Champagne is a wonder of contrasts. It can be faintingly expensive, yet you drink it out of the bottle to ring in the New Year (or pour it on your head to celebrate a significant victory). Its sublime flavors and tartness make it an exquisite food wine, yet you almost always sip it before you sit down at the table.
Here’s a less obvious contradiction: The $40 and $50 bottles of Champagne you are buying right about now to pop open in a couple of weeks are really no better than the $15 to $25 sparkling wines from California. (AJC’s Atlanta Bargain Hunter lists three sparkling wines that are among the highest rated for taste and price.) Yet the aura of true French Champagne compels you spend a lot more.
The fact is many of you have never tasted real Champagne. Of course, you’ve had capital “C” Champagne made in the region of the same name, located northeast of Paris. But the “real” stuff with the nuanced, mineral-laced flavors, the liquid that tastes like starlight as it cascades over your tongue, the bubbly with ethereal aromas of almond paste and candied ginger, the sparkling wines that got everyone excited about Champagne in the first place, those Champagnes will cost you somewhere well north of $100 retail.
And it’s not that the mass-produced, $40-to-$50 Champagnes are bad. They’re just expensive for what you get.
But what if you could experience a slice of that stony minerality from Champagne for a fraction of what a bottle of Dom Perignon, Cristal or La Grande Dame costs?
Let me introduce you to grower-producer Champagne, more humorously referred to as farmer fizz.
The grower-producer is what you might think. The same company (almost all family-run outfits) grows the grapes and makes the wines. Grower-producers typically make around 10,000 or so cases annually. These wines are very site specific and these artisan makers try their best to express the location of where the grapes were grown.
The big guys, like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët, buy the vast majority of their grapes. And when you’re making millions of bottles of wine, you can only be so discriminating.
Location is an important item in Champagne. There are 17 grand cru villages and another 44 premier cru villages in Champagne. Out of the thousands of villages in the Champagne region, these areas have proven to grow the best grapes. Quality grapes generally equal quality wines. Many of the grower-producers—especially the 180 or so that get imported to the U.S.—make wine from grand cru or premier cru grapes.
While grower-producer Champagnes have yet to infiltrate grocery store shelves, the category is growing. In 1997, according to one importer, grower-producers comprised 0.62 percent of the Champagne sales in the U.S. In 2011, the category expanded to 3.43 percent and most of your better wine shops will have at least a few labels to show you.
Pierre Peters, Pierre Gimonnet, Marc Hébrart, H. Billiot, Gaston Chiquet, Chartogne-Taillet and Vilmart & Cie are some of the relatively famous grower-producers you may find out there, but how can you distinguish honest farmer fizz from mass-produced, factory fizz? Get your reading glasses out and somewhere on the bottle you’ll see in incredibly fine print the letters “RM.” This stands for Récoltant-Manipulant, which essentially is Champagne-speak for grower-producer.
Perhaps the best thing about grower-producer Champagne is the price. I’ve tasted some absolutely delicious bottles for under $40, but the best of the best grower-producer Champagnes can be had for under $100. Contrary to popular belief, enjoying some of the world’s best bubbly—which can stand toe-to-toe with $300 bottles—is a luxury you can afford this holiday season.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog