Maria Hunt on Grower Champagne

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Maria Hunt—aka The Bubbly Girl—believes pork should be its own food group, bubbly is meant for sipping anytime, and the Sicilians got it right when they made ice cream a breakfast food. Based in Oakland, California, she’s a cultural food writer, mixologist, author of The Bubbly Bar: Champagne & Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion (Clarkson Potter, 2009), and hostess of TheBubblyGirl.com. Follow Maria on Twitter @thebubblygirl.

In most cities across the nation, a wine educator is lucky if they can get people to realize that every wine with bubbles is NOT called Champagne. It’s enough to give you a cheap Champagne headache. That tidbit is pretty much common knowledge here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people exude food and wine smarts like people in other cities spew the stats of the local sports franchise.

We love our big name bubbly like Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label or Roederer’s Cristal with its reliably bright/crisp/toasty flavor profile made to appeal to millions of palates around the world. But this is the land of small-batch, handcrafted, and artisanal food and wine. On both sides of the bay, denizens line up for the quirkiest natural ice cream, the silkiest freshly made tofu, and micro-roasted organic coffee that’s no more than 48 hours old. So is it any surprise that wine aficionados and top sommeliers here are stocking their cellars with the “boutique” bubbly known as grower Champagne?

“Grower Champagnes take my breath away,” says Christie Dufault, a wine instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. “These wines are so distinctive and they have so much flavor.”

For the uninitiated, grower Champagnes are simply wines made by the same people who grew the grapes. These small, family-owned vignerons or winemakers are also called récoltant-manipulants (French for someone who grows and sells their own Champagne)—look for the letters RM on the label.

At K&L Wine Merchant’s recent holiday Champagne tasting, lovers of French bubbly discussed the merits of the grower wines like Champagne Loriot Vieilles Vignes, a silky and rich-tasting wine crafted from 100% pinot meunier from 60-year-old vines. “People here are curious about pinot meunier,” said Michel Loriot. “It is an unknown grape.”

And they vied for a last taste of the unusual Champagne Ariston Aspasie Cepages d’Antan—a powerful and elegant wine made from the three lost grapes of Champagne (pinot blanc, petit meslier, and arbanne)—with the same passion as they jockeyed for the last drops from a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée.

Never heard of the Champagnes Loriot and Ariston Aspasie? Don’t worry, you will. Those Champagnes—along with others like Egly-Ouriet, Gaston Chiquet, and Vilmart et Cie—are among the grower Champagnes appearing at high-end restaurants and wine shops.

So even if you’re perfectly happy with your Perrier-Jouët, why should you try some of this “breath-taking” artisanal bubbly? Here are three good reasons.

Value

Whether the economy is in recovery or teetering on the brink of the next fall, one can only economize so much. We still need our creature comforts, like a good, cold bottle of Champagne waiting in the refrigerator at all times.

Sip for sip, grower Champagnes are a better value than other wines, whose price often is based on the perceived value of the product. Wine importer Terry Theise, who’s the Pied Piper of grower Champagne, puts it this way in his 2010 Champagne catalog: “You should drink it [grower Champagne] because its price is honestly based on what it costs to produce, not manipulated to account for massive PR and ad budgets, or to hold on to market-share.”

Gary Westby, the Champagne specialist at K&L Wine agrees. “You just have to get them to try the first one and after that they’re hooked,” says Westby, who calls the dot-com bust the best thing to happen for grower Champagne sales. “When the wines are clearly much better and a lot less expensive, people figure it out pretty fast.”

The same is true in restaurants. Scanning the wine list at restaurants like Gary Danko, Benu, or RN74, grower Champagnes on those lists are oases of affordability compared to some of the better-known wines.

Wine as Art

You know the difference between tasting a truffle from Michael Recchiuti or TCHO versus one from Godiva? They’re all sweet and chocolatey, but the local ones seem more unique, more expressive. That’s the same kind of experience captured in a bottle of grower Champagne.

“It’s less of a commodity and it’s a little more artistic,” says Rajat Parr, sommelier for the Michael Mina restaurant group. Since he began his career, Parr has showcased grower bubbly from the powerful pinot noir-based Champagnes of Egly-Ouriet and Jacques Selosse to the elegant chardonnay-driven cuvées from Pierre Péters. He won’t say they’re better than the Champagnes made by the millions of cases, but with grower Champagnes, buyers can know the name of the individual making their bubbly.

“It’s more transparent because you know the man who makes the wine, who does the blend,” says Parr. “It’s more about a person’s vision than about a house style.”

Sense of Place

There’s still a debate over whether terroir—the combination of soil, climate, and sun of a particular place—can be tasted in a wine. I believe it can, especially when I find the same flavor characteristics in several different pinot noirs from Anderson Valley. The same thing is true in Champagne.

“The thing about grower Champagne is that it so represents a unique sense of place,” says Brian Maletis of FatCork.com, a Seattle-based website that exclusively imports and sells undiscovered grower Champagne.

In the Côte des Blancs, it’s all about chardonnay, so most vignerons there make a blanc de blancs, like the exceptional ones from Pierre Péters and Gimonnet-Oger. In the Montagne de Reims, they’re proud of their pinot noir, so nearly everyone does rosés de saignée. In this style, made by Henri Billiot and Pascal Redon, the wine has longer skin contact, yielding a deeper color and vibrant flavors of plum and berry in a dry (non-sweet) Champagne.

And then there’s the Vallée de la Marne, where pinot noir’s delicate cousin pinot meunier has traditionally been the dominant grape. It’s not unusual to find fruit-forward wines made from mostly pinot meunier, like the René Geoffroy NV Expression Brut, Jean-Marc Charpentier Brut, or like the Loriot Cuvée Marie-Léopold Demi Sec, which bursts with jammy strawberry. Somms are gushing too about exciting terroir-driven wines from the lesser-known Côte des Bar, like Vouette et Sorbée and Donson et LePage.

Just think, with all these choices, it’s possible to find your own personal cuvée, a different artisanal Champagne for every food and mood. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.