Fanniere and Pehu Simonet.