Grower Champagne, Farmer Fizz it’s been called. Why do we want to drink it? Why would I prefer “a dirt to glass story” to go with my bubbly? Who wouldn’t?
Quick breakdown on Champagne
You are probably already aware that just because it is fizzy wine, doesn’t mean you can call it Champagne. That title is reserved for sparkling wines made in the Methode Champenois in the Champagne region of France. (for more on what makes Champagne different dive into our piece “Sparkling Wine or Champagne“.)In the US in California they labeled bubbly as Champagne for a bit, (something to do we us not ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, back in 1919. When we then signed the wine trade agreement with France in 2006, Korbel was grandfathered in to be allowed to use the name Champagne) and France put the kibosh on that.
So to be called Champagne you must come from the Champagne Region in France. Now within that there are more distinctions and here is where “Grower Champagne” comes in.
Most Champagnes come from large Champagne Houses or Maisons. These houses may have estate vineyards, but they also source from all over the region, pulling grapes from small growers. They then blend the juice and often blend in some previous vintages. The goal? To create a uniform wine NV (non vintage) that will have consistent flavor and quality from year to year. A noble pursuit! And many fine Champagnes come from these houses.
The Champagne AOC is one of the largest in France covering 340,000 hectares with over 300 Villages.
80% of the wine coming out of this AOC is produced by Négociants and Coopératives.
They can pull from anywhere in the AOC AND they can purchase not only grapes, but pressed juice or in some cases sur-lattes (that is pre-made sparkling wine).
Picture the small winery, one that has maybe been in the family for generations, growing grapes and now, rather than selling those grapes to someone else to blend, they keep those grapes and make their own wine. This is a wine that speaks of their land, their soil and their style. We love this in wineries, don’t we? It’s tougher to do in Champagne, because the bubbly, well… the equipment is expensive and the process is time consuming.
For those who don’t have the money to invest in the equipment you find Cooperatives, places where smaller vineyard owners can get together and make a Champagne from a village. These vineyards bring their grapes together and one winemaker will often make a cuvée. These are often vintage Champagnes. These are noted on the bottle with “CM” for Coopérative Manipulant.
True Grower Champagne comes from a Vigneron. Someone who owns the land, farms the land, harvests the grapes and makes the wine. They are typically vintage Champagnes and the best part about this (IMHO) is that they taste different from year to year. As with good still wines, you are able to taste the terroir. It makes tasting much more exciting in my opinion.
Types of Champagne Producers
So a quick breakdown on the one set of codes that you will find in fine print on the Champagne Bottle that can help you determine the origin of your Champagne.
ND Négociant Distributeur
- These guys are the labeler/marketers. They buy a Champagne, label it and sell it.
MA Marque d’Acheteur
- Kinda like ND’s, they just buy a wine and private label it with their brand.
(So I don’t have alot of use for these top two. If you need to buy a whole bunch of Champagne for a celebration and no one is going to notice quality…well maybe then. I mean bubbles are bubbles, but if you have a choice…look for the codes below)
NM Négociant Manipulant
- They may buy all or some of their grapes from others. Deal is that anything under 94% estate fruit puts you in this category. While big houses are typically in this class, it’s easy for others other to get lopped in also.
CM Coopérative Manipulant
- These are the Co-ops we talked about above. This is a group of growers that work together to make a single wine or brand.
RC Récoltant Coopérateur
- This is a small grower, who rather that purchasing their own equipment, has it made at a co-op facility (we see lots of this style of co-op popping up in California for wineries)
SR Sociéty de Récolants
- This is a group of growers who get together to buy the equipment to share and then each produce their own wine. (These spots are popping up in California too for still wines. The Buellton Bodegas that Michael Larner started is a great example, they have separate warehouses for each winery, but they share the larger more expensive equipment)
RM Récolant Manipulant
- This is where it’s at in my book. They grow the grapes (a minimum of 95% must be estate)
Where do you find this on the label? Well, it varies, but typically it is in small print on the back label.
Just because you are a grower, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are making “Vintage” Champagne. You can be a grower and still blend previous vintages and make a cuvée. And truth be told, if you want to sell a Vintage Champagne, there are a few more hoops for you to jump through regulation wise. Vintage Champagnes must spend a minimum of 3 years aging on the lees in bottle, where as non-vintage only need 15 months.
Some Growers choose to put the vintage on the label. Others, while adhering to the standards for a vintage, prefer to focus on the vineyard and site. You will see this below with the Chartogne-Taillet I tasted.
