Single-grower Champagnes are hot—and you don’t need to be a Wall Street tycoon to afford them.
Every summer, no matter where you go in Champagne, you encounter the Parisians, who make the two-hour journey from the big city. They come to stock up on Champagne for the winter, for parties, for weddings. Some may visit the big houses, but most make a beeline for the growers.
Last fall, I was talking to Pascal Agrapart in his winery in Avize, when two couples in a Paris-registered car arrived. They were known—they come every year, I was told—and they were there to buy. Every Parisian seems to have an individual grower whom, back in the city, they can claim to have découvert, or discovered.
The Parisians launched the demand for grower Champagnes. With their love of fashion and of being in the know, they have created insider bubbles. They also know a bargain; most growers’ Champagnes are cheaper than those of the big houses, often by as much as a third.
There are 5,000 of these growers in Champagne, many with less than 20 acres of vines. Their signs adorn every Champagne village, from the Aube in the south to the Montagne de Reims in the north, a distance of more than 100 miles. Most of their wines travel no farther than Paris—or perhaps to Germany, Belgium and England in the trunks of automobiles. But a few are now making their way across the Atlantic. Considering the individual perspective grower Champagnes offer and their excellent prices (typically between $30 and $40 for a standard nonvintage cuvée), these are wines that are worth making the effort to seek out.
Most of these grower-producers are first- or second-generation firms. Before that, sometimes for centuries, the family sold its grapes to cooperatives or négociants. “Grower Champagnes really developed in the 1950s,” says Philippe Chartogne of Champagne Chartogne-Taillet, “when sales of Champagne began to increase and growers saw an opportunity to increase their incomes. It also coincided with an increase in tourism and visitors coming by car to the Champagne region.”
Chartogne’s 27 acres are in the village of Merfy, right at the northwest end of the Montagne de Reims, in land that was first planted to vines by the local monastery of Saint Thierry. His family has been growing vines for 400 years, but they only started selling their Champagnes in the 1970s. “Before that, the big houses were the only ones who could take risks,” he said. From small beginnings, selling just to passing trade, he has built up an export business, selling to many European countries as well as the United States.
The Chartogne-Taillet wines are great Champagnes. Yet there are differences that set grower Champagnes apart from the famous brands. For a start, a grower only has a fixed amount of land: He can’t easily expand. Nor can he take grapes from every corner of Champagne to ensure the stylistic continuity of his Champagne. There will be vintage variations in grower Champagnes, even though each grower keeps wines in reserve from previous years to add to the nonvintage blend. There is, in other words, a greater sense of terroir in a grower Champagne than in a larger blend. The growers are close in spirit to their brethren in Burgundy.
The biggest growth in grower Champagnes has happened in the Chardonnay heartland of the Côte des Blancs, close to the city of Epernay. It has coincided with and spearheaded the explosion of 100 percent Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs wines.
A traditional press squeezes the juice from Chardonnay grapes at Champagne Fallet in Avize.
Pierre Larmandier makes Larmandier-Bernier Champagnes in Vertus at the southern end of the Côte des Blancs. The domaine is the result of a marriage between his father, Philippe Larmandier, and his mother, Elisabeth Bernier. Pierre is a thinker. You can tell that from the way he moves, the way he talks and the way he looks at his vines.
When I met him last fall, he had returned from vacation only a few days before. He seemed surprised, then amused, to discover that one of his best parcels was full of knee-high grass and weeds that had grown in the unusually wet month of August. All around were other producers’ immaculate vineyards, sprayed with chemicals to within an inch of their lives, while his vines looked like the sort of garden a weekend gardener lives with.
And yet, ground cover was just what he wanted. “I haven’t used any herbicide for the past five years,” he told me. “It is not quite organic viticulture, but we are almost there. I believe it helps me get better quality fruit, apart from the environmental benefits.”
He has parcels of vines all over the hillside around Vertus in the southern end of the Côte des Blancs. For him, the assemblage that is the secret of the Champagnes from the great houses is paralleled by how he puts together the wines from what his parcels produce. “I have friends come and help with the assemblage each spring. But blending is much less important for growers than it is for the big houses.”
Didier Gimmonet makes similar comments about blending. From his vineyards at the other end of the Côte des Blancs, in Cuis, Cramant and Chouilly, he blends Pierre Gimmonet Champagnes. “I have a great advantage over the chef de cave (the person who makes the blend) in a house. I know my vineyards—they were my father’s vineyards. I can understand how the young wines will develop, how they will age. It makes the art of assemblage almost like a child’s game.”
Not quite, perhaps. For Gimmonet juggles each year with fruit from his 64 acres (a huge amount in the world of growers) in order to make a standard cuvée, a vintage, maybe—depending on the year—and a prestige cuvée. He can only make Blanc de Blancs of 100 percent Chardonnay, because that is all he has. But every parcel of vines is different.
“When we vinify, we vinify parcel by parcel. We seek out the character of the year. Champagne should be complex. You need a balance of different elements. Just having the expression of terroir rarely gives you a wine that is complex enough,” admonishes Gimmonet.
The day after I left Champagne, the first grapes from the 2002 vintage were due to arrive in the Gimmonet winery. The presses were being cleaned, the floors were being hosed down, equipment was being checked. In campsites around each village, groups of workers were gathering, ready to harvest; machine harvesting is not allowed in Champagne.
“It is certainly better than 2001, which was a disaster,” said Gimmonet, a comment echoed by every other grower I met. “There is a little rot, but we can sort that out. We certainly have plenty of flavor in the grapes, and enough sugar for the alcohol. I am ready to begin the harvest.”
Each village is assigned a starting date, depending on the advice of the local experts from the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins de Champagne, which holds enormous power in the region. After the starting date, it is up to growers to decide when to harvest. The grapes are immediately taken to the presses, and pressed according to a complicated formula that restricts the amount of grapes that can be pressed at any one time and the amount of juice that can be taken from each pressing.
The old Champagne presses—round wooden-slatted presses that operated using a downward screw—were specifically designed to press the grapes gently. Many now decorate the entries to villages, but some growers still use them, although they make for backbreaking work. Other producers have invested in computer-controlled pneumatic presses.
Jean-Louis Bonnaire has both types of presses at Champagne Bonnaire in Cramant. “The modern press works five times as fast as the old type,” he tells me, “but when the grapes are arriving fast, I need them both. There is no difference in the quality of the juice.” Jean-Louis’s firm is housed in a modern, functional winery set in the middle of vines, although like every winery in Champagne, there is an area for entertaining and for tasting, which seems an essential part of the conviviality of the product.
Bonnaire is unusual in that 50 percent of his wine is exported. “We started in the 1980s, when it was easy to sell our wine in France. After 1990, it became harder because we were not a big house, and we couldn’t grow our domestic market. Which is when we started exporting.”
As we were talking and tasting, it was obvious that his mind was partly on the harvest. Pickers kept arriving to be registered, and he was checking them out with half an eye. It sums up an important difference between a grower in Champagne and a big house—here the owner is concerned about the harvest, and not just making sure his marketing and press relations are up to scratch. It’s refreshing.
Another big difference is in the nature of the vines—and therefore the wines. Many of these growers have old vineyards, 30, 40 or even 70 years old, which form the backbone of their blends. As Gimmonet told me, “When the vines get over 30 years old, we get lower yields. Many of the big houses have very young vineyards, or buy from younger vineyards. Under 20 years old, I believe, and the vineyard doesn’t produce wine, it only produces Champagne. It is a much less complex product.”
Agrapart is equally aware of the importance of the old vines in the 62 different parcels that make up his 25 acres. Many of the vines are over 55 years old, and he is determined to protect and nurture them. “I decided to avoid the use of heavy tractors in the vineyard. I use a horse to plow, which is much more delicate on the soil. My neighbors, of course, think I’m mad.”
He also cut down on chemicals, turning to what the French call lutte raisonée—meaning that he uses chemicals only when needed, not systematically. “I found that by cutting chemicals, I could make wines that were more concentrated. The vine roots go deeper to find the nutrients from the subsoil.”
As I was talking to Agrapart, I tried to think back to the last time I had a conversation like this with someone from a big house. But there wasn’t a last time. Sometimes at a grand marque you feel that Champagne doesn’t come from grapes. Visiting a grower, the vines are a presence everywhere. The people are winemakers, not Champagne producers.
The greatest Champagnes from the great houses remain the pinnacles. They are the ones we still aspire to own and to drink. The best grower Champagnes, in quality terms, fit somewhere into the middle of the best of the big houses. The limited quantities mean that they are never going to be as widely available as the big brands. Yet they are worth seeking out because of the people behind the label—the families that own the land and make fine wines from it. Try some of our recommended producers. Then, like the Parisians, you too will feel that you’ve discovered something special.
|Small Growers, Great Wines|
Roger Voss’s selection of the best of the grower-producers