This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See my recent tasting notes on more than 60 current grower champagnes.
Is champagne a wine or a brand? This question preoccupied me as I tasted the offerings of five grape growers from the Champagne region in the cellars of Justerini & Brooks in St James's Street, London, recently. In the heart of gentlemen's clubland, a mere stone's throw from Hedgie Central, you can easily imagine, I'm sure, Justerini's client base and the sort of customers I was tasting with.
These champagnes were without a shadow of a doubt wines - each one eloquently individual, the expression of particular growing seasons, personal winemaking philosophies and techniques, different villages and even different plots within the Champagne vignoble. Even the best-known name of the five, Egly-Ouriet, enjoys nothing like the brand recognition of one of the big brands, or grandes marques, of Champagne.
Justerini's prices for these gems range from just £21.58 a bottle, for Forget-Brimont's bargain non-vintage blend from premier cru vineyards, to £82.97 for Egly-Ouriet's magnificent 2002 vintage champagne from grand cru vineyards. These growers' champagnes consistently offer so much better value than the heavily marketed grandes marques that I applaud Justerini's buyers for taking notice of the increasingly important role of grower champagnes in the great wide world of wine. But I suspect they may be a tough sell to some of their customers, accustomed as they are to the security of a well-known champagne brand.
There are about 20 well-known grandes marques, robustly priced champagnes that are made in such quantity that they have to blend dozens and often hundreds of different ingredients to produce a consistent style. When you serve your guests one of these, they know they are being treated to something with a certain price tag, reputation and familiarity. But only wine nuts know their Larmandier-Bernier (one of my favourite champagne growers; Pierre Larmandier is pictured above by his US importer Polaner Selections) from their Laurent-Perrier (one of the grandes marques). In some circles it would take a certain confidence to serve champagne from a little-known grower, however good, especially since from a distance it can be so difficult to tell a lovingly crafted grower's champagne from a cheap, mass-market buyer's own brand.
(The key is to look at the pair of initials in small print on the label. Growers' champagnes are denoted 'RM' for récoltant-manipulant. A buyer's own brand is marked 'MA' for marque d'acheteur, while someone who buys in wine to make their champagne, as all the grandes marques do, is an 'NM' for négociant-manipulant. A co-op wine is marked 'CM' for coopérative de manipulation. But checking this at a party would take extremely good eyesight and a certain amount of impudence.)
I have long thought it odd that the big champagne producers have adapted so little to the increasing sophistication and curiosity of the world's wine drinkers. I have sought information, largely in vain, such as which years their all-important non-vintage blends are based on, or how long the blend has been in contact with the character-forming sediment from the second fermentation in the bottle and, ideally, when the champagne was separated from it, an operation known as disgorgement, or dégorgement.
But most grandes marques still leave their customers entirely in the dark about this sort of nerdy detail. And of course it is even more infuriating to me that such champagne continues to sell so well despite their brand owners' ignoring pleas like mine and treating their non-vintage blends as though they were branded fizzy drinks - which of course they are, even if rather more expensive than the average cola.
Good growers, bless them, are much more likely to deliver information like this on a plate - or at least on informative back labels. The likes of Bérèche et Fils, Chartogne-Taillet and Pascal Doquet are all excellent at telling their customers which vintages and grapes are in the blend. Egly-Ouriet prints exactly how many months the wine was in contact with the lees (106 in the case of that 2002) and when it was disgorged. Isabelle Diebolt of Diebolt-Vallois explained to me chez Justerini that they are quite happy to supply informative back labels if their importers ask for them. Justerini's don't. The Swedish monopoly insists on them. Please, importers, ask for max facts. Your customers can always ignore them if they are not interested.
The most energetic importers of grower champagnes I know are Terry Theise in Washington DC and Vine Trail of Bristol. Terry almost single-handedly ignited American sommeliers' love affair with these terroir- and vintage-driven wines while Nick Brookes of Vine Trail can claim to have done the same, a little later, in the UK. The guests at Vine Trail's recent grower champagne tasting were quite different from the St James's crowd. Young, casually dressed restaurant staff made up the majority and were clearly set to order enough to warrant a personal appearance from most of the 13 growers whose wines (no, not brands) were on show.
There was such individuality evident in the Vine Trail selection it was thrilling. I didn't enjoy every single wine but I truly appreciated most - for the individual story each had to tell. They really did taste like quite different drinks from grande marque champagne (some of which are exquisite but too many are dull and overpriced). Many of Vine Trail's champagnes are Extra Brut or even Brut Nature with much less added sugar than most champagnes, yet most taste beautifully balanced rather than searingly tart.
There are more than 4,650 champagne growers making and selling their own champagne. Some of it is dismal. I should stress that I am not advocating all grower champagne; it has to have been handpicked by someone like Theise, Brookes, Justerini's , The Wine Society or The Sampler in London. (Londoners can also drink an array of hand-picked grower champagnes with hot dogs at Bubbledogs restaurant.) Nick Brookes' last foray in search of new growers to add to the Vine Trail portfolio involved auditioning 41 potential suppliers of which he chose a single one. Anyone who has intimate knowledge of champagne drinking in France will understand.
Note, by the way, that neither Vine Trail not J&B are good at selling single bottles. Best to head for Lea & Sandeman or The Sampler for small orders.
But, if you are seriously interested in wine, as opposed to brands, you ignore this segment of champagne producers at your peril. As Isabelle Diebolt put it, 'These wines are for people looking for something different, something determined by terroir. We look for it in cheese, in coffee, in chocolate. Why not champagne?'
RECOMMENDED GROWER CHAMPAGNES
Larmandier-Bernier's entire range
£32.30-£53.95 Vine Trail, Lea & Sandeman
Pascal Doquet, Horizon Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
£24.07 Justerini & Brooks
Chartogne-Taillet, Cuvée Ste Anne Brut NV
£25.50 Vine Trail
Gosset-Brabant, Réserve Nature Grand Cru, Brut NV
£27.08 Justerini & Brooks
Benoit Lahaye, Essentiel Grand Cru Brut NV
£29.60 Vine Trail
Doyard, Cuvée Vendémiaire Extra Brut NV
£29.95 Old Bridge Wine
Diebolt-Vallois, Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut NV
£30.07 Justerini & Brooks
Vouette et Sorbée, Fidèle Extra Brut NV
£36.60 Vine Trail
Agrapart, Terroirs Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru NV
£37.15 Vine Trail
Georges Laval, Brut Nature Premier Cru NV
£39.50 Vine Trail
Jacques Lassaigne, La Colline Inspirée Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut NV
£44.75 Vine Trail
Egly-Ouriet, Les Crayères, Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru Brut NV
£77.07 Justerini & Brooks and Lea & Sandeman