Regions within the Champagne AOC
Within the Champagne AOC there are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne and Côte des Bars.
Overall, the Paris Basin is Jurassic sediment covered in Cretaceous Chalk and the Chalk is the key to the terroir in this region. Chalk can hold water, so the roots struggle to dig down up to 30 meters to tap into this moisture. The average precipitation in the Champagne region is just 26 inches each year, so this moisture stored in the soil is critical to keeping the vines going.
Each of the regions within the Champagne AOC have slightly different soil breakdowns and each grow a slightly different mix of wine grapes.
Montagne de Reims
This region in the Northwest of Champagne has cretaceous chalk with clay and sand for soil. The breakdown for grapes in the region is 56% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay and 16% Pinot Meunier. You might see village names on the label also. The Grand Cru Villages include: Ambonnay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Verzenay and Verzy. Premier Cru Villages include: Bezzanes, Billy-la-Grand, Chamery, Chigny-les-Roses, Eceuil, Jouy les Reims, Les Mesneux, Ludes, Montebré, Pargny les Reims, Rilly-la-Montagne, Sacy,Taissy, Tauxières-Mutry, Trépail, Troi Puits, Vaudemanges, Villiers-Allernad, Villier-aux-Noeuds, Ville-Dommange and Villiers Marmery. Vineyards here face multiple directions (northeast, southeast, southwest and west). The tops of the hills have deposits of lignite that nourishes the chalk soils below.
Vallée de la Marne
South West of Montagne de Reims along the Marne River you find the Vallée de la Marne region. Here Pinot Meunier is king, with 63% of the grapes grown. Pinot Noir comes in at 27% and Chardonnay at 10%. The sub soil is Cretaceous chalk with a top soil mix of clay, flint, limestone, marl and sand. There are 2 Grand Cru Villages: Aÿ, and Tours-sur Marne. Premier Cru Villages include: Bisseuil, Champillon, Cumières, Dizy, Huatvillers, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Mutigny. The best vineayrds here face south.
Côte des Blancs
South of the Vallé de la Marne you find the Côte des Blancs. There is a reason for the name, 96% of the grapes grown here are Chardonnay with a mere 3% Pinot Noir and 1% Pinot Meunier. The soil here is Cretaceous Chalk. There is a bit of clay and sand, but really it is overwhelmingly chalk. Vineyards are typically east or southeast facing. Grand Cru Villages include: Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Oiry. Premier Cru Villages include: Bergèrese-les-Vertus, Coligny, Cuis, Etréchy, Vertus, Villeneuve-Renneville and Voipreux.
Côte des Sézzane
Step a little further south of Côte des Blancs and you find Côte des Sézzane. Like Côte des Blancs, it is mostly Chardonnay that is grown here. The vineyards here are about 64% Chardonnay and tend to face southeast which allows them to get a little riper than the grapes of the Côte des Blancs. The soils here are clay and clay silk with pockets of chalk.
Côte des Bars or The Aube
The furthest south you find The Aube or Côte des Bars. Here the grapes are primarily Pinot Noir (83%) and the soil is marl. Almost half of the PInot Noir grown in the Champagne AOC is grown in this region. While not as well known, this area has some of the prettiest country side. It includes the 3 communes that make up Les Riceys; Ricey-Bas, Ricey-Haut and Ricey-Haut-Rive.
How does this all affect the flavor?
For the most part you will notice the wines of Côtes des Sézzane and Côte de Bars are more aromatic and have less acidity. The wines of the Vallée de la Marne are unctuous and fruity (due to the pinot meunier) and the Côtes des Blancs are higher in acidity and racy.
As I was researching I found that the big wine mega shops don’t typically have staff that will recognize the term “Grower Champagne”. I had a couple of less than pleasant phone and face to face conversations that left me frustrated. I reached out to the smaller wine shops that, sadly, are all the way on the other side of the valley from me (45 minute to an hour one way trip). Incredibly, I missed out on a tasting event with Jean-Remy Rapeneau, who’s family owns Chateau Bligny at Khoury’s. I found out about it too late to manage to go. I did also contact Valley Cheese and Wine in Henderson. They had over 20 different grower Champagnes in stock. We went to look and picked up one bottle and found that they were doing a Champagne Class. So…you will get to hear about that at the bottom of this piece.
When in Vegas…my go to wine shops are Khoury’s and Valley Cheese and Wine.
From our trek across the valley to Valley Cheese and Wine we picked up a bottle of Grower Champagne from Pierre Péters. This was their Rosé for Albane Brut NV. This comes through the Terry Thiese Estate Selection.
