Choosing The Best Champagne For The Festive Season
In the effervescent world of Champagne, some names have become so synonymous with luxury—thank you very much, Jay-Z—that one might wonder just what is so special about the grapes that go into the likes of Cristal, Dom Pérignon or Salon. Is each grape polished by hand; each vine watered only with Evian?
In fact, in the somewhat unusual ecosystem of the region of Champagne, the origin of most grapes is not really as proprietary as you might think (through Cristal is an exception). In fact, the big “houses”, or maisons or négociants if you prefer, are actually supported by a network of co-operatives and individual grape growers who, in some cases, might also make wines of their own. These belong to a category known as “grower estates”, a term that may not be well known, but one that’s worth learning about in order to recognise bottles that are actually produced by the same hands that tilled the soil.
For roughly two-and-a-half centuries, growers produced very little wine and Champagne houses grew very few grapes, a relationship that was largely symbiotic. Historically, most growers lacked the capital to invest in production and marketing, while the houses had capital, experience and relationships.
This began to shift in the mid-20th century when more growers established their own estates. Officially known as Récoltant manipulant (identifiable by the letters RM on a label), these growers make champagne from grapes exclusively sourced from proprietary vineyards and facilities.
“But what difference does it make?” you may ask, other than the romance of supporting small farmers. Because the wines come from a single estate, there is a specificity rarely found in NM champagnes (Négociant manipulant being the designation for houses), for which blending of grape varieties, vineyards and vintages is an essential tool for maintaining consistency. There’s often more variability in grower Champagnes, but Burgundy lovers in particular tend to view this as a feature rather than a bug.
A few years ago many grower Champagnes shared a certain aesthetic: higher levels of ripeness, but less sweetness, with more expressive fruit wrapped in idiosyncratic flavours that would never have made it past the nose of a house’s chef de cave. There are still producers who fit this mould, notably natural-leaning estates like Charles Dufour and Vouette & Sorbée.
However, having recently tasted my way through a cross-section of RM champagnes available in Asia with Hong Kong Ordre de Coteaux de Champagne’s consul Roland Müksch, we noted that growers’ predilection for what he refers to as “funky styles” seems to have faded. The movement, he notes, has increased the diversity of styles, improved viticultural practices and most critically emphasised a quality he calls vinous, for which the movement is known.
Tautological as it might sound to describe champagne as “winelike”, it does make sense because of the relative neutrality that dominated many house champagnes as recently as a few decades ago. Base wines, before they underwent a second fermentation in bottle, tended to be selected for freshness and delicacy rather than character, producing finished wines that lacked much distinction once the bubbles were gone. Many of the wines from this tasting, however, continued to be flavourful—sometimes pungently earthy, other times more classically rich and toasty—long after the bubbles had fizzed away. Yes, I went back and checked.
The true fun of grower champagne is wrapping your head around all the different dimensions that distinguish one from another—different grape varieties or blends, different origins, ageing regimens (both before and after bottling) and styles. Below, we’ve categorised wines from our tasting using a few different lenses.
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While the typical champagne blend includes chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, small amounts of four other varieties—pinot blanc, pinot gris, petit meslier and arbane—can be included in the blend. Grower estates tend to go maximalist. One wine in our tasting included six of the seven permitted varieties. At the other extreme, single-variety champagnes, like the previously unthinkable 100 per cent meunier wines, are now officially a thing.
In a similar vein, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs (white champagnes made exclusively from white and red grapes, respectively), are both popular styles among growers. Blancs de blancs tend to be skinnier and zippier but can be difficult to enjoy when they are young. Blancs de noirs tend to have more of that vinous quality, though they can sometimes feel out of balance without the levity brought by white grapes. However, blends remain the rule rather than the exception, likely because the strengths of each main grape are highly complementary. Chardonnay brings delicate floral fragrance and mouth-tingling acidity, meunier midpalate juiciness and an appealing savour, pinot noir the structure and seriousness on the finish.
Charles Dufour “Le Corroy” Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature NV (LR15)
An unusual blanc de blancs from the Côte des Bar’s mad scientist Dufour, known for producing one-off bottlings that leave his fans desolate when they sell out, this bone-dry chardonnay is incredibly pointed and linear, jumping up the sinuses like wasabi with its lemongrass, yuzu and white almond characters, and bracing the palate with its crystalline purity.
Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs 2010
Diebolt-Vallois’ subtle handling of its old-vine chardonnay appends wispy aromas to a robust structure. The creamy Winemaker Eric Rodez in his cellars in Champagne green-almond and chamomile nose sits over ample texture and breadth with a rich toastiness.
