Now that the party bubbly’s come and gone in a haze of New Year festivities, I thought I’d put in a word or two about more “serious” imbibing of the mother of all sparkling wines, and why connoisseurs of Champagne are turning to independent producers for style, quality and value…
The vast majority of fizzy wine drunk over the holidays is generally either “sparkling wine”, or Champagne from one of the big houses. Most is chosen for either price or name – if you’re going to take an expensive gift to the host of a fancy party you’re probably going to choose something he’ll recognize, and if it’s just for the masses at the neighborhood block rave you don’t want to waste money on wine that won’t be appreciated.
As life returns to normal and you have time to savor those sophisticated dinner parties with your true wino friends, you can dig deeper into the cellar to find something that offers more than just fun and bubbles. That said, if you’re entertaining someone you don’t know too well and need to impress, you may want to stick with a big name brand (especially if you’re dealing with a wine snob who’s too uptight to admit there may be something good he doesn’t know about…).
However, if your table is graced with true connoisseurs, you can afford – nay, you should be obliged – to pull out something more interesting. All over the rolling hills of the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims, up and down the winding banks of the Vallée de la Marne there are literally hundreds of small independent “recoltant-eleveurs” who harvest their own grapes, make the wine and elaborate it into Champagne.
Each of these, just like a small producer of Burgundy in the Cote d’Or, has their own style. The grapes come from specific terroirs, often classified Grand or Premier Cru, cultivated by owners who know their land. These guys strive to produce wines that reflect both the personality of their land and themselves, and this is where Champagne is transformed from something to impress or amuse to something of real spirit, heritage and meaning.
Now I’m not trying to disparage the many wonderful wines that are made by the major brands – and in fact there are plenty of cuvées from these houses that have just the same loving care, specific terroir and true heritage. It’s just that they’re too easy – everyone knows them, and all you have to do to get the best is pay the price. There’s nothing to discover.
Get into the independents though, and you’re on an adventure. They’re not all top-notch, to be sure, so the first challenge is to find the good ones. Personal recommendations, a good sommelier or salesman can get you headed in the right direction – a couple of months hiking through the fields of Champagne would really do the trick if you have the time!
Once you find quality though, you need to find the personality that suits you, the occasion, or the food. Since these wines are less known there’s less written about them, so like most things the rewards don’t come without a certain amount of effort – and you’ll probably need some patience. Do some research, taste the ones you decide to try as you would any serious wine, think about the food or the mood that would match its character, and erase from your mind the prejudices that the marketing people have left you with.
You’ll find vintage wines, single vineyard selections, special family cuvées, blends of grapes and monocepages, wines that see no oak and others with plenty – and it can get pretty complicated. The most expensive don’t have to be the best for your palate or purpose, and in fact one of the bonuses of your work will be to find wines that are great values compared with the heavily-marketed big brands.
Now, am I going to give you a list of my favorites? Not really, because I don’t have notes on all the wines I taste in Champagne, and many of the ones I discover there don’t get exported. Even if they are imported to the USA, these little guys are often brought in by small importers with limited distribution, so to give a list that you may not be able to find in your area would be frustrating. However, I will shamelessly plug Autreau de Champillon, a super family producer just north of Epernay that I happen to bring in myself; my notes on his wines are in another post that you’ll find under my “Tasting Notes” tag.
So take your time, enjoy the hunt, and don’t forget to appreciate the myriad of styles of Champagne all through the year, not just at party-time!