Small is big. These days it seems you can’t shake a stick — reclaimed from the fallen branch of your backyard tree — without hitting a thoughtfully crafted, local product. Online marketplaces like Etsy allow artists and artisans to create and sell their wares in limited batches. In the U.S., microbreweries are popping up at record rates while drinkers are eschewing macrobrewery offerings for the more uncommon beers in their own neighborhoods. At local farmers markets, we talk with the folks who grow our favorite apple, and we’re on a first-name basis with the cow that produces our milk. (Kidding about that last one, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, right?)
The same is happening in France’s Champagne region. Grape growers, many who once sold the entirety of their grapes to large Champagne houses (think Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, among others) are now keeping all or a portion of their harvest to create their own wholly interesting, beautifully complex sparkling wines. Referred to as “grower Champagne,” it’s not a new practice, but it’s one that has gained popularity in recent years as consumers actively seek out a more artisanal product. There’s no need to wait for New Year’s Eve or your next big life milestone to raise a glass. Sommeliers and wine directors from some of the country’s top restaurants tell us: there’s so much to celebrate about grower Champagne.
Edouard Bourgeois, Sommelier, Café Boulud, New York, New York
“When I started at Café Boulud, the wine list didn’t differentiate between grower Champagne and Champagne from houses. Being from this region of France, I felt it was important to promote the Champagne growers by showcasing them in their own category. (The difference between the two is simple, by the way: grower Champagnes are made by a producer who grows their own grapes and vinifies them into Champagne. They control the process from A to Z. On the other hand, Champagne houses are producers who own their land but buy grapes to feed their production.) I am constantly searching for the obscure, hidden gem wines to feature on my list, and there are many in Champagne with great personalities and a real sense of terroir.” Make a reservation at Café Boulud.
Alicia Kemper, General Manager and Wine Director, fundamental LA, Los Angeles, California
“I chose to include grower Champagne because I appreciate the pureness and thoughtfulness of the wine. These winemakers could easily sell their grapes to the big houses for more money, but instead, they choose to make something extremely complicated that could all be compromised due to unfortunate weather. Champagne from the big houses often lacks in many ways, whereas most grower Champagnes over-deliver, not only in taste but in quality and terroir as well.
My favorite grape in Champagne in Pinot Meunier. A lot of people would disagree, however, when it is done right, it is out of this world! I have one Pinot Meunier dominant wine on my list: Christophe Mignon (who comes from a long line of farmers in Le-Mesnil and makes wine that is super fresh, minerally, and has amazing texture).
Aside from the Mignon and Meunier, the Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus is just next-level delicious. It is from a single vineyard and doesn’t have a drop of dosage, so the terroir really shines through. After being left on its lees for nearly a year, it undergoes battonage, which gives it richness and that oh-so-lovely texture.
In terms of pairings, I love pairing Champagne with something fried or weighty — especially burgers. A lot of times people are like ‘Whaaaat?’ but then they taste them together, and often, their minds are blown.” Make a reservation at fundamental LA.
Jackson Rohrbaugh, Assistant Wine Director, Canlis, Seattle, Washington
“We love grower Champagne at Canlis because there is a closer connection between the personality of the grower and the wine in the glass. Single vineyard wines take this concept to its fullest expression. The Jérôme Prévost La Closerie “Fac-Simile,” a Pinot Meunier rosé from the village of Gueux, is one of our most treasured bottles. It provides a refreshing, fruitful palate cleanse alongside chef Brady Williams’s Barley Porridge with geoduck and green strawberry.” Make a reservation at Canlis.
Melanie Kaman, Director of Wine & Beverage, Addison, San Diego, California
“For grower Champagne, what I have found is the products are more organic, they’re anywhere from a third to half the price of the large Maisons, and they’re a lot better quality. They’re smaller production, they’re really well made, and you’re supporting local. Even if it’s not local California or local New York, you’re supporting a family of growers, not a conglomerate. You’re getting these beautiful, finely crafted, small-production Champagnes for a lower price, and, in my opinion, a better quality than some of the large houses.
We have a beautiful tasting menu with 10 or 12 courses, and we feature a dish in a caviar tin; it’s a smoked salmon rillette, and it’s topped with golden Osetra caviar from Galilee Farms in Israel, served with a warm brioche toast on the side. I always pair it with Champagne. One of my favorites recently has been Paul Bara, their Brut Rosé, and then I also really like the 2007 Gaston Chiquet Brut.” Make a reservation at Addison.
Thomas Pastuszak, Wine Director, The Nomad, New York, New York
“Grower Champagne continues to be one of the most exciting categories of wine in the world: we’re talking about producers in the Champagne region who farm their family-owned land conscientiously and meticulously, grow incredible grapes from noble terroirs, and create their own, unique expressions of their villages through the wines they are making. It’s now taken on a site-specific excitement that wine lovers only used to be able to find in places like Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, or the Mosel, and these Champagnes are some of the most incredible food wines, whether to start the meal or to finish it. At NoMad, we regularly recommend drinking a variety of styles and producers throughout our guests’ meal: the grower Champagne category lets us do that and create some amazing pairings with chef Humm’s cuisine.” Make a reservation at The NoMad.
Harley Carbery, Director of Wine at Mandalay Bay and Delano Las Vegas, Aureole, Fleur by Hubert Keller, Rivea, and STRIPSTEAK, Las Vegas, Nevada
“I insist on carrying grower Champagne for its quality and value. Many grower Champagne producers make limited quantities of their wines, making them harder to find than wines from larger Champagne houses. Introducing guests to a lesser known wine can really make their experience special and memorable, which I enjoy.” Make a reservation at Aureole, Fleur by Hubert Keller, Rivea, and STRIPSTEAK.
Ben Teig, Sommelier, Redbird, Los Angeles, California
“There are a few reasons that I have grower Champagne on the menu. First, I do really like to support smaller producers, no matter where they are from. I find that there really are great producers of all style of wines that are only making a handful of cases a year. There is also something in helping out the little guy against these big conglomerates. It feels like there is more heart and soul that goes into grower Champagne than there is in the larger houses. Also, I feel that there is more invested in the success and quality of the wines, whereas the larger companies can rely on their marketing and brand.
Secondly, while it is necessary to have some of the larger houses on the menu for brand recognition, it is really the growers who are wowing not only me but my guests as well! They are creating high-quality wines that easily equal some of the great Champagne houses — and they are also less expensive. If you want to have a quality Champagne at a lower price point, you must really go to grower Champagnes.
Thirdly, one of my personal favorite Champagne moments was the first time I tasted Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs NV. I was a new sommelier, having only been on the floor for less than six months, and this wine really shaped my opinion of what great Blanc de Blancs was.
Some of my favorite grower-producers are the aforementioned Pierre Peters, Chartogne-Taillet, Camille Saves, Tarlant, Vilmart, and Gaston Chiquet, to name a few. There are so many more.
For pairings, I think the Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs would go great with our Rabbit Cavatelli. The Chartogne-Taillet Rosé would be really fun with our Basque Cod, and the Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée would be amazing with our Whole Crispy Black Bass.” Make a reservation at Redbird.
Regan Stephens lives in Brooklyn, New York, and when she’s not writing about food or beer, you might find her taking in all the great things about the city (restaurants, museums, plays!), reading on her Kindle, or eating ice cream. Probably the last thing. Say hi on twitter @reganstephens.
Photo credit: Andris Dzeguze (Bar Boulud).