One of my regular readers asked a while back for some recommendations for Grower Champagnes in advance of a forthcoming visit, and I’ve been meaning to oblige. This month’s Decanter Magazine has a Tasting of Grower wines, but as always, many of my favourites didn’t get tasted. So it seems a good time to say a few words about a subject close to my heart.
There are over 15,000 “growers” in the wider Champagne Region, but somewhere under a third of those actually make their own Champagne. Most supply grapes to the Champagne Houses, or the many co-operatives. That said, at around 20% of production, the growers are playing an increasingly significant role in Champagne. It may be fair to say that many grower wines can be one-dimensional, the product of a restricted palette of grapes, bottled from one vintage with no, or limited, reserve wines available to add depth and complexity. But there are also a number of growers, perhaps a hundred (I’ve not really counted), who make wine every bit as good as the best Grandes Marques. The very best make singular wines of personality which offer something a bit different as well. Many of the finest of these wines are thrilling in entirely different ways to the famous wines we know and love.
Peter Liem, in his Decanter overview, suggests that the best growers’ names are not “on the tip of our tongues” in the UK, even though they are on the “hippest” wine lists in New York, and a cult in Japan. I think Peter is being a little unfair. It is true that the UK has a particular thirst for the Grandes Marques, the well know names like Bollinger, or Taittinger, and even more so for the discounted brands usually flooding the supermarkets at Christmas. But there is a genuine thirst for the growers too, perhaps among those one might call “wine geeks”, but if we are “geeks” then the small restaurants and wine bars of our larger cities are increasingly full of us. Perhaps the “cultishness ” Peter describes in other places is just more hidden here, because the people enjoying such wines are perhaps a little younger than many traditional Champagne drinkers?
It is an undeniable fact that the grower category only accounts for just under 1.5% of Champagne sales in the UK, whereas the comparative figure for the USA is about 5%. But we must remember that the UK is a massive market for Champagne, especially for the cheaper labels where volume sales soar. So I’m not surprised the UK market shows a low share for growers. As availability improves, this will increase. I judge a wine’s success on how hard it is to find in the UK. Some of the producers I’m going to mention sell through all too quickly.
To many readers, the wines below will be well known and no surprise. But I hope it proves interesting to see my personal tastes, and some readers may discover one or two new names.
Bérêche et Fils
Bérêche is, unashamedly, my favourite grower. There’s a handful of producers whose wines I’d be happy to drink to the exclusion of all others if I had to, but Bérêche would be my choice if I had to make one myself.
Raphaël and Vincent Bérêche are based in the tiny hamlet of Craon de Ludes, up on the ridge of the Montagne de Reims (right by the speed camera!). They are the fifth generation of this family producer, which was founded in 1847, and the two brothers have been at the helm since 2004. In addition to their own carefully tended vines, the family make a small amount of negociant wine. No ordinary bottles, these are long aged wines which reflect the different terroirs of the region (Côte, Montagne and Vallée), bottled under the Cru Sélectionnés label.
I’m going to select three wines to mention from Bérêche, but all come from the family vineyards. The first is their entry level cuvée, Brut Réserve. It’s made up of roughly equal parts of the three main Champagne varieties (Pinot Noir from the Montagne, Chardonnay from Ludes and Ormes on the Montagne, and from Mareuil-le-Port in the Marne Valley, and Meunier from Mareuil), but 30% of the blend is from the Bérêche perpetual cuvée (Raphaël doesn’t like us to call it a solera). It’s a brilliant wine for its price (generally found for around £35 UK retail), showing both richness and mineral precision. It benefits from a little age, and the 60,000 or so bottles are usually given around 7g/l dosage.
Campania Remensis is a delicious pink made from 65% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, and 5% red Coteaux Champenois from Ormes. Vinification is in used oak. After 36 months on lees under natural cork (not crown cap), it is bottled at a fairly low 4g/l dosage. Consequently the wine is dry, with a real texture, Pinot fruit to the fore. If you are lucky enough to bag one or two of around 5,000 bottles, and like a dry rosé, you are in for a treat.
