Many people who seek out farmers’ markets are looking for an alternative to the mass produced ingredients they find in grocery shops. So it would come as no surprise to learn that the same trend is happening in the wine world. Small, handcrafted producers are making honest and true wines that express the places they are made.
Champagne is a region largely divided into two. The people that grow the grapes, and the people that make the wine. The growers sell their grapes to co-operatives or negocients for processing, blending, packaging and sale. The big champagne houses that we’re all on a first name basis with make an even larger amount of champagne – enough to satisfy tastes around the world.
But there is alternative. Some of the farmers that grow the grapes also make their own wines. Most wine lovers call them Grower Champagnes, or “farmer fizz”. They are people that tend to the vine all summer. They know the best time to harvest and are able to express their vineyard through the grapes that they grow.
Champagne is made from a combination of three different grapes; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay brings acidity and elegance to the blend. An older wine with lots of chardonnay will begin to develop some toasty and vanilla flavours. Pinot Noir brings body, weight and length on the palate. Pinot Meunier buds later and ripens sooner which is especially useful in a region on the margins of viticulture. It is mostly used for wines that are intended to be drunk young.
Sometimes a wine can be made from only one of these grapes. A Blanc de Blanc (white from whites) will be made only from Chardonnay. Some say it is the most expressive of any champagne as it can show the truest expression of the vineyard. The acidity keeps it fresh and gives it the ability to age well. Though Chardonnay has been considered the chicken of wine grapes, as it doesn’t necessarily have it’s own strong flavour profile, depending on where it is grown and how it is handled in the winery, it can produce a wide range of wines.
Similar to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir has a great ability to show a big difference within a small space. In Burgundy where Pinot Noir is king and Chardonnay is Queen (or is it the other way around?), the difference between a few hundred feet could mean the difference between grand cru and village level wines. In the champagne blend, Pinot Noir can express a true sense of place. A Champagne made from only red grapes is called a Blanc de Noir (white from blacks). And despite its supposed birthplace of Burgundy, there is more Pinot Noir grown in Champagne than there is in Burgundy.
Blending is also a key component in champagne. Every year the large champagne houses blend base wines to produce a consistent “house style”. Large Champagne brands will taste the same no matter where or when they are drunk because there is a team of winemakers looking to reproduce a brand the consumer has become familiar with.
I mentioned champagne being a blend. It is not just blending of the three different grape varieties, but also from vineyards from around Champagne. In a region that is 25,000 square kilometers, the ability to have a wide range of flavour profiles and ample quantity helps to ensure there is a bottle in every bar, on every shelf, and in as many glasses as possible.
Natrually, the small growers who make their own wines have a stronger connection to the vineyards than the team of winemakers at the large houses. Grower champagne makers, like any good winemaker, is midwife to the vineyard. They too strive for a consistent style of wine, but often vintage variation is evident.
The quality they produce is very limited, and they are the most unique expressions of time and place to be captured in a bottle. They are not available at farmers’ markets, but many can be found at independent wine shops. Both Marquis Wine Cellars and Kitsilano Wine Cellar in Vancouver have a great selection and team of employees to help you find one that is right for you.
Things to look for on the label
NM Négociant Manipulant. One of the big houses/firms/negociants.
RM Récoltant Manipulant. A grower who makes his or her own wine.
RC Récoltant Coopérateur. A grower selling wine made by a co-op.
CM Coopérative de Manipulation. One of the co-operatives.
ND Négociant Distributeur. A merchant who buys finished wines and labels them on its own premises.
MA Marque d’Acheteur – Buyer’s Own Brand (BOB). The wine is made and labelled in Champagne, the name of the producer appears on the bottle but the Brand name belongs to a client (wholesale buyer, supermarket, restaurant, VIP, etc).
SR Société de Récoltants. Small family company.
Definitions credited to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion To Wine.
Originally published here in Eat Magazine