Bubbles are great—yes, the smaller the better—but what I really like to taste in Champagne is the wine itself. Good Champagne should be judged like any wine. My wife and I had a bottle of André Clouet Brut Grande Réserve the other night. It had well-defined aromas of cherries, nuts, and bread. Its flavor ran deep into the back of my throat and then resonated in my mouth for several long moments after swallowing. And it wasn’t expensive for Champagne at about $40.
André Clouet is what’s known as a grower Champagne, a wine made by the person who grows the grapes. This doesn’t often happen in Champagne. Start with bad grapes, and no amount of intervention will give you great wine. But good grapes aren’t easy to come by, and that’s a big reason why grower Champagnes are finally beginning to get some attention.
Grower Champagne started to become known in the early 2000s thanks to the efforts of importer Terry Theise. It’s the opposite of industrial Champagne, the stuff made by the big houses such as Veuve Cliquot, Moët & Chandon, and Pommery. They collect grapes from the 15,000 or so growers spread all over the vast Champagne region and blend them together. Their process is one of the most invasive in winemaking, featuring much manipulation (manufactured yeasts, enzymes) over the course of two fermentations and then a final dosage of sugar, wine, and who knows what else. And to supposedly correct for any deficiencies in a particular vintage and to preserve a sense of house style, leftover wines that have been sitting around in tanks for years are blended with the current vintage to make a nonvintage, ageless product.
Most growers only have a few acres of land, not enough to make much wine, which is why they sell their grapes to the big houses. But in the past 20 years or so, some growers—the ones with enough land to make it work—have started to produce their own wine. And many of them have started to work as fanatically in the vineyards as their counterparts in Burgundy are famous for. The result is wines of unique purity that are expressive of place and time. While there are now more than 2,000 grower-producers, they still make up only about 4 percent of the American market. To put that in perspective, 15 big brands make up over 85 percent of the market.
It’s not always easy to tell what kind of Champagne you’re buying, which is why it’s important to be aware of the identification code typed in very small print on the label of every bottle of Champagne. There is always a number preceded by two key letters. Most often those letters will be NM, which stands for négociant-manipulant and indicates a large house that buys most of its grapes. The important code is RM, or récoltant-manipulant, which means that the Champagne’s made by a grower-producer. (Less often you’ll see CM, which means it’s made by a cooperative: Watch out for these bottles, as they often look like those of a small grower-producer. The wine is, in fact, the product of hundreds of growers who throw all their grapes together at the local cooperative winery and get, in return, bottles of the exact same wine but with their own private labels pasted on.)
Growers also blend from different vintages and sites. However, almost all of the grower-producers’ sites will be contained within a certain village or area, and in Champagne different villages and regions do have distinctive soils, exposures, and flavors. And though it’s true that grower-producers sometimes blend a couple of vintages to make a more harmonious wine (Champagne is such a northerly and cold region that bad weather and tough vintages are a way of life there), they simply don’t have the storage capacity to maintain large stocks. So while the nonvintage brut Champagne of a big house like Veuve Cliquot is supposed to always be exactly the same, for the growers, wines change from year to year in subtle but expressive ways.
NMs aren’t all bad. Krug and Philipponnat, for instance, make good Champagne. And RMs aren’t all good: Of the 2,000 out there, only about 100 or so are making truly excellent Champagne. Here are some growers of note:
Gaston Chiquet—Chiquet’s wines are mineral-driven and precise yet lush and gulpable.
Vilmart & Cie—This grower-producer’s wines have a cult following. Known for their ravishing sumptuousness, the wines combine power and grace like no others. They are big, velvety, and memorable.
Vouette & Sorbée—A rare biodynamic Champagne producer; everything is done by hand (harvesting, disgorging, riddling). The wines are intensely mineral but still round and generous. The flavors are explosive, and the finish is one of the longest you’ll taste.