A little about Pierre Péters
So Gaspar Péters, was from Luxembourg. In 1858 he married Miss Doué who owned vineyards in Le Mesnil. They started their operation with about 2 hectares. Their son Louis Joseph continued the business. Louis’ son Camille, was one of the first growers in 1919 to sell bottles under his name. In 1930 Camille acquired “Le Chétillons” which was 2.5 hectares. Pierre was Camille’s oldest son. At the ripe old age of 12 they had him out traveling on his own developing sales. He evidently took the branding to heart and when his father passed he took over operations and released the first vintage under Pierre Péters. In 1967 the estate passed to François, his second son who ran the estate until 2008. In 2007 Rodolphe Péters joined the family estate. He came with 12 years of experience as an oenologist/winemaker in the wine world. (information from http://champagne-peters.com/en/historical)
This Champagne is from the Côte des Blancs region and within that Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. This is a 20 hectare vineyard, so around 50 acres and produces 14,000 cases annually. Soils here are Cretaceous Chalk and they grow 100% Chardonnay. They are known for their Blanc de Blancs. So…hmmm how do they make a rosé? Well, they moved into the rosé market in 2007 adding this “Rosé for Albane” which adds some saignée Pinot Meunier to Chardonnay. This wine is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Meunier.
Champagne & Sushi
We paired this first with some takeout sushi, we were hungry and it was what was for lunch! And really, you can’t go wrong with sushi and Champagne. Rosé Champagne is great against melt in your mouth fish and soy. We always talk about salt and fat with Champagne (popcorn, potato chips, caviar & créme fraiche) you get that same fat from the fish and salt from the soy. And for me, the festive atmosphere a sushi platter creates goes great with bubbles.
I did dive deeper into pairings and later we paired the Champagne with a selection of cheeses. We visited our friendly Murray’s Cheese counter and picked up a couple cheeses to pair.
I was hoping to pair the buttery and nutty notes of this wine with the Champagne. It was okay, but I honestly liked the cheese better on it’s own. This is a raw cow’s milk cheese from the Emmental region of Switzerland. When you say swiss cheese, this is what you mean.
Brie and Champagne. No brainer right? This cheese is double creme and is similar to Brie and leans towards buttery flavors. It paired as perfectly as expected.
Alpine cheese is a great pairing for Champagne. We waffled between Comte and Gruyere and thought we were picking up the Gruyere. No worries, this cheese went very well. As firm as this cheese can be on it’s own, the Champagne makes it seem lighter in your mouth. This cheese is cut from 90 pound wheels from the France’s Jura. It is made from raw, mountain pasture fed cow milk.
Typically I would have chosen this to go with a sweeter wine, but I wanted to see how it would do. Topped with a bit of honey, it was heaven. Without the honey, Meh. Made from pasteurized cows milk in Auvergne, this cheese is made from unpressed curds inoculated with a blue mold. They start a bit crumbly, but then after 4 months in cave you get a smoother softer blue with notes sweet cream and mushrooms.
We garnished with champagne grapes. No they are not really the grapes that you make champagne from, but they are cute sweet little grapes that are tasty and look adorable on the cheese plate. That sweetness was a great offset to the savory cheeses.
We also paired with a fresh cheese bread and quite honestly that was one of my favorite pairing. All the yeastiness was happy to play together in my mouth. Bread and Champagne….yeah, I could happily try to live on that.
Now for a brief rundown of my Champagne Class at Valley Cheese and Wine.
A Champagne Tasting
So I spent an evening around a table with a dozen or so people at, Valley Cheese and Wine, tasting through some Champagnes with Bob, who focus’ on the wine here. We were tasting through 6 Champagnes all but one were Grower Champagnes.
They did provide us pairings for the tasting (after all they are a cheese shop also and Kristin brings in an amazing array of cheeses) The platter of cheeses included Cremèux de Diteaux with truffle (a cow’s milk cheese from France), Clochette (goat’s milk cheese from France) and Regal de Bourgogne with raisins (cow’s milk from France). There were blueberries, strawberries, dried apricots, raspberries and bread, plus Jamon Serrano from Spain, Chorizo from Spain and Speck from Italy. Later in the evening, hot fries and baked macaroni and cheese with crumb topping were served. The salt the fat the richness, was perfect for the Champagne to cut through.
