January was grower champagne month for me. It just seemed appropriate. First, I really like grower champagnes...not just the concept but the wine. Second, I think champagne deserves more attention as a serious wine and not just the stuff of celebrations. And third, a champagne-focus somehow seemed a good way to start the year.
So over the month, I drank perhaps 15 grower champagnes--wines made by the man or woman (and yes, I had a number of wines made by both) who grew the grapes. "Farmer fizz" it's occasionally called (though I don't personally care for the nickname--it seems to trivialize it). I won't take the time for a diatribe against corporate-made champagne...some of it seems like it is more about luxury marketing than winemaking...but that's a story for another day. I've made the choice that I'd rather buy wines made by people than corporations. That is a personal preference. It does not automatically follow that all grower champagne is better than the champagnes made by producers who buy their grapes. I think that many are...but some of the champagne made by big houses is excellent and my experience this month was that I didn't love every grower bottling.
If that sounds more like a blazing flash of the obvious than a remarkable discovery, factor in that many of us who are "converted" to a new way of thinking about something often become fanatical. Some of us marching behind Terry Theise and his banner of grower advocacy may border on zealots.
But we should remember that even though there may only be a small number of grower champagnes in the average US wine shop, there are thousands made. The supposition that those chosed by importers to bring to the US are among the better ones seems, in my experience, generally accurate. But it does not follow that we're going to love every one of them. In fact, we probably shouldn't...not only because our tastes in wine differ but because one of the strengths of grower champagnes is that they are an authentic reflection of terroir and vintage. By definition, they have to have some measure of highs and lows.
The bottles I chose were all recommended by someone...a friend...a wine consultant...online comments and reviews. So I wasn't terribly surprised that I thought they were all at least pretty good. But there were some that didn't really grab me. In general, I'd say those lacked the precision, focus and depth of the wines that I thought were really special.
At the end of the month, I had three favorites. Two were "holdovers"--wines I had previousy tasted and loved. One was new. One of the holdovers was Cedric Bouchard's La Parcelle, a blanc de noir that Bouchard ages for seven years before disgorgement and release (the longest he ages any of his champagnes). Even writer Tom Stevenson--perhaps the anti-Terry in that he generally prefers wines from the big houses to wines from growers--calls Bouchard a "genius." This was probably my favorite wine of the month.
Another long-time favorite was Nathalie Falmet's Brut Nature. Once again, it was laser-focused and quivering with energy. Safe bet that if you try it, you won't say "this tastes kind of like whatever it was with bubbles we drank last month." It has the character and authenticity that I think define really good wine.
Full disclosure, I did not taste a few other favorites this month because I was looking mostly for new experiences. Pierre Peters and the higher end Vilmart bottlings are among those that have won my affection in the past...along with the fabulous Special Clubs from Marc Hébrart and Henri Goutorbe that Terry served.
The new find for the month was Henri Billiot Rosé Brut. I'm not normally a rosé champagne zealot--I often find them a little less focused. But this had come highly recommended by Antoinette at Cork & Fork and her father, Dominique. With their roots in Champagne (literally--Dominique was born and raised there in a wine family) they have a lot of credibility with me on the subject. At first, I liked but didn't love it. My appreciation grew with every sip. Then it dawned on me--the reason I initially didn't love it was that I had chilled it too cold. I fear we often do that with really good champagne. By the time it reached a nice deep cool (vice cold) I was in love.
The grower champagne exploration won't end just because January has. Two of the three reasons I focused on it in January are still valid (I really like them and I believe they deserve more attention as serious wines).
Champagnes that I look forward to exploring include the portfolios from Jacques Lassaigne and Jean Lallement. Both are highly recommended. I'll have to special order them, but it's worth the time and effort. I know there's a lot more greatness out there!