Elements of Champagne stand out as its cardinal virtues: prestige, rarity, purity, but before we get to these, a word about effervescence. The entire world holds effervescence as Champagne’s defining characteristic, the frothy mousse that so many wineries attempt, and a few outside La Champagne bring off well.
These bubbles, the erstwhile remnant of bottle fermentation, once loathed by Dom Perignon himself, define the identity of this region’s wines. In every instance, bubbles are a glass of wine’s loudest advertisement that this is a special beverage, drunk with abandon and care at the same time. Karen MacNeil points out in The Wine Bible (updated 2015) that, “…one stands taller when holding a flute of Champagne”. I have also found true that those charming, minuscule bubbles of CO2 rush alcohol to the bloodstream like firemen to a fire – when that straight posture resembles bravado.
Plenty of wine can be effervescent. Plenty of wines can be refreshing when served straight out of the icebox, even red wines. In short, if plenty of wine imitates Champagne, what renders this peculiar authenticity worth attention, or worse, higher cost? Prestige is a thing – but the habillage, the bottle’s clothes as it were, communicates this more clearly than the most consistent house style. Is that it? As in so many human interactions, if the clothes make the man, can the label makes the wine?
Peripherally, I would argue that the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label – and the fiery pride of Champagne’s grape growers are doing their best to get drinkers to ignore the labels of famous negociant Grandes Marques in favor of their single vineyard and single commune wines. The purity, rarity and prestige of these wines rests in their unique, flavorful, tiny productions, some as low as a few hundred cases per year. None of us can remember Champagne as a vineyard specific wine – now we are getting a chance.
Grand marques are the image of modern Champagne, their marketing budgets alone consist of kajillions of dollars for image and prestige. All growers in La Champagne benefit from the image-building of these négociants, while the negoce idea of terroir rests firmly in the backseat. The échelle des crus attempts to recognize the effects of context on fruit, but this ladder is more an industry scale than a consumer scale – and in the big houses, even the best vin clair gets the blending. The Grandes Marques Emperor is delicious, but in the context of the wider wine world, he has no clothes.
By contrast, these small growers are trying to put the clothes of terroir back on the frame of Champagne’s image, imitating their neighbors in Burgundy. It’s usually a regal picture. Recent, warmer vintages render sites more likely to withstand the scrutiny of single-vineyard bottling. However, success remains a mixed bag of regal and pedestrian – the importance to wine lovers is that the attempts are showing up. Please show a sense of adventure when choosing your next Champagne, your palate will thank you.
What follows is this taster’s impressions of a selection of 42 small grower Champagnes, presented by the region in which the wines were sourced.
The Aube – controversial in its re-inclusion to the Champagne AOC, the Kimmeridgian limestone surfaces here and is again recognized as comparable. While all grape varieties are planted here, the region has yet to make an outstanding wine. One highlight:
Tassin Brut NV exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of Aube and grower Champagne at once with its 80/20 Pinot/Chardonnay blend and lower wholesale pricing. The wine displays a bright, light mousse, appley citrus and barely ripe tropical impressions to a light finish. This wine provides a fine example of how Champagne can be enjoyed by a broad range of drinkers.
Cote des Blancs – centered around the communes of Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cuis – featuring the white grape that ripens enough in this slightly cooler region of limestone exposure. Some highlights:
Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Cuvee Gastronomie” Brut Premier Cru 2014 was a very effervescent example of a fine Champagne; the bouquet was notable for its deep lemony grapefruit characters and mild chalk/yeast/dough. The palate was creamy with mousse and actual texture echoing the bouquet with an almost limoncello character, almost invisible yeastiness and a delicate, ethereal finish.
Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Special Club Oger” Brut Grand Cru 2012 provides a dramatic difference to the Cuvee Gastronomie in its normal effervescence and robust, red fruit impressions from tart cherry to unroasted coffee. Remarkable and deserving attention alongside heartier cuisine.
Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” Brut Grand Cru NV (based on 2015 with reserve wine dating back to 1998) despite older reserve wine, the revelation of this wine was its absence of evidence of battonage or autolysis. The clean, brisk chalk impressions were firmly underpinned with brilliant lemon citrus and a lingering lemon, mildly tropical finish. Weightier as a GC might inspire but not heavy.
Varnier-Fanniere Brut Grand Cru NV showed a brilliant hybrid of Champagne and rich Meursault. On the Champagne side, there was a mild oxidation to the fruit that played well off of the chalk and nutty citrus flavors. The effervescence was low-key by comparison to its peers but with a richer almond, pear and mild roast coffee finish that was more reminiscent of Meursault than La Champagne.
Vallee de la Marne – warmer with more of the rough-hewn impressions of the Pinot Meunier grape, the region traditionally gives heft and longevity to the region’s best wines. Some highlights:
Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’Ay Brut Grand Cru NV despite the warmer region, this wine displays the lightness and ethereal qualities of a blanc de blancs with a delicate balance between almond shortbread and lemon meringue.
Marc Hebrart “Special Club” Brut Premier Cru 2013 runs the gamut of Champagne flavor with a medium plus texture, the ripe, roasted almond plays off of the red appleskin and yellow grapefruit flavor impressions to a lingering finish. Remarkable.
Geoffrey Rose de Saignee Brut Premier Cru NV displays an almost pet-nat character with indigenous yeast influence and robust plum, dark cherry and mushroom flavors on the complex palate. If this is the beginning of the complexity Champagne is assuming, the future is bright for lovers of the region’s wines.
Montagne de Reims – wines are based on Pinot Noir and typically among the more robust, ageable and complex of the region. Some highlights here include:
A. Margaine Rose Brut Premier Cru NV has become a light, bright and crisp example of the area but with a pale rose color echoed in the refreshing red cherry, bright raspberry and crisp citrus finish.
Jean Lallement et Fils Rose Brut Grand Cru NV makes an intense rose with a funky, mild mushroomy character alongside the clear, clean plum, dark cherry and sheer character of flavor. Another standout.
L. Aubry Fils “Aubry de Humbert” Brut Premier Cru 2009 smells like a fruit bowl of banana, pineapple and smoky lemon. The texture and mousse is moderate allowing the melange of flavors to show off on the palate before cleaner citrus arrives on the finish.
Pierre Paillard “Les Mottelettes” Blanc des Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru 2012 registers as the single most assertive BdB in memory. The robust, almost dried lemon, almond shortbread and guava impressions are heavy enough as to not be appealing to every Champagne fan, but it remains a remarkable wine with a long life ahead.
These wines were tasted with labels showing and expectations based around growing region and color of the wines.
“…the art of connoisseurship is the art of ignoring the label.”