One of the peculiar things about Champagne is that, with but a few exceptions, the major Champagne houses don't actually grow most of the grapes they use. Instead, they purchase grapes from the thousands of small farmers who cultivate chardonnay, pinot noir, and Pinot Meunier (the three grapes used for Champagne) on the chalky hillsides in and around the French town of Epernay. But a sizable minority of farmers in the region prefer to keep their grapes and make Champagne themselves. While most of these "grower Champagnes" are carbonated atrocities, a handful are very good. And thanks mainly to the efforts of the superb importer Terry Theise —wine buyer, missionary, litterateur—the better barnyard fizzes have earned a prominent place on American retail shelves. Given all the praise that wine writers, wine merchants, and restaurateurs are now heaping on them, you might even say that grower Champagnes are the new "It" wines.
Grower Champagnes are at the center of what amounts to a theological dispute in the Champagne world. Champagne is traditionally a blended wine. The big Champagne producers, or Grand Marques as they are known, are brands. And like all brands, they aim for consistency. Every harvest, they buy grapes from growers throughout the Champagne region and blend the juice together to produce wines that reflect their particular house styles. A bottle of Laurent-Perrier isn't meant to showcase the characteristics of the vineyards from which its grapes came; it is meant to showcase the Laurent-Perrier style (light-bodied, elegant, with a distinctive mineral note). This is true of every bottle of Laurent-Perrier in every vintage.
Grower Champagnes, by contrast, are generally made with grapes from single villages (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Bouzy), and to Theise and many others, this is what makes them so logical and appealing. The genius of French winemaking, they point out, is the ability to match the right grapes with the right soils and to produce wines that bear the imprint of the vineyards that nurtured them. But in Champagne, a huge region with thousands of vineyards, this sense of place, or terroir, usually takes a back seat to the quest for consistency. If you believe that Champagne is a wine and not an industrial product, as Theise argues, then a bottle of Champagne should come with coordinates, and micro-bubblies do just that.
I need no convincing about the importance of terroir; dirt matters. On the other hand, the big-house Champagnes do evince a sense of place. Champagne is utterly sui generis: No other sparkling wines come close to matching the complexity and elegance of Champagne, and when you drink a glass of, say, Bollinger Special Cuvee, there is no mistaking its origins; you can almost taste those chalky hillsides. Is it really necessary to know which ones? Moreover, it is far from clear that single-vineyard or single-village Champagnes are intrinsically superior. Krug, arguably the greatest Champagne house, makes a single-vineyard wine with grapes from the Clos du Mesnil, the finest vineyard in Champagne. The Krug Clos du Mesnil is an amazing wine, but it is no better than Krug's vintage Champagne, which is made with grapes from several different vineyards.
I've had some very good grower Champagnes, and I've had many more that were mediocre. I suspect grower bubblies have become trendy in some circles in part because they are still obscure, and for oenophiles eager to stay a few steps ahead of the wine-swilling masses, obscurity has its own cachet. Grower Champagnes have also acquired a certain radical chic. Those who believe that the world is being overrun by soul-deadening corporations, naturally view the Champagne region as another battleground in the fight against homogenization.
Given my ambivalent feelings about grower Champagnes, I thought it best to do a blind tasting (not blind drunk—just blind as in not knowing which wines are which) and to throw in a pair of ringers. I opted not to include the one grower Champagne that I was most eager to sample again, Jacques Selosse, because the Selosse wines are no longer being distributed in the United States. For the ringers, I chose two Grand Marques: the 1996 Duval-Leroy Blancs de Chardonnay, and the 1996 Louis Roederer Brut. Both are vintage Champagnes. The only vintage grower Champagne in the tasting was the 1996 Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome; the other wines were non-vintage (NV). I was particularly keen to include the Roederer because Roederer gets nearly all its grapes from its own vineyards and is usually excellent. Suffice it to say, I figured the Roederer would win in a romp.
It didn't; it was probably the least satisfying of the 10 Champagnes I tasted, and there were some lightweights in the field. This was a bizarrely poor showing for a bottle of Roederer, but so it goes. I was surprised, too, by the relatively weak performance of Vilmart and Pierre Peters, two Champagnes I've enjoyed in the past. The Duval-Leroy acquitted itself nicely, but its quality was more than matched by three of the grower Champagnes: the Gimonnet, the Pierre Moncuit Cuvee Pierre Moncuit-Delos Blanc de Blancs, and the Larmandier-Bernier Vertus. After this tasting, I still think the idea of grower Champagnes is slightly more appealing than the reality. The wines certainly reveal a different side to Champagne, but what ultimately matters is what's in the bottle, and most grower bubblies leave me feeling just a little flat. That said, the Moncuit, Gimonnet, and Larmandier-Bernier are all very enjoyable wines, and any one of them is well worth a throbbing headache come Saturday morning.
Here are notes for the 10 Champagnes I tasted. The four best bubblies are lumped together first in no particular order, the remaining six are listed in descending order of preference. One thing to bear in mind: With the exception of the Duval-Leroy, all prices listed are suggested retail prices supplied by the distributors. In almost every instance, these wines can found at prices considerably cheaper than those listed here.
Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome Brut 1996
Smells of buttered biscuits, green apples, orange peel, ginger, and caramel, tastes of honey and green apples. Pleasantly understated, with nice, cleansing acidity. If you're ever tempted to drink Champagne with a meal, this is one that would play well with food, as the name seems to suggest.
Duval-Leroy Blanc de Chardonnay Brut 1996
Stick your nose in the glass, and you get buttered toast and spiced pear. Take a swig, and you get citrus flavors and rapierlike acidity. A little white chocolate on the finish rounds out an impressive Champagne.
Pierre Moncuit Cuvee Pierre Moncuit-Delos Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
Fine bubbles and a fine nose, with honey, nuts, salt, and the unmistakable scent of the corner bakery. Ever wonder what liquefied lemon meringue pie would taste like? Me neither, but here's a chance to find out. Some hazelnut flavors thrown in, terrific acidity, and altogether a very engaging bubbly.
Larmandier-Bernier Vertus NV
Scents of green apple, grapefruit, dough, and a sweet floral perfume. Doesn't so much arrive in the mouth as it detonates there; truly a mouth-filling Champagne, but also an impeccably balanced one. Bubblecious.
And the Rest (in descending order) …
Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
A bouquet of peaches, nutmeg, almonds, and bread. A strong honeyed flavor, but lean and fairly one-dimensional. Not a bad Champagne but not one that is going to hold your attention, either.
Agrapart Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
No mistaking the chardonnay here—smells like a pastry shop, with apples and flowers on the display case. Apple flavors also figure prominently on the palate, but the Champagne is too tart and severe.
Vilmart Grand Cellier Brut NV
Very inviting orange blossom and chamomile aromas. But the charming nose is no prelude to bliss: a burly wine, with tooth-cracking acidity, lacking both concentration and verve.
Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Brut NV
A meaty quality to the aroma, along with baked apple, a whiff of nutmeg, and a toasted note. A stern wine that is bracingly acidic and dry. Good for a funeral or a foreclosure, but not New Year's Eve.
Louis Roederer Brut 1996
Smells like a mineral bath, but not one I want to jump in. An off-putting sulfur note dominates the nose; the Dead Sea in a bottle. Minerals and acidity batter the palate.
Gaston Chiquet Tradition Brut NV
Fat bubbles and a dumb nose (that is, not a lot to sniff at the moment—some apple, perhaps a bit of herb, and not much else). The wine doesn't dance across the palate; it stumbles. No poise, no grace, no plaudits.