Run by a family team of mother Carol and her 3 sons Julien, Charles and Louis, this is a Champagne House, not a Grower Champagne. They produce about 4.5 million bottles annually. The Duval-Leroy Champagne house was formed in 1859 between two families; the Duval family of Vertus in the Côtes des Blancs and the Leroy family, merchants from Reims. It has been passed down father to son for 6 generations. Carol Duval-Leroy took over the company in 1991, when her husband unexpectedly passed at just 39 years of age.
Duval-Leroy Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2006 Prestige
100% Chardonnay, 2,000 cases produced. This is made from grapes from the Grand Cru Villages that include: Avize, Cramant, Chouilly, le Mesnil sur Oger and Oiry in the Côte des Blancs. This goes under malolactic ferementation to give it a smoothness and that bit of bready yeastiness on the nose. These wines age in chalk cellars for a minimum of 6 years. This wine ages on the lees for 6 years.
This was a good Champagne, but it sat as our control. It was a bright Blanc de Blanc. Each of the wines we tasted after this were much more intense both in the nose and in flavor on the palate.
Located in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, this is a family farm. Champagne Doyard has 10 hectares of Chardonnay spread over Vertus, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Cramant and Avize. They also have 1 hectare of Pinot Noir in Vertus and Aÿ. The vineyards average 40 years in age. They can trace their family roots in Champagne to the 17th century. They farm biodynamically and the vineyards are worked by horse rather than tractor to keep the ground in the vineyards from compacting.
2011 Champagne Doyard Clos de L’Abbaye Premier Cru Extra Dry
“Clos” indicates wall, and this wine is made from a little walled vineyard behind the winery that was planted in 1956. It spent 4 years on the lees. This is a vintage champagne and it is 100% Chardonnay.
I found this wine to be more fragrant than the first. There were fruits and florals on the nose and the flavors floated in my mouth and had a lovely length.
Located in the Vallée de la Marne, Jean-Paul Hébrart took over the reins from his father in 1997. With 15.5 hectares of vineyard they produce 8,750 cases annually. Calculated in acres that is 37 acres, which is made up of 70 different parcels in 10 villages. They do 6 or 7 cuvées here. The soil here is chalk and they grow 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. Jean-Paul is experimenting with indigenous yeast and barrel fermentation. Everything here is organic and sustainable and they hand riddle the bottles.
Rive Gauch Rive Droite 2010 Grand Cru Champagne Hébrart Extra Dry
This wine is named for the vineyards that comprise this blend which sit on both the left and right sides of the Marne River. This wine is 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir, natural yeast, unfiltered and made in barrels. This wine is part of the Skurnik Portfolio. This aged 6 years on the lees and the pinot noir is old vine.
As we went through the tasting I felt like the aromas in each wine became more intense. The nose on this wine is intense. It hit me with notes of apple cider, that type of sweetness, that is tangy on the nose. This wine was served with the baked macaroni and cheese with a crumb topping.
From the Montagne de Reims region. This winery has 11.5 hectares of vineyards and produces 7,500 cases of wine annually. They grow 40% chardonnay, 38% pinot noir, 20% pinot meunier and 2% arbanne. They are located in the village of Merfy and have been growing wine there for over 500 years. Alexandre Chartogne now runs things and is delving into biodynamics. He uses stainless steel, neutral barrique and concrete eggs and allows for natural malolactic fermentation. Another from the Skurnik Portfolio, you can find more information here.
The vines in this vineyard go deep to look for water, some digging down as much as 65 feet. They are also ungrafted vines (which is risky for phylloxera, an aphid which in the early 1900’s took out over 70% of the vines in France. Since then most French vines are grafted to American root stock which those little aphids evidently don’t like to eat). They believe that the ungrafted vines pull more terroir and varietal character into the wines.
We tasted 2 wines from this producer, which were made from a single vintage, but they chose not to label them as vintage Champagnes, but rather to focus on the single vineyards each came from.
*Bob did a follow up to confirm the reasoning for Chartogne-Taillet not releasing as vintage. The answer was “Chartogne wants to have flexibility and to release them as he wants rather than by regulation. The vintage in which the wines were harvested is on the back label.”
Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres Extra Dry
This wine is made from grapes from the 2012 vintage, but they chose not to label it by vintage. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 2010. It is 100% Pinot Meunier.
This wine was fragrant and unctuous. I got an herbal-bramble note lightly on the nose. This wine felt a little more wild to me. I had not had a 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne before, and it was exotic to me and I liked it!
Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Couarres Chateau Extra Dry
They make a Couarres Champagne also, but this is the Couarres Château Champagne, a distinction that indicates the specific vineyard. This is a single parcel wine with vines planted in 1987.