The truly unique wine here is called Reflet D’Antan. Using only wines from the perpetual blending system (the three varieties in almost equal proportions), it is vinified in demi-muid followed by 41 months on lees under natural cork. Bottled at 6g/l dosage, current production is just under 4,000 bottles and 400 magnums. To describe Reflet is also, in a way, to describe Bérêche. The wines exhibit both power and elegance. There’s always a mineral precision, here very much down to the chalk terroir, but every wine produced here is capable of attaining complexity with time. Reflet D’Antan is the apogee of this.
I’ve got to know Raphaël a little over the years. He’s a really nice guy, but he’s also a genius of a winemaker, who deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as a few of the better known superstars of the region. Take my word for that.
This is a star domaine of the Côte des Blancs, with a little under 20 hectares in Le-Mesnil-Sur-Oger (where they are based), and Avize. The domaine is run today by Rodolphe Péters, who has taken over from his father, François. This is the place to come to experience pure Côtes Chardonnay, although the first wine I plan to mention is in fact a pink. I only tried it for the first time this year. For Albane is made from top Chardonnay sites, blended with a rosé de saignée. It’s a colour between salmon and orangey pink, very delicate, as are the red fruits. Freshness and a fine mineral line describe a very elegant cuvée, and not too dry, dosed at 7g/l.
The true star at Péters is Les Chetillons, of course. I know people who would rate this the finest of all grower wines. This single site cuvée, previously known simply as Cuvée Spéciale, reflects Le Mesnil terroir wonderfully. But be warned, even at a decade old it may still be very acidic. Patience reveals a golden colour, a complex bouquet of nuts, fruits (often stone fruits) and flowers, but you are as likely to find more obscure complexities such as toffee or orange citrus in well matured bottles. I drank the 2002 recently. It’s quite a big wine, but with plenty left in the tank. The only down side – I can’t believe I was paying £55 for Les Chetillons not too many years ago. It has almost doubled in price, but It’s still well worth the money. On a level with Comtes, DP, etc.
Bertrand Lilbert has a tiny estate, less than 4 hectares, tucked away in what is almost a garage in Cramant, in the northern part of the Côte des Blancs. His vineyards number some of the finest Grand Cru sites in the village, and at Oiry and Chouilly, and they produce rapier-like Chardonnay, with a lace-like structure which can be so fine that you imagine it could shatter like thin ice.
Bertrand produces some very fine Vintage Chardonnay wines which in youth reflect the terroir, and the acidity it nurtures, if you are crazy enough to open one too soon, and indeed there is exemplary Blanc de Blancs NV too. But there is one particular style which I think Lilbert is noted for among aficionados, the Brut Perle. You might remember Mumm’s Crémant de Cramant in the days before the “Crémant” designation was reserved for non-Champagne bottle fermented wines in France. One or two people make very good versions (Péters, above, was always a favourite, though I’ve not come across it for some years).
Crémant means creamy, and that is what the style reminds me of. Generally, Champagne has a pressure of between five and six atmospheres in a bottle, said to be the same as that inside the tyre of a London bus (I’m not sure how accurate that is, but my car likes 3.2 atmospheres in normal conditions). That actually equates to something less than five million bubbles per bottle. Crémant comes in at between three to three-and-a-half atmospheres. The gentler mousse and bead generated make for a softer wine, which seems more easily digestible to many drinkers.
Lilbert may well make the best version. It’s an old vine cuvée which sees between four and five years in the cellar before release. With a gentler mousse, fine bead, and a chalky softness in the mouth, yet with the hidden structure of Cramant, this is a wonderful food wine. Turbot would be my choice, of course.
Bertrand is a really nice young guy, and he’ll take you through all his wines if you make an appointment. And if I’m honest, you may find it easier to get one with him than with Bérêche, who usually sell out of wine pretty swiftly. Getting an appointment chez Péters these days, well, you probably need to be a regular customer, or an important wine