Jacques Selosse Brut Initial Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV
Arguably Champagne’s single most famous grower, Anselme Selosse redefined how champagne should taste, eschewing varietal purity for “terroir”, the environmental factors that affect each crop. The style is divisive, but its devotees are die-hard. Initial, his most accessible wine, delivers toasted hazelnut, brown butter and baked apple livened by acacia honey grace notes. The palate is generous and rounded but with sufficient acidity to keep its form rigorous.
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Savart L’Ouverture Brut Premier Cru NV
This modest-sized estate is known for succulent pinot without the added richness of oak. Consequently, this starts a little reductive, gradually yielding honeycomb, yellow apple and heady florals. The pinot fullness really unfolds on the back palate with classic lines and a firmness of character.
Michel Arnould Blanc de Noirs NV
Michel Arnould’s wines from Verzenay (where Roederer purchased some of its first vines in 1850) are a step up in volume with a buxom, padded richness, making them true food champagnes. The acid is subdued and the mid-palate redolent of wild mushrooms, undergrowth and shady forests.
Georges Laval ‘Les Hautes Chèvres’ Brut Nature 2014
Tiny in size but not stature, this longstanding organic estate produces super-dry, barrel-fermented gems. Meunier vines from the 1930s and 1940s replaced equally ancient pinot noir vines in this bottling from 2012 on. A lacy, delicate entry yields flashes of hot steel and iodine underlaid with tart cider apples, demonstrating confidence and drive without brute force.
Dehours Les Genevraux Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut 2009
Representing the Vallée de la Marne, this wine demonstrates meunier's expertise at transmitting the uniqueness of individual sites. This cool, humid plot has created a tart, mineral meunier of white pepper, citron, mace and white grapefruit. Very pinched and lean, with a herbal tonic finish, it is terse and almost acerbic but oddly addictive.
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Although Champagne has historically been a region of blended wines, growers, naturally enough, have fully embraced single vineyard, single village and single sub-region wines.
CÔTE DES BLANCS
Franck Bonville Terroir Pur Avize Blanc de Blancs 2012
Bonville is 100 per cent focused on chardonnay and Grand Crus and its “Terroir Pur” series isolates individual crus (the other two are Mesnil and Oger). Avize, known for giving verticality to prestige cuvées like Dom Pérignon, is clearly expressed here in a tart lemon and lemon balm nose with a shy toastiness and exquisite delicacy.
Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Millésime 2004
Made by winemaker Nicole Moncuit in only the best years, this chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs’ Le Mesnil-sur-Oger retains its precision despite its maturity, with digestive biscuits and nutty aldehydes on the nose giving way to clean yellow apples on the palate and a finetuned balance of fruit sweetness and acidity.
MONTAGNE DE REIMS
Larmandier-Bernier Latitude NV
A star of the Côte des Blancs, Larmandier-Bernier uses this 100 per cent chardonnay from a single latitude within the Montagne de Reims to show a decidedly vinous face of the typically dainty grape. With ripe cider apples, demerara sugar and milk taffy notes, this has a very gentle sparkle and a dry, textural finish.
Marguet Grand Cru Ambonnay 2011
A prominent advocate of biodynamics, and with the horse ploughed vineyards to prove it, Benoît Marguet is passionate about his “Burgundian” system of single-site fermentations that allow him to create wines like this Ambonnay. Featuring marron glacé, pink currants, biscuits and coconut, the structure is very tight and delicate with a glassy bubble texture and clean, fresh acid.
Eric Rodez Cuvée de Crayères NV
Another biodynamics believer, Eric Rodez’s uniqueness lies in the substantial stock of reserve wines held back for blending. Crayères, an especially chalky site in Ambonnay, takes centre stage here, producing a restrained nose like a snuffed candlewick with a mentholated Ricola sensation on the palate. The foamy mousse gradually subsides, allowing a chalkier, drier palate texture to emerge.
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CÔTE DES BAR
Fleury Sonate No. 9 2011
A true old-timer RM, since 1929, Fleury has long embraced biodynamic principles. Its flagship beautifully expresses the spiciness of this balmier region’s pinot noir. Deep golden in colour, it shows baked apples and toasted almonds with moderate acidity, fine mousse and a loose, flowing texture. Brown sugar and roasted mushroom grace the very dry finish.
While some RMs have narrowed their scope, others have taken the opposite tack and are sourcing from a broader range of terroirs or an expanded list of grape varieties.
