My first column of the year is on Champagne. I know you’re thinking, “What kind of a ninny does an article on Champagne AFTER the biggest Champagne-drinking day of the year?” Well, this kind of ninny does. That’s because I don’t believe that Champagne is only a wine for celebrations a few nights per year, and it deserves more attention than the standard “Oh, it’s two weeks before New Year’s…I’d better write the yearly Champagne article” treatment given by most writers. It’s an amazingly food-friendly and terroir-driven wine that excels at the dinner table as well as providing a festive glass of bubbles.
For those who don’t know, Champagne is a specific appellation in France. Despite frequent inappropriate usage of the term, Champagne is only from the Champagne region of France, and doesn’t come from California, nor from anywhere in the United States, which actually allows sparkling wines to be called Champagne. Some enlightened states, like Oregon, have stricter labeling laws that forbid foreign place names (Champagne, Chablis, etc.) on wines bottled in that state. Champagne doesn’t come from Spain, Italy, or any region in France other than the Champagne appellation. It if isn’t from Champagne, it’s simply sparkling wine, both in name and quality.
There’s definitely something special about the Champagne region. From its far northern location to its deep, chalky soils, it produces wines that are different than sparkling wines produced anywhere else in the world. The vignerons here harvest grapes that are considered unripe in most regions, and then ferment them in the manner of most wines. Once that fermentation is complete, the wines are put into bottles with a mix of yeast and sugar (called the liqueur de triage), which starts a secondary fermentation in the bottle. These bottles are then left to age in the cellars until the bottles are disgorged, which is the process of uncapping the bottles, removing the dead yeast cells by freezing the top of the bottle, adding the dosage (additional base wine and usually some sugar) to replace the lost wine and then recorking and packaging the wine for release. While other regions may use the same process, or may call their wine “Champagne”, there’s only one true Champagne, and you can taste it on your palate.
Most wine drinkers are familiar with the big names of Champagne: Mumm, Moet & Chandon, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, and others who make up about 75% of the Champagne production, and over 95% of the Champagne exported outside France. While these names are the most popular brands, and they sometimes make Champagnes that are worth drinking (the famous Dom Perignon is produced by Moet & Chandon, and the drink-it-while-wearing-my-bling Cristal is produced by Roederer), these huge producers generally don’t make the best Champagnes. In my opinion, the best producers, and the ones I want to discuss in this article are the grower Champagnes.
Until just a couple of decades ago, most Champagnes were made by the large negociant operations, which bought grapes from numerous individual growers and made them into a wine with consistent house style. These wines were of good quality, but like other blends of grapes from large regions, they also lacked the amazing focus and individual terroir characteristics that are shown in wines from small producers. Slowly, the better growers realized that their top-quality grapes were being amalgamated into large production wines that didn’t show the character of their sites, and so a few smaller growers started to produce their own wines. This trend has continued over the past 20 years and now there are far more small growers producing and releasing their own bottlings instead of selling their grapes to the large negociants.
If you take a close look at the label on a Champagne bottle, you’ll see a small code with a number following it. By looking at this code, you can tell what type of producer the wine is from. The initials “NM” followed by a number indicate that the bottle is by a Negociant Manipulant, or a producer that purchases their grapes from different growers and bottles the wines at a large, non-estate facility. The producers who have an “RM” on the label are known as Récoltant Manipulants, and they are the small growers who produce and bottle their wine on their estates. The other designation to look for is “SR”, Sociéte de Récoltants, who are basically small growers who bottle at a larger co-operative facility, but who maintain their individuality and bottle their wines separately. If you’re familiar with the Carlton Winemakers Studio in Carlton, OR, it’s a similar situation…a variety of independent producers making and bottling wine at one facility.
The wines produced by these small Champagne houses are not as well known as the larger producers, but the quality easily matches, and often exceeds the larger producers. So, you’ll probably have to pay a lot more, right? Wrong! Since these producers don’t have the huge marketing and promotional budgets of the larger houses, the wines are generally less expensive than the big producers. For example, the ’96 and ’99 vintage Champagnes from José Michel, an excellent small producer, were both available (the ’99 is the current release) for under $40. Try finding a vintage-dated Champagne from a large house for that price. The better grower Champagnes are more individualistic, and show more vintage-to-vintage variety than the larger houses. No, you won’t find these wines packaged with all kinds of gimmicks, but does your bottle of Champagne really need a wetsuit anyway (yes, a recent bottling of Veuve Clicquot was encased in what looked like a bright orange wetsuit)?
How do you find these small producers? These are specialty producers, and they are generally handled by specialty importers like Terry Thiese (the Johnny Appleseed of grower Champagnes), Kermit Lynch, and other small importers. Likewise, the quantities produced by these small estates don’t allow them to be sold by the megastores, so they will only be carried by wine shops that focus on the smaller, quality-conscious producers. Besides the Michel listed above, other top small producers include Paul Bara, Gaston-Chiquet, Camille Saves, Pierre Peters, A. Margaine, Henri Billiot, José Dhondt, L. Aubry, and André Clouet.
If you want to try these wines, go to your favorite local wine shop (Liner & Elsen, Great Wine Buys, E & R Wines and Square Deal all carry multiple grower Champagnes), and tell them that you want a recommendation for a couple of grower Champagnes to try. Tell them what type of dishes you’re matching the wine with (Seared scallops are great with Champagne, as are fresh crab, light to medium-strength cheeses, lightly spicy (not sweet) Asian dishes, and some rosés are great with chicken or other lighter meat dishes). And do it on a Tuesday or Wednesday night when there’s nothing else to celebrate but the wine you’re drinking, the food you’re eating, and the person you’re with. That’s when Champagne is at its best!