Monday, February 11

Grower Champagne

A very good friend once advised me always to keep a bottle of champagne in my refrigerator. And thus began my love affair with sparkling wine.

As many readers may know, the term "Champagne" is reserved for wines originating in Champagne, France. There are 261 large-scale négoçiants and coopératives in Champagne. They produce 80% of the total output in Champagne, yet they only own 12% of the vineyards. This means in Champagne (France), there are 15,000 growers in the region who do not make their own wine! Large-scale champagne production involves extensive use of chaptalization (adding sugar), acidification, cultured yeast strains, enzymes, nitrogenous yeast nutrients and rapid temperature controlled fermentations. These houses account for over 88% of all Champagne exports, and this number rises to 97% of exports outside of Europe.

Small Growers, or “récoltant-manipulants,” may purchase only 5% of their fruit. The same people who grow the grapes ferment and blend the wine. This allows the grower/winemaker more interaction with the ingredients and more control over the final product -- terroir in the truest sense.

This week we did a blind taste test featuring one "large-scale" producer and one bottle of grower champagne. The former, Paul Goerg "blanc-de-blancs" (all Chardonnay), offered the typical characteristics of champagne: ripe pears and green apples, slightly bready and yeasty aromas, and a moderately sweet finish. The grower champagne featured a completely different and unique profile. My primary impression was the aroma of raw eggs and bread crumbs right before you bread some lucky food destined for frying. The fruit profile included nectarines and other stone fruits, with a very faint herbal quality on the finish. It was significantly more effervescent, with a complexity and depth unrivaled by the more traditional champagne. I'm honestly not entirely sure whether I liked it, but it was definitely a compelling experience -- I wanted more!

So how can you support grower champagne? As you're examining that bottle of champagne you'll be keeping in your refrigerator now, you may notice the letters NM, RM, or CM. NM denotes négociant-manipulants, the large companies that buy, blend and produce very large quantities of wine. RM are récoltant-manipulants, growers who make and sell their own wine, and CM are co-opératives-manipulants (the co-ops).

EDIT: The ad sent by Marc Hebrart, who makes the champagne we now carry, started, "Drink grower champagne if you've forgotten champagne is wine." I think that's quite apt. Way to go, Mr. Hebrart.

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