Champagne Refresher & Grower Fizz to Look For!
Champagne Fun Facts
Nothing says I want the best more than when someone asks for a glass of Champagne, it is luxurious, it’s sexy and it oozes class, but do you really know what the hell it is? The rules of making and growing Champagne have always left people looking glassy eyed and barely awake, they have been changed when required and now might even surprise the most learned students of wine, as I even found out. We have always been told or taught there are three grapes allowed in Champagne, including the red varietals Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and of course Chardonnay queen of the white grapes, but the AOC actually allows seven these legal grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier! I admit I haven’t even heard of those last two, as in never…
Extra Dry = off dry with sweetness, Brut = classic dry, Extra Brut = more dry with extreme vibrancy & Zero, Nature and Non Dosage = like Extra Brut, but with no added sugar
Growing & Production Rules
As for growing and production, the steady changes included more strict farming and yields to improve quality and planting density is rigorously enforced, the first major update came in 1978 with the goal being to stop massive industrial farming with the aim being to optimize fruit quality through high-density (8,000 plants per hectare) low-yield vineyards. Production is well regulated too with rules forbidding the bottling of wines until the second day of January following the harvest and with the mandatory approval for all press centres, as well as press yields set at 102 litres of must per 160kg grapes (up from 150 kilos), these were phased in between 1984 and 1993.
The main rules, that mean the most and regard labeling consist of secondary fermentation in the bottle, and minimum periods of maturation on lees, with 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne. What does that mean, it means even if you use the base wine from a single vintage it cannot be put on the label unless the wine saw 36 months on the lees before disgorgement otherwise it is considered a non-vintage.
Grande Marques v. Grower Producers
Now that is all well and good and seems well intentioned, but does it matter? Yes and no, it certainly helps distinguish base Champagnes from the main Grande Marques and big houses, and clearly there most often a huge overall quality jump when you get into the vintage bubbly. Then, you can forget everything you’ve just learned when it comes to what we in the biz call grower fizz, these are the grower producers that are all the rage with the true terroir enthusiasts, these are usually single vineyard, single harvest Champagnes crafted by the artisan vignerons rather than the cellar master at lets say Moet et Chandon who oversees a million cases a year in production from vineyards they either own or contract for throughout the region.
The thing to understand most, is not that all grower producers are better, it’s naive to think so, it’s that the big guys produce Champagne to be consistent with their house style, both in the non-vintage and the vintage wines, this is a major undertaking and should be marveled at and respected, I mean have you ever had the heavenly Krug Grande Cuvee? It’s gorgeous, it exists because of the skill of the blending of reserve and vintage wines, while a grower producer is focused on their vineyard and what flavors it gives, some can and are blended from different years, but a lot are from a single year and are expressions of vintage, grapes grown and terroir. They can be utterly spell binding sparklers, and in many ways they have changed the game, they have pushed away the idea that Champagne must be drunk out of a flute or coupe and enjoyed in a real wine glass with a large bowl and are less about a special occasion that what you’d drink at any old meal, they are meant to be wine in the truest sense, not the showering spray after the winning driver of a Grand Prix takes his checkered flag and trophy on the podium or the bottle of yellow label you buy once a year for that anniversary or birthday. Again, before I get hate letters, I never turn down Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier or the mentioned Krug, they are are absolutely beautiful, and if I’m honest there no beating the Tete Cuvees from these Grande Marques, even the Dom Perignon, which is over produced maybe, is always almost without exception a great experience and then there is vintage Salon Le Mesnil, otherworldly without question.