Champagne Moutard Cuvée de 6 Cépages 2009
The Moutard clan of the Côte des Bar have a cult following among indie champagne lovers. Their blend of six grapes, missing only pinot gris, has a bourbon and kombucha-like funkiness and a tart, playful fizz to delight any natural wine lover.
De Sousa 3A Grand Cru NV
This pan-Champagne blend combines three key Grand Cru villages: 50 per cent chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs’ Avize plus 25 per cent pinot noir from each of the Vallée de la Marne’s Aÿ and the Montagne de Reims’ Ambonnay, hence “3A”. It’s a true original, with a pungent pu-erh tea, dried thyme and subdued stone-fruit nose, a sharply contoured structure and toothsomely juicy acidity.
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Vintage champagne, a category that crowns the quality pyramid of many a champagne house, is somewhat less of a novelty among grower estates. In fact, keeping reserve wines, those from earlier vintages, in order to build consistent NV blends, is very expensive. The long ageing on lees that has become a key weapon in the race between champagne houses plays less of a role among growers, many of whom lack the deep pockets for such an extended capital tie-up.
Still, for many growers, like members of the Club Trésors de Champagne, vintage champagnes remain an important prestige product. Their Spécial Club wines (identifiable by their distinctive squat bottles) are only made in the best years and are generally well worth hunting down.
Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier d’Or 2014
This was a clear favourite for its vinosity and poise. Cedary perfume and lyrical acidity speak of careful handling in large oak and blocked malolactic fermentation to retain freshness. A silky texture unwinds to reveal clean, bright citrus fruit lifted by just a whisper of vanilla spice.
José Michel Spécial Club 2013
A jewel of the lesser-known Coteaux Sud d’Épernay and once a pure meunier specialist, José Michel has since incorporated chardonnay to amplify elegance. The Spécial Club, perfumed and pure with quince jelly, Asian pear, lemon balm and iodine salinity and a fine, bright toastiness, will entice lovers of Dom Pérignon.
Paul Bara Spécial Club 2005
Known as Bouzy’s village historian, Paul Bara was synonymous with this Montagne de Reims Grand Cru. Bara was one of Club Trésors’ founding members and his pinot noir-driven Spécial Club has an intense lemon curd, kumquat and butter pastry nose, luxuriant richness and oak spice of incredible finesse that will win over Krug fans.
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Though often dismissed as frivolous by serious champagne collectors, carefully crafted rosé champagne has been attracting increased attention. Pink champagne is famous for being the sole prestige rosé that can legally be made by blending a little red into a white base, but growers often make it by saignée instead. This method essentially involves draining the liquid off fermenting red grapes, resulting in a more vinous product with deeper colour, more fragrance and sometimes even light tannins.
At the other end of the spectrum is a whisper-pink rosé style called Oeil de Perdrix, a homage to white champagnes of the 19th century that often had just a hint of red colour. When thoughtfully made, all of these styles have their merits. Personally, I love saignée wines with their combination of whimsy and depth, although they can lack the finesse of classic blended rosé.
Jean Vesselle Oeil de Perdrix à Bouzy NV
A pure pinot from this Bouzy pinot noir specialist, this wine is one shade pinker than a blanc de noirs. Nutmeg and allspice are interlaced with soft red forest fruit that gradually yield to sourdough bread notes. I have enjoyed this wine young and old, and both retained a pleasing balance of fruit richness and austere savour.
Marc Hébrart Rosé NV
Hébrart is a leading light of the Grande Vallée, the chalky eastern section of the Vallée de la Marne that specialises in pinot noir. Jean-Paul Hébrart is known for his rosé, with its raciness and vivacity, opening with delicate daisy florals and fennel pollen and remaining fresh and light but characterful throughout.
Vouette & Sorbée Saignée de Sorbée NV
Bertrand Gautherot’s biodynamic property in the Côte des Bar is named not after himself but for his two key vineyards, which says everything. Made from 100 per cent pinot noir, like his iconic blanc de noirs Fidèle, the rosé is almost a red pinot with bubbles, fragrant with rose petal jam, irises, pink currants and wild strawberries, but angular in the mouth despite oak fermentation.
Soutiran Rosé Saignée Brut Ambonnay NV
Spending an unusually long ten years on lees, this saignée brings together an intensely juicy strawberry and menthol pinot youthfulness with some darker, gamier notes and the somewhat gritty texture of maturity. A very interesting effort and a great candidate for atypical matches like beef or lamb.