Perhaps more than any other wine region in the world, Champagne has a dichotomy between the big guys and the little guys. It’s not a reach to draw an analogy with the U.S. economy, in which 1 percent of the wineries make a vast percentage of the money.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or with their products (for the most part). Quite the contrary, actually. I recently tasted through a delicious selection from Duval-Leroy and a while back was wowed by an array from Veuve Clicquot. Dom Perignon, Perrier-Jouet, Nicholas Feuillatte — these and other major houses produce stellar stuff year in and year out.
But what has a boatload of wine lovers juiced these days is what 99 percent of the Champagne region’s producers are bottling. They’re called “grower Champagnes” because the grower is the producer; they’re the ultimate “estate” wineries.
Many of the region’s 15,000-plus farmers sell their grapes to one of the 20 “grand marques,” which blend grapes from all over Champagne to make sparkling wine in their “house style.” That makes the likes of Krug and Piper-Heidsieck more reliable (their customers know what style wine they’re getting) and less vintage-dependent (they can use more grapes from certain regions or years in blending their non-vintage bubbles).
Grower Champagnes, on the other hand, are more terroir-specific and prone to problems when the weather doesn’t cooperate in this rather vast region (including hail, which destroyed hundreds of acres of this year’s crop).
But that also makes “farmer fizz” more enigmatic, for better or worse, since they’re from one specific site rather than scores of sites like the big houses. Idiosyncrasy is a two-sided coin: The 4,600-plus growers making their own Champagne include some people who probably should be making cider or cheese. But hundreds of these “little guys” are producing bubble-rific wines of distinction and precision.
These Champagnes have added appeal among those who are interested, often with a passion, in where their food comes from and how it is raised. “I think conscientious people make political decisions in the market all the time,” said importer Terry Theise, who brings several stellar grower Champagnes to these shores. “We get to make better or lesser choices with everything we do in the market.”
And the “farmer fizz” choices are many and varied. Among the stellar brands that Theise’s outfit, Michael Skurnik Wines, brings to this market are Pierre Peters (a Surdyk’s exclusive), Marc Hebrart, Henriot and Pierre Gimonnet.
Other “farmer fizz” worth seeking out in this market: Gonet-Medeville, Jean Laurent, Veuve Fourny and Diebolt-Vallois. Or just look for “RM” (recoltant-manipulant, or “harvest-handling”) in teeny-tiny letters on the label.
Where to buy it? Among the stores that have gotten behind grower Champagne are Surdyk’s, Big Top/Sid’s, France 44, Solo Vino, South Lyndale, Sorellla and North Loop.
The movement picked up momentum when Anselme Selosse (whose Jacques Selosse bottlings are worth begging, borrowing or stealing for) introduced growing and winemaking practices used by the little guys in Burgundy to Champagne. Until then, almost all the grapes went to the grand marques, and even now less than 5 percent of Champagne’s output comes from growers.
But now there are more options, from both the redoubtable larger operations and the fizz farmers. Neither is necessarily “better,” but isn’t it grand to live in a world where we have choices?
Especially with this kind of wine, which should be consumed much more often than it is. Food-friendly, energizing and just plain fun, Champagne is also ever so quaffable.
“Champagne has beautiful flavors and in some cases intense flavors, but it’s still light on the palate,” Theise said during a recent Twin Cities visit. “The nice thing about wines like this that are low in alcohol is that they are high in other good things, like gracefulness and transparency.”