by Rose Murray Brown MW
Published in The Scotsman 8 March 2014
One of the most enjoyable tastings I have had in the Champagne region was sitting on a park bench in one of the villages with a local grower. With a view down across the pretty village of Le Mesnil sur Oger and the vineyards of the Cote de Blancs, with tractors bustling past us and a horse quietly ploughing one of the vineyards in the distant – it was the perfect place to absorb the atmosphere and appreciate the origin of his wines.
Champagne is unusual in that it has 15,700 small growers who own and work 90% of the region’s vines, but only one-fifth of these growers sell fizz from grapes they have grown with their own name on the label. The remaining four-fifths either sell under contract to big houses or to co-operatives – and their grapes often end up in big blends.
Since the early 1990’s there has been a resurgence of ‘grower Champagne’, like Christophe Constant of JL Vergnon whom I was tasting with on the park bench, who have decided to go it alone. Instead of working on contract with a big house, they focus on producing small quantities of hand-crafted Champagnes that reflect the ‘terroir’ (growing environment) of their vines.
This growing band of passionate growers tends to fall into two camps. Those based in Champagne’s southerly Cote de Blancs, like grower Erick de Sousa in the village of Avize, Bertrand Lilbert in Cramant, Rene Legras in Chouilly, Didier Gimonnet in Cuis and Pierre Larmandier in Vertus, who focus on the sleek citrusy fresh Chardonnay-based Champagnes – as this is where Chardonnay grows best on the sunniest undulating chalky soils.
Growers in Montagne de Reims area to the north focus on the red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. In the pretty village of Bouzy is Paul Bara and Edmond Barnaut – and in Ambonnay village is Bennoit Bonnerave-Marguet. Their style is naturally richer and fuller bodied. In the Cote des Bar to the south east, Cedric Bouchard in Celles-sur-Ource also focuses on rich Pinot-based fizz.
Drive through the tiny twisting lanes in Champagne’s villages and every street has a sign advertising a grower’s name: some open to visitors selling from the cellar door as their output is tiny – while others are larger enough to export. With a small number of vines to tend (Lilbert with 3.5 hectares, Erick de Sousa with 9, Larmandier with 15) they can also practice labour intensive methods like bio-dynamic viticulture which require personal commitment and dedication.
We are now seeing more of these ‘grower Champagnes’ in the UK competing in price and quality with big name brands. You can identify them by ‘Recolant Manipulant’ on the label: that means the Champagne has come exclusively from the grower’s own vines. So instead of heading for big brands like Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Lanson – try something a little different next time you reach for a bottle of Champagne.
FOCUS ON CHARDONNAY
Champagne Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (£27.95 bt or £25.95 each for 12 bts Lea & Sandeman www.leaandsandeman.co.uk)
Rene and Lucien Legras in Chouilly Grand Cru are my current favourite Chardonnay-based growers: their Blanc de Blancs is quite savoury, minerally with a mellow nutty finish. Clear winner in our recent tasting. Good value for Champagne. STAR BUY
Champagne J L Vergnon Conversation Brut NV (£28.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Passionate Christophe Constant is the most poetic of the growers, preferring to name his Champagnes with an abstract name. The flinty notes, tight citric zesty fruit and brioche rich creaminess of the 2008 fruit used in this cuvee obviously inspire ‘conversation’ : hence the name.
Champagne Larmandier Bernier Terre de Vertus Extra Brut Premier Cru NV (£39 Woodwinters, Edinburgh & Bridge of Allan)
Economics graduate Pierre Larmandier returned to his family domaine when his father died. An intellectual thinker with profound descriptions of his philosophy and belief in bio-dynamic viticulture. Based in one of Champagne’s most southerly villages, Vertus, he produces 10,000 cases – his Terre de Vertus is a good example of his very tight, extreme, minerally pure style.
Champagne Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru NV (£25 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Run by Didier and Olivier Gimonnet are lucky to own vines over 40 years old across their numerous plots, so no chapitalisation (sugar addition) is needed here. Reserve wines (added to non vintage blends) are kept in bottle: in this attractively crafted Premier Cru they come from a blend of 2005, 2004 and 2002.
Champagne de Sousa Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru NV (£39.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com) STAR BUY
Erick de Sousa is 3rd generation Portuguese. Another biodynamic fan with a host of old vines, some dating back to 1932. This 100% Chardonnay from Avize is unusually vinous for a fizz: herby with pear and beeswax undertones.
FOCUS ON PINOT NOIR
Champagne Paul Bara Brut NV (£29.95 bt or £26.95 each for 12 bts Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com; OW Loeb)
One of my current favourites amongst the richer Pinot Noir dominant fizz. Paul Bara is a 6th generation of the family; he took over his family vineyards in Bouzy sixty years ago as a teenager. Ripe expressive delicious – and good value for Champagne.
Champagne Marguet Blanc de Noirs NV (£22 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Bennoit Marguet-Bonnerave’s rich fizz would suit those who like Champagne with lower acid and deep flavours. Biodynamic viticulture is practiced with the help of their horses, Sultan and Tao. This Blanc de Noirs is 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier with rich red fruit with earthy undertones.
Champagne Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or Brut NV (£42 Berry Bros & Rudd; Gauntleys www.gauntleys.com)
Anyone who has been on my Champagne tours will have heard me mentioning the name Laurent Champs, owner of Vilmart. Vilmart have produced fizz under their own name since 1890. Champs and his wife are exceptionally good growers based in Rilly La Montagne. Their style is rich, deep complex, full bodied and oaky – this is like a mini-Krug!
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