Champagne bubble: the rise of the small producer
What started with a few ambitious growers is now the next big thing in wine trends
From the Irish Times, Sat, Sep 5, 2015, 05:00
Champagne remains the most glamorous drink of all. It may have been taboo to order a bottle in a restaurant during the downturn, but sales, apparently, are on the increase once again. Prosecco has its place, but so too does good Champagne. We know all of the big brands – Bollinger, Veuve Cliquot, Roederer and Moët & Chandon – as well as their luxury cuvées – Cristal, Krug and Dom Perignon. For a long time these big names had it all their own way. Many still cling to the idea that they are superior, and sometimes they are, but they don’t always make the best wines.
The big houses have a wealth of experience (and a wealth of wealth) and are experts in the process of blending. As suggested a couple of weeks back, Champagne is probably the greatest blended wine of all. A typical nonvintage Champagne will be a mix of vintages, grape varieties, subregions, and various wine-making methods. A master blender is more like a parfumier, with several hundred options open to him.
At a recent tasting, chef de cave Michel Parisot of Champagne Devaux pointed out a change of 2-3 per cent in a blend will have a dramatic effect on the outcome. With nonvintage Champagne (or multivintage, as the Champenois now prefer to call it) the idea is to offer the consumer exactly the same wine every time.
The supermarkets make a decent job of their own-label Champagnes, although I would avoid any unknown brand sold at “half-price”. The big trend in the past few years has been towards what are known as grower Champagnes. In the past, the big houses bought grapes from vignerons all over the Champagne region and made the wine themselves (or bought wine and labelled it as their own). The emphasis was on the complicated winemaking and blending process and, of course, the expensive marketing.
Then and now, if you were lucky enough to own a patch of vines in the region, or better still a vineyard with Premier Cru or Grand Cru status, you could make a lot of money simply selling on your grapes every autumn. None of that messy, time-consuming winemaking to worry about, and no expensive machinery to buy. Then a few more ambitious growers started making their own Champagne. Instead of regional blends, their wines are usually from a single commune, or even a single plot of vines.
Does that make them better? It can certainly make them more interesting, although it depends on how good the vineyard is and how good the winemaker is. Either way, these wines are now hip and in huge demand in Paris, New York and London.
As these are small producers, they tend to be of interest to independent wine merchants who can import boutique Champagnes without pressure to achieve huge sales. Terroirs in Donnybrook imports the excellent biodynamic Champagnes of Larmandier Bernier. Wines Direct has the lovely, reasonably priced Charpentier range. This year, I have also tasted the excellent and reasonably priced Bénard-Pitois (€34.95 Whelehans Wines); the gluggable fruity AR Lenoble (€45 Greenacres, Wexford) and Bérèche & Fils (restaurants only but brilliant Champagne). You will find others, but beware of large co-operatives masquerading as small producers.
We tend to drink Champagne before a meal or (disastrously) with dessert or wedding cake. Yet it is one of the most accommodating food wines, great with shellfish (especially oysters and lobster), of course, but also all sorts of fish, rich canapés, Chinese and Thai food, sushi and sashimi. My favourite food with Champagne is gougères, those delicious warm cheesy choux pastries served in Champagne and Burgundy, although I have several friends who swear by fish and chips with their Champagne! It works, so long as you don’t add vinegar into the mix.
Champagne Gaston Chiquet Sélection Brut N.V.
A fine grower Champagne, with expressive ripe raspberry and redcurrant fruits and citrus with a fine dry finish.
Stockists: Green Man Wines, Terenure; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street.
Vilmart Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru N.V.
One of the finest grower Champagnes; a beautifully textured elegant Champagne with subtle brioche and rounded fruits, with a refined acidity throughout.
Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda www.quintessentialwines.ie, Hole in Wall, D7.
Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin Vintage Rosé 2004
Superb mature refined raspberry fruits, balancing the fine acidity, with a long elegant finish. From one of the large Champagne houses.
Celtic Whiskey Store, Redmond’s, O’Briens and Jus de Vine.