ONE OF the most enjoyable tastings I have ever experienced in the Champagne region took place on a park bench in one of the villages, in the company of a local grower.
Champagne is unusual in that it has 15,700 small growers who own and work 90 per cent of the region’s vines, but only one-fifth make fizz from grapes they have grown with their own name on the label. Most either sell under contract to big houses or to co-operatives.
Since the early 1990s there has been a resurgence of ‘grower champagne’, like Christophe Constant of JL Vergnon with whom I was tasting on the park bench, who have decided to go it alone. They focus on small quantities of champagnes that reflect the ‘terroir’ (growing environment) of their vines.
These passionate growers tend to fall into two camps. Those based in Champagne’s southerly Côte de Blancs – like Erick de Sousa in Avize, Bertrand Lilbert in Cramant, Rene Legras in Chouilly, Didier Gimonnet in Cuis and Pierre Larmandier in Vertus – focus on sleek, citrusy, fresh chardonnay-based champagnes – as this is where chardonnay grows best on the sunniest, chalky soils.
Growers in the Montagne de Reims area to the north focus on the red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. In Bouzy you’ll find Paul Bara and Edmond Barnaut – and Bennoit Bonnerave-Marguet is in Ambonnay. Their style is naturally richer and fuller bodied. In the Côte des Bar to the south east, Cedric Bouchard in Celles-sur-Ource also focuses on rich, pinot-based fizz.
We are now seeing more ‘grower champagnes’ in the UK, identified by ‘Recolant Manipulant’ on the label. Try one.
Join Rose’s Champagne & Sparkling Wine Masterclass in Glasgow, 4 July, £40, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
FOCUS ON CHAMPAGNE
Champagne Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV(£27.95 bt or £25.95 each for 12, Lea & Sandeman, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk)
This Blanc de Blancs is quite savoury, minerally with a mellow, nutty finish.
The clear winner in our recent tasting.
Champagne J L Vergnon Conversation Brut NV (£28.95, Berry Bros & Rudd, www.bbr.com)
This has flinty notes, tight, citric, zesty fruit and brioche-rich creaminess.
Champagne de Sousa Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru NV (£39.95, Berry Bros & Rudd)
This 100 per cent chardonnay from Avize is unusually vinous for a fizz: herby with pear and beeswax undertones. STAR BUY
FOCUS ON PINOT NOIR
Champagne Paul Bara Brut NV (£29.95 bt or £26.95 each for 12, Berry Bros & Rudd; OW Loeb)
One of my favourites amongst the pinot noir-dominant fizz. It’s ripe, expressive and delicious – and good value for champagne.
Champagne Marguet Blanc de Noirs NV
(£22, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com)
This Blanc de Noirs is 70 per cent pinot noir and 30 per cent pinot meunier with rich red fruit with earthy undertones.
Champagne Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or Brut NV
(£42, Berry Bros & Rudd; Gauntleys, www.gauntleys.com)
Laurent Champs, owner of Vilmart, has produced a rich, deep, complex, full bodied and oaky fizz – this is like a mini-Krug.