Since I am currently on sabbatical from the United States taking my MBA in Fine Food and Beverage in Italy, I am having dreams about the mixing of quantitative analysis and the best wines in the world. A problem might go something like this: Two trains leave from Paris headed for Champagne at the same time. One travels at a rate of 100m/hr and has a café car full of winos, some wearing blue socks, some wearing red socks. The other train travels at 120m/hr and stops once for 5 minutes to pick up bags full of chocolate and cheese before starting on again. What is the proportion of people with one red sock and one blue sock that will end up eating chocolate?
The answer is: Who is all that interested, and is there really a problem? Everyone is going to end up in Champagne! But what I’d rather know is the proportion of people who are going to arrive in Champagne and have their lives changed dramatically by drinking Grower Champagne and what is the matter with the first train not stopping for chocolate and cheese on the way to Champagne?
Grower Champagne is the Mecca of bubbles, the panacea to the problem of what to drink- anytime, anywhere, under any circumstance. Grower champagne also goes by the name Estate Champagne; it is Champagne made by the people, for the people. Being French, Champagne is appropriately a paradox.
Let me set the stage. Champagne is the largest AOC (Appellation of Control-Designated Terroir) in France with over 85,000 acres; over 80% of the Champagne that is produced there is made by the negotiants and co-ops; the majority of the Champagne houses only own about 10% of their own vineyard land. The remainder comes from buying their grapes. By contrast, Grower, or Estate Champagne producers have to grow 95+% of their own grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Munier are the three grapes that make every combination of bubbles bottled under the name Champagne). With grower Champagne, the quality is often noticeably different, and so is the quality-to-price ratio, in your favor. Although you can find great Champagne, of course, outside the Grower producers. I will drink Gosset when I can get my hands on it.
In a nut-shell, due to the incredible success of Champagne world-wide and the fact that anything inside the AOC “fence” of Champagne gets to wear the name, it takes a little extra to know-how to hunt for and find great Champagne, especially great Champagne that is affordable and that exceeds your expectations. The short-cut is to go right for a Grower Champagne, and do not pass go or collect $200. A written designation on the bottle that will help you, though sometimes hard-to-find, will say “R. M,” récoltant-manipulants, instead of “N.M,” negotiant-manipulants. You can also designate quality by knowing the 5 sub-regions of Champagne and/or investigate the Premier Cru and Grand Cru village producers.
These sparkling wines are infectious, layered works of art that will remind you of fresh baked caramel apple pie, and fresh brioche baked with hand-churned butter fresh from the oven, or tart ripe raspberries at the peak of season dissolving on your tongue. You might even get nuances you never dreamed could materialize in a sparkling wine-strawberry leaf, brown sugar just about to burn, snicker-doodle, pink peppercorns, Asian pears, violet and crushed roses, sour cherry, cassis, and the list of descriptors goes on.
In order to explore the sheer visceral pleasure of drinking Grower Champagne and to get the opinions of some of my favorite Champagne drinkers and connoissieurs, I assembled a group of about 10 people who brought at least one bottle of Grower Champagne to a tasting where the goal was to find the most delicious and/or unknown bottle you could find. My friend and our columnist for the G Style Imbibe, David Alan, and his partner Joe Eifler, joined me.
After an afternoon of Sunday drinking with friends and trade alike, I am grateful there were no recording devices, so everyone felt free to say whatever came to mind. Below I leave you with the highlights of the brands we tasted:
1) Chartogne-Taillet Brut:
Nose: Lemon merengue pie; green and un-ripened apples Taste: Pears, apples, peppery finish; gorgeous; tight bubbles; great mousse
2) Bonnaire Brut Rose
Made uniquely of equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Munier Nose: Violets, cassis, strawberry leaf Taste: Crushed flowers, minerality, very clean dry finish, finishes like a mohair whip
3) Jean Lallement Brut
80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chard Verzenay Grand Cru designate (northernmost village in Champagne)
Nose: Pecan pie, quince, the part of the pie where the caramelized apples/pears meet the crust; the flavor is hidden, not a rich deep flavor at first
Taste: Flinty texture and finish, very minerally, simple, sour ale, buttered toast
4) Michel Turgy – Le Mesnil Sur-Oger Cuvee Brut
Nose: Spice, clove, super tight bubbles and mousse, blue vein cheese, snicker-doodles, stewed sauerkraut, sourdough starter Taste: Gunpowder, chalky, mushroom, minerally, texture, tangy
5) Pierre Peters Blanc-de-Blanc ‘99 Le Mesnil-de Oger Brut
Nose: Brioche, layered buttered croissants fresh from the oven
Taste: Sweet fruit to the midpalate and a lengthy finish
There are a few places in Austin and one outside it in Houston that deserve special recognition for the focus they place on Grower Champagne: Travis Heights Beverage World, The Austin Wine Merchant, Taste Select Wines, Whole Foods Market. The next time you want a bottle of wine, think of these-especially for the first and last course of dinner and remember bubbles pair flawlessly with 90% of the cheeses on planet Earth. Lastly, one of the most impressive grower Champagne lists outside France: the restaurant Catalan in Houston. It is worth the drive for the bottles on the list and the food that accompanies it. Ask for Antonio.