One of the more interesting to pop up recently is the rush to what are called "grower" Champagnes. According to Terry Theise, who sources more of these wines...
As with any other fashion/media-driven entertainment product, wine is prone to fads. One of the more interesting to pop up recently is the rush to what are called “grower” Champagnes.
According to Terry Theise, who sources more of these wines than anyone in the country, 2,200 growers in Champagne grow, produce, bottle and sell Champagne under their own labels. Theise — never one to hold back an opinion — affectionately calls this “the happy world of family fizz.”
“Buy from families, not from factories!” has become the rallying cry of grower-Champagne lovers.
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Dieter Klippstein owns Triage Wines, a Seattle importer/distributor, and recently hosted a tasting for the trade at which more than four dozen grower Champagnes were offered for sale. Klippstein believes that Champagne is the last major appellation in France to be discovered.
“You thought you had been drinking it all along,” he explains, “but instead you were drinking a commoditized luxury beverage. Terroir is obliterated by the big blenders.”
All but a tiny percentage of the Champagne sold in the U.S. (true Champagne, from France — not California wannabe’s) comes from a handful of conglomerate corporations who own the Grande Marques — the major Champagne houses. Each offers a diverse lineup of bubblies, but their non-vintage brut Champagnes are the most aggressively marketed and promoted.
These are blends of grapes that express a particular “house” style — fruity, steely, toasty or creamy. Non-vintage bruts, say the marketers, free consumers from any concerns about vintage variation. Once you have found your favorite brand, you can return to it year after year knowing that it will always taste the same.
Grower Champagne advocates complain that these “industrial” Champagnes are overpriced and underflavored. Of course, there is an economic agenda here also. The cultivation of vineyards in the Champagne region is strictly controlled by the government. No more land may be planted to vines. The big producers rarely own more than a fraction of the land required to fulfill their production needs, so they must contract with individual growers to provide the rest.
Growers who own particularly desirable plots of land in the best villages may not want their grapes to be blended into some generic bottling. They may see an economic advantage to bottling their own bubbly. Especially in the case of those who own Grand Cru vineyards in villages such as Avize, Aÿ, Bouzy, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Verzenay, there is significant cachet at stake.
So, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, what say you? Maybe you want terroir in your New Year’s flute; or maybe you just want a good glass of bubbly. How does all the rhetoric about family fizz translate where it counts — to quality and value in the bottle? Are the grower bottlings really cheaper and better than your old standbys?
Yes, the best of them are cheaper than comparable offerings from the “institutional” houses, and at least as good. They are clearly more artisanal. These small producers are not blending wines from as many sources and vintages, hoping to create a uniform product. Instead, they offer more focused flavors, more variation and, in general, younger fruit.
Most grower Champagnes are very tart, juicy and fresh. Exploring them will require more of a spirit of adventure. Even M. Theise admits that many “are pretty run-of-the-mill people who make pleasant, unexceptional wine. The crème de tête, so to speak, is the same as everywhere; a few utopian wine-freak types who are driven to make superlative hooch.”
Grower Champagnes come from a few small and specific plots of land. The winemaking decisions (malolactic or no malolactic fermentation, blend of grapes, time on the yeast, type of dosage, etc.) — along with the character of the vintage — are what determine the flavor.
The bottom line is that grower Champagnes are best suited for those of you whose palates are emblazoned with the “Intrepid” logo. If you are willing to explore wines from an unknown producer, you may find to your delight the product of a tiny village that offers distinct, detailed and terroir-driven flavors. And the rare wine with that most desirable asset, authenticity.
The best of the best, in my view, are those whose vineyards are all classified as Grand Cru. They offer a chance to try great Champagne at a modest price.
Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.