Updated: Dec 18, 2020
an introduction to Grower Champagne.
While the wines of the Champagne region deserve a place at the table all year round (given their unmatchable food-friendliness), there will always be one time of the year when the huge majority of sparkling wine sales take place. And now is that time!
And since many of you are getting ready to stock up, we thought we’d let you know about a specific group of Champagnes that are near and dear to us, and fill you in on the world of grower Champagne
Among the producers in the Champagne region of France, there is one major dividing distinction: négociant vs. grower (or in French, recoltant). Put simply, a négociant buys in fruit from various growers (though many also grow some of their own fruit as well), whereas a grower produces all their fruit on their personal estate. So while the winemaker at a négociant house may work with fruit from scores of different vineyards owned by dozens of different families and companies, the winemaker at a Grower Champagne house works only with fruit that their estate has grown.
So why does this distinction matter? In some ways, it doesn’t. If the end goal is to produce an excellent wine, then numerous négociants and growers have achieved that in equal measure. However, beginning in the early 20th century, Champagne became a *brand* just as much as a region. And the major players from that time period—Moët, Cliquot, Perrier-Jouet, etc—are still behemoths today. Even the ones that have been swallowed by luxury goods conglomerates are still powerful brands of their own accord, with Veuve Cliquot perhaps being the best example. Though owned by LVMH (Louis Vitton Moët Hennessy), the distinctive Orange label of Cliquot is as unmistakable a brand as one will find.
And here is where we approach the crux of the issue: what are you paying for when you buy Champagne? Your wine will be expensive because Champagne is expensive to make, but what makes a bottle of major négociant wine cost $80, while grower bubbles can be had for half the cost? Namely, marketing.
The advertising budgets for the large négociant houses run into the hundreds of millions, and price has to take that into account. These brands are likewise often built on the perception of luxury, and some people simply won’t be happy if you don’t charge them enough. If Veuve Cliquot were to drop their price to $29/bottle, their sales would plummet, since many people aren’t drinking Cliquot for the taste, but for the experience of having something fancy.
Grower Champagnes, on the other hand, largely eschew this practice. They don’t usually have the money to buy billboard space in Times Square, or sponsor the British Open, or what have you. What they *do* have is superlative fruit, much of which they’ll often sell to the négociants to help with cash flow. But since they don’t have to subsidize outrageous advertising budgets, they can likewise bring their wines to market in more accessible price ranges. In short, you will very, very often get more bang for your buck by seeking out grower bubbles.
It is imperative to stop again and remind ourselves that négociant vs. grower is not a matter of “good vs bad.” Many, many négociants produce delicious and praiseworthy wines. Charles Heidsieck (found on our shelves) is a storied négociant whose wines we are proud to champion. But we find ourselves disillusioned sometimes when we’re asked to spend $70 on a wine that tastes no better than a $45 grower wine. We don’t mind people making money, but we want wines that reward us for spending a little extra.
One of the most original estates in Champagne, Aubry Fils is located in the village of Jouy-lès-Reims, in the western sector of the Montagne de Reims. Of the estate’s 15 hectares of vines, 12 lie in Jouy and the nearby villages of Pargny-lès-Reims, Villedommange and Coulommes-la-Montagne, all of which are classified as premier cru; the other three hectares are located elsewhere and are sold off to the négoce. Proprietors Pierre and Philippe Aubry are twin brothers, although after a few visits it’s easy to tell them apart: Pierre says very little, and always seems to have a lit cigarette; while Philippe (pictured) is garrulous and inquisitive, as interested in what you have to say about the wines as he is in showing them to you. In fact, the Aubrys have a little tasting notebook that they pull out every time they host visitors, and Philippe will ask you to describe all of the flavor associations that you find in the wines and fastidiously write them down.
The latest release of Aubry's NV Brut Rose Premier Cru was only disgorged in July 2018, but it's already showing well, opening in the glass with scents of strawberries, red apples and potpourri. On the palate, it's medium to full-bodied, with an impressively deep, layered core of nicely concentrated fruit, ripe but tangy acids, a youthfully frothy mousse and a long, intense finish. This is a powerful, serious rosé that will work well at table or as an aperitif, especially after another year or two on cork.
Benoît Lahaye Blanc de Noirs
Benoît Lahaye is located in Bouzy, a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims region. His family has been making Champagne since the 1930’s, and he and his wife Valérie now work in their winery with their two sons. The estate covers a tiny 4.8 ha, with 3 ha in Bouzy, 1 ha in Ambonnay and .6 ha in Tauxières. Bouzy brings structure, power and fruit, while Ambonnay brings acidity and roundness. The vineyards are mainly planted with Pinot Noir (just under 90%) on south/southwest facing slopes. The vines average 35 to 40 year old. In addition, a .2 ha parcel of 50 year old Chardonnay is planted in Voipreux, in the southern Côte des Blancs. Since it is far away from Bouzy, these vines are worked by Pierre Larmandier. The total production is less than 40.000 bottles per year.
Benoît’s 100% Pinot Noir cuvée produced from two vineyards sources. Although the wine is not declared as a vintage Champagne, the wine is produced with a single years harvest. "A vivid, energetic Champagne, which shows the power and ripeness of the fruit grown in its southfacing vineyards, while also demonstrating a sophisticated elegance and poise. Its ample, red-fruit fragrance persists with great length, all anchored by chalky minerality." Peter Liem
We also highly suggest watching the documentary, "A Year in Champagne" on one of your Netflix movie nights in over the holiday break! "With renowned wine importer Martine Saunier as our guide, we get a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the real Champagne through six houses, from small independent makers like Champagne Saint-Chamant (a Champagne we also carry at Cork and Cap), where each and every bottle is still turned by hand in the cellars, to the illustrious houses of Gosset and Bollinger which have been instrumental in shaping the image of Champagne around the world." Find it on Netflix!