Finding Grower Fizz
While it is easy to find the Grande Marques, it’s harder to find the grower fizz and which one to buy, so here are a few names to look for, even though you’ll not see any at Cosco, BevMo, Safeway or more than one or two at Whole Foods, so be prepared to find them online or your local independent wine merchant. The two most important and early importers to focus on grower producer Champagne were and are Kermit Lynch and Terry Theise, they are always a reference point and a great place to start this particular journey, though now they’ve been joined by another dozen or so committed people that have found a love for these wines and are bringing in some great stuff. This baker’s dozen are ones you should know, Vilmart & Cie, Mousse Fils, Gaston Chiquet and Pierre Peters imported by Terry These, Lassalle and Paul Bara imported by Kermit Lynch, Selosse imported by Rare Wine Co. Leherte Freres and R. H. Coutier imported by Beaune Imports and Marion-Bosser imported by Aliane Wines as well as Domaine Nowack imported by Floraison Selections, Andre Couet imported by Sacred Thirst Selections and last but not least Guy Larmandier imported by Rosenthal Wine Merchant.
Wines to exploren.v. Guy Larmandier, Brut Zero Premier Cru Champagne, Cotes des Blancs, A Vertus, France.
I absolute love the latest version of Guy Larmandier’s Brut Zero Cotes des Blancs Champagne, it’s so dynamic and mineral it stuns in the glass showing bright intensity, loaded with energy and zingy citrusy lemon, green apple and light tropical fruits, while somehow still being poise, elegant and expansive. Maison Champagne Guy Larmandier’s cellars, now run by Guy’s kids Francois and Marie-Helene, is located in the village of Vertus at the southern base of the Cote des Blancs, with the estate owning nine hectares of vineyards, which are all located within the Cote des Blancs, scattered among the Grand Cru villages of Chouilly and Cramant with their Jurassic limestone soils, as well as in the Premier Cru vineyards of Vertus and Cuis. Larmandier’s Champagnes are all aged a minimum of 36 months on the lees and receive a minimal dosage or none, so to showcase the purity, vitality and finesse of these special terroirs. The non vintage Vertus Brut Zero, a recent edition to the lineup, is a cuvee of about 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir from Larmandier’s Premier Cru home village site, which sits on tuffs of chalky soils with old vines, they average about 40 years, the fermentation and aging is all in stainless steel tanks with full malos. Larmandier’s Champagnes all show extreme freshness and are crisply sober and nervy in style with less brioche and more lean, but still generous and lengthy, with this one expressing a beautiful floral nose and sharply focused detail, it’s a gorgeous and serious food wine that can make a palate impact, it’s especially great with briny dishes and can hold up to heat and or soft cheeses. Wet stone, saline and melon notes add to the mix and it’s vivid and refined mousse feels just about perfect with beads of tiny bubbles that heightens the vibrancy and the pleasure in this great bubbly.
($50 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
nv R.H. Coutier, Tradition, Grand Cru Brut Tradition Champagne, Ambonnay, France.
The brilliant R. H. Coutier Grand Cru Brut Tradition, 70% Pinot Noir and 30 Chardonnay, coming from the Pinot leaning village of Ambonnay is an organic and grower Champagne that impresses for it’s depth and decadence, while being crystalline, pure and full of energy, it’s wonderfully dry on the palate and rich in character. The youthful Antoine Coutier and team are making some amazing all Grand Cru grower fizz these days, and these new release, especially this Brut Tradition, disgorged in July 2017, based on mostly on 2013 vintage, are great values, they rival some far more expensive offerings from this particular village and region, in fact it held up well against a to die for 2002 Bollinger R.D. tasted along side! The nose has plenty of yeasty charm and white flowers with a hint of wet stones and short bread biscuit, which leads to an opulent palate with it’s ultra fine mousse and vinous textural elegance, shows apple, lemon and doughy notes with a hint of chalk and hazelnut. Again the luxurious mouth feel gives a gorgeous pleasing sensation, though it gets a lift from it’s vital acidity and the micro bubbles, there is also a sense of Pinot Noir tension and structure that makes a serious impact and let’s you know you are drinking something remarkable. The unique and individual personality of this R. H. Coutier make it irresistible and it’s price make it a must have Champagne, this is top notch stuff, don’t miss, and be sure to search out their Brut Rose too!
($35 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive