Nothing quite captures the sparkle, glitz and Zelda-Fitzgerald-glamour of New Year’s Eve like the bubbles in a glass of Champagne. Although famous labels like Veuve Clicquot or Pol Roger are always reliable standbys, there exists a realm of Champagne that offers a price-to-quality far beyond what you’ll find on the top shelf of your local, high-end grocery store. As I worked my way through sommelier certification years ago then went on to write for Ian Cauble’s SommSelect, the veil was lifted on this special region of France. I came to discover snapshots of Champagne’s terroir and the dedicated families who capture that magical, bubbling nectar that I never would have unearthed on my own. So, since it’s almost New Year’s Eve, I’d like to share some of my favorite vigneron families that produce Grower Champagne. It may take a bit of searching on your part, but this joyous occasion calls for something that’s truly worth the effort.
Although Grower Champagne is all the rage amongst sommeliers and Champagne aficionados, most of the American public is still unaware of the serious genius behind this homegrown movement. So what is a Grower Champagne exactly? Well, to be brief, it’s the Champagne equivalent of a genuine farm-to-table experience.
I have such an insatiable ardor for this particular subject that mere words seem to fall short. So, let’s dive into the effervescent weeds, shall we!? A Grower Champagne is a sparkling wine, grown only in the Champagne region of France, that has a tiny “RM” printed on the label; this lettering stands for Recoltant-Manipulant. What this means is that all of the grapes are grown, nurtured and harvested by the owner from only their estate and hand-crafted into a domaine-bottled wine. The wines reflect the special parcel of land from which the grapes are grown. This not only means the wine is a labor of love from an oftentimes ancient vigneron family, it is also a mouthful of terroir (or sense of place) from one of the most geologically significant swaths of land in the world. These wines represent the millennia-in-the-making, limestone-rich soil that makes Champagne Champagne and why no other region in the world can legally lay claim to its eponymy.
On the flip side, major Champagne houses, or Grande Marques, craft their signature style and blends from hundreds, to even thousands, of growers’ vineyards. Grande Marques are labeled as NM, which stands for Négociant-manipulant. Although they achieve a style and taste profile, year after year, that we come to expect, they rarely convey the inimitable fingerprint of the land and meticulous farming practices of a Grower Champagne. The Grande Marques do craft single-vineyard wines and special vintage bottlings, but these wines demand well over $100 a bottle at a bare minimum. Grower Champagnes, on the other hand, offer their tête de cuvées (top bottlings) at a much more affordable price tag and often capture a complexity that is simply mind-blowing. If that doesn’t roll your socks down, consider this – Grower Champagnes are expertly and meticulously crafted by Mom and/or Pop who oftentimes have been nurturing their land for decades or even centuries. It’s their labor of love and the results are often bespoke examples that will change the way you look at Champagne forever. Although I relish drinking a tête de cuvée from a grand old Champagne house, my heart will always belong to the small grower-producers, the true artisans like Christian Coquillette, André Clouet and Francis Egly. So, without further adieu, here are a handful of my favorite Grower Champagnes.
Champagne Saint-Chamant, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Brut, 2006
Saint-Chamant is, hands-down, my personal favorite grower-producer of Champagne. Grand old man and octogenarian, Monsieur Christian Coquillette, has been handcrafting world-class Champagne from his labyrinthine, 19th century cellars since the 1950’s where he still hand-labels every single bottle. He meticulously farms his Grand Cru fruit from the Roche Mere, a mother rock of kimmeridgian limestone, and lays his hand-harvested fruit to rest for extended lees aging, which results in brioche-laden richness that is sheer heaven on the palate. This vintage Champagne is a blanc de blancs, which means it is a white wine crafted from 100% Chardonnay. A lip-smacking sensation of dried lemon peel and baked yellow apple evolves into a waltz of beautiful hazelnut purée, freshly baked brioche, honeysuckle, subtle creaminess and one of the most haunting displays of limestone minerality to ever be cradled in a glass. Although 2005 and 2006 were two of my favorite vintages, every example in Monsieur Coquillette’s lineup will truly dazzle you senseless. If this champagne doesn’t change your life, I don’t know what will!
Champagne Egly-Ouriet, Grand Cru, Brut Tradition, NV
No list of Grower Champagne is complete without Egly-Ouriet. Arguably the first Grower Champagne to seize the heart of the American market, fourth-generation vigneron Francis Egly delivers organically-grown fruit from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay at a price-to-quality that knows few rivals. The blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay delivers a sensory journey of yellow apple, blood orange and salted pear that expands over the palate to encompass notes of nuttiness, a hint of caramel and lithe minerality. This wine is quite a steal for the profundity found in the bottle, but Egly’s entire lineup is simply spectacular!
André Clouet, “Cuvée 1911,” Grand Cru, Brut, NV
While André Clouet’s lengthy family narrative is as compelling as a juicy period drama, his wine more than lives up to the legacy. The family’s storied, winding chalk cellars once included partial false walls to protect their more precious bottles from raiding Nazis, but that’s only their modern history. The ancient vigneron family was once the official printer to the court of Louis XV – hence the beauty of the label. André still calls the Clouet’s 17th century estate home. True to his pedigreed lineage, Clouet adheres to time-honored tradition when crafting his Champagnes from the lauded Montagne de Reims region. This particular bottling is sourced from the greatest of the family’s parcels of Pinot Noir in the Grand Cru village of Bouzy. Only 1911 bottles are produced each year and the wine ages for a staggering six years on its lees (spent yeast) before disgorgement, which results in an aroma of freshly baked croissant that envelops the bright, crisp red berry fruit like a cloud of sheer magic. Although this magnificent example of Pinot-based Champagne is considered the family’s tête de cuvée, each bottling across their lineup is a profound reflection of their treasured corner of Champagne down to the stunning entry-level Grande Réserve.
Diebolt-Vallois, Blanc de Blancs, Prestige Brut, NV
Although the Diebolt family has roots in the village of Cramant that reach back to the 19th century and the Vallois family has cultivated vines in Cuis since the 15th century, it wasn’t until Jacques Diebolt and Nadia Vallois tied the knot in the 1970’s that this now-lauded Champagne label was born. Today their children, Arnaud and Isabelle, have joined them in the running of their world-class estate. This particular wine is a blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) that is sourced entirely from Grand Cru villages (Cramant, Chouilly and Le Mesnil sur Oger) in the celebrated Côte des Blancs – a pocket of Champagne known for its unrivaled Chardonnay. The result of their meticulous efforts reveal a wine of brioche-laden nectar that lingers on the palate with notes of yellow apple, lemon zest, hazelnut and a touch of fresh cream that finishes with striking minerality that we all crave from the best Champagnes in the world. Simply perfection!
*Although tall slender Champagne flutes undeniably have a great look, aesthetics is about all that can be said for them. The thin opening of the glass inhibits the aromatics of a great Champagne to the point that you might as well be sipping out of a Dixie cup when it comes to the sensory experience it offers. Instead, opt for either an open-mouth, tulip shaped Champagne flute, or simply reach for an all-purpose white wine stem to experience these beautiful wines in their full glory.
** For service temperature, don’t ice these babies down. They need to be a touch warmer to express all that they have to say. Ideal service temperature is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Simply pull from the fridge 20 minutes before serving and ease the cork from the bottle to allow the wine to catch its breath.
Bonne Année, y’all! Cheers!