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December 23, 2007

Champagne Beyond the Big Names


WHEN it comes to Champagne, are you a slave to fashion?

Americans are preparing to indulge in the traditional holiday bubblefest: more than 360 million glasses of sparkling wine are expected to be consumed over the holiday season, according to a new tally by M. Shanken Communications. Sparkling wines are made all over the world, but those hailing from the Champagne region of France — the only ones that can be called Champagne — have a special cachet.

Among the offerings, a handful dominate: Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot together account for 55 percent of Champagne sold in the United States. These two blockbuster brands, along with Krug, Ruinart and Mercier, are owned by the luxury giant LVMH. In fact, the top Champagne brands are almost all owned by conglomerates, which churn out millions of bottles annually while spending heavily to market an image of luxury.

Against this backdrop, a relatively new genre of Champagne, made by independent grower-producers, has been quietly gaining a foothold. Many of these small, family-owned vineyards have long supplied the big houses with grapes: land in Champagne is limited, so big makers rely on the 20,000 or so small farmers across the region for their grapes, which they blend together. About 2,000 of these farmers make their own bubbly, the best of which is increasingly available in the United States.

Unlike the brands that serve a mass market and aim for a consistent house style, the grower Champagnes are made artisanally in small batches — tens of thousands of bottles, compared with tens of millions for the bigger houses. Because the grapes come from the growers’ own small estates, they tend to display that elusive quality known as terroir, which expresses a particular soil and climate.

And because the growers don’t have the huge marketing budgets that the grand marques do, their Champagne is often less expensive. Champagne from a grower in a top-rated grand cru village can be an especially good deal. (In Champagne, villages, rather than vineyards, are rated, with the very best deemed grand cru.)

Officially, the growers are known as récoltants-manipulants (harvester-makers) and identified by a tiny “RM” on their labels. Champagne houses that buy grapes to make their wines are called négociants-manipulants, or “NM.”

“Every year it’s growing,” says Gregory Dal Piaz, director of customer development at Astor Wines and Spirits in New York, which offers a wide selection of grower Champagne.

K & L Wine Merchants on the West Coast also has a good selection. “If there’s an RM on the label, your chances of getting a bad bottle are very slim,” says Gary Westby, a buyer for K & L.

Mr. Dal Piaz says he prefers to drink grower Champagne to “support farmers who work the land.” But the real draw, he says, is the distinctiveness, character and diversity of styles of grower Champagnes. “It makes Champagne more exciting,” he says.

The growers have reinvigorated a region that had grown somewhat complacent. “There’s a buzz on the Champagne scene now,” says Terry Theise, an importer who was an early champion of “farmer fizz.”

Like the big houses, grower-producers make a mix of nonvintage wines (a blend of wine from two or more vintages), single vintages and prestige cuvées, or special blends.

Vilmart & Compagnie, a producer in Rilly-la-Montagne in the northern reaches of Champagne, has gained a reputation as the “poor man’s Krug.” Like the venerable Krug, Vilmart’s are barrel-fermented before they are blended, giving them depth and complexity. Its nonvintage Grand Cellier, a mix of about two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot noir, at around $47, is fairly easy to find. Its 1999 Coeur de Cuvée (around $99) is heady and intense.

Also in northern Champagne, in the village of Jouy-lès-Reims, is Aubry. One of the more adventurous producers, it uses the classic grapes of Champagne — chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier — as well as more obscure varieties like arbanne, petit meslier and pinot gris. These last three varieties are found in the earthy, exotic 2003 Le Nombre d’Or Sablé Blanc des Blancs ($86). Aubry also makes mineral-laden rosé bubblies that are considered among the region’s best.

Another choice for the intrepid is Egly-Ouriet, based in the village of Ambonnay. Egly makes full-bodied, rich Champagne mostly from red grapes. Its Brut “Vignes de Vrigny” is made with 100 percent pinot meunier, a grape that typically takes a back seat to chardonnay and pinot noir in Champagne. It is bursting with earthy yet sophisticated flavor ($55).

THE Côte des Blancs region, home to a large number of grand cru-rated villages, is a good source for value Champagnes like the elegant blanc des blancs from Jean Milan, Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Peters.

Pierre Peters has 40 acres in Mesnil-sur-Oger, a grand cru village that is also home to the revered houses Krug and Salon. From this prized chalky soil, Mr. Peters makes refined blanc de blancs, like the Cuvée de Réserve Brut N.V., full of deliciously crisp flavors and priced at around $35. Then there is his Cuvée Spéciale, from a single parcel containing vines that are more than 70 years old. The 1999 vintage can be had for around $60. That compares with hundreds of dollars for the rare releases of Le Mesnil from Salon or Clos du Mesnil from Krug ($1,000 for the 1996, its most recent), which also come from single vineyards in the village.

Indeed, despite years of insisting that Champagne must be blended from many different lots to achieve a consistent and desirable style, more of the négociants, including Moët & Chandon, are exploring single-vineyard bottlings. The most eagerly awaited may be Krug’s recently announced single-vineyard, 100 percent pinot noir Clos d’Ambonnay 1995. When it is released this spring in the United States, it is expected to sell for around $3,000 a bottle.

Those with more modest budgets may want to give farmer fizz a try.



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