This wine is 100% Pinot Noir. It was a lovely wine, but quite honestly, I was so enamoured by the Les Barres….
Located in the Vallée de la Marne in Cumières the Champagne Geoffroy vineyards span 14 hectares (just over 34 acres) and they produce 10,400 cases anually. Soils here are calcareous, sandstone and clay. The family has been rooted in Cumières since the 17th century, but it was in the 1950’s when Roger and Julienne Geoffroy decided to start making their own wine. René Geoffroy took the reins when his father passes all to soon and together with his wine Bernadette they continued the brand. Today, Jean Baptiste Geoffroy runs the estate and they have moved the winemaking facilities to Aÿ. The vineyards are made up of 35 plots of 24% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Meunier and 42% Pinot Noir.
Champagne Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée
The Rosé de Saignée Brut is hand harvested and sorted and they avoid malolactic fermentation. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir and you get that Pinot funk the minute you dip your nose in the glass. This is a Saignée, and we have talked about this in terms of rosé before, where a winemaker will bleed off some of the juice of a red wine to intensify the flavors and then use this bled off juice to make a rosé. In this case they let the juice sit on the skins for about 4 hrs to get this vivid color and intensity and then bled off all of the juice to use to make this Champagne. It spends 3 years on lees.
You get bright BRIGHT red fruit on this and some savory notes. It is cheerful in color and intense with flavor. (Think Tavel intensity with bubbles)
The Grower Champagne Community
As Bob talked about the winemakers, most of whom he has met. He talked about what a small community they are and how they help each other out. The Pinot Meunier that is used in the Pierre Péters Rosé that we started with comes from either Geoffroy or Hébrart. These growers all know each other and work together, sharing knowledge. It was heartwarming to know that the type of wine community that we have seen in Oregon and Santa Barbara, winemakers working together and supporting each other, exists across the pond.
And I mentioned hand riddling, horses plowing fields, organic and sustainable farming and really all of these producers are doing that. Most in fact are gravity flow in their winemaking. They differ in sites, and in styles, but overall growing philosophies are similar.
Global Warming as it impacts Champagne
They are seeing the signs of Global Warming on a very locale scale. They and other Champagne makers are finding each year that they are cutting back on the dosage (the sweetness added to the bottle after disgogement that determines the sweetness of the Champagne). This is because the grapes are getting riper earlier. Within their lifetime they are watching tremendous change in the climate and ripening times in the vineyards. Bob mentioned that one wine maker had said “If they tell you Global Warming is not happening, send them to my vineyard, they can see.”
Now if you are heading out to buy a bottle of Grower Champagne, be aware that these wines are not cheap. They run from $85 to $175 retail and there are many in the shop that run $200-$300 each. You can find Grower Champagnes that are less expensive, and you may find a great deal, but keep in mind, that Grower Champagne is all the rage these days, and many people are jumping into the market without proper experience. Do a tasting if you can, before settling on splurging on a bottle.
The French Winophiles on Grower Champagne
We are lucky enough to get to associate with some wonderful people in the French # Winophiles group and this month we all dove into Grower Champagne. So if this has wet your whistle, you can dive into more great information and pairings for Grower Champagne. And…join us on Twitter on Saturday Morning 11 am EST or 8 am PST! Just follow #Winophiles to join in the conversation! And it’s Saturday morning, pop a bottle of Grower Champagne while you join us!
Here are the links to all the other great articles the #winophiles have out there on the subject!
- Jeff of FoodWineClick will be “Taking a Saber to Farmer Fizz“
- Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla says Skip The Butterbombs and Pair Champagne with Alpine Cheeses Instead
- Jane of Always Ravenous will be Pairing Pizza with Grower Champagne
- Nicole of Somm’s Table will be offering 5 Champagne Toasts
- Payal of Keep the Peas serves up Champagne: Le Vin du Diable
- Lynn of Savor The Harvest will be sharing Fourth Generation Grower Champagne – Pierre Peters and Bourgeois-Diaz
- Jill of L’Occasion will be taking A Closer Look At Grower Champagne With Champagne André Jacquart
- Gwendolyn of the Wine Predator is sharing #Winophiles In Epernay’s Grower Champagne Heaven with author Caroline Henry and winemaker Elodie D
- Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog, will be taking a sip of Grower Champagne From The Chalky Slopes Of Avize: Franck Bonville Prestige Brut Blanc de Blancs
We will be continuing our journey through Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the winemakers we met there and…next month with the French #Winophiles we will be diving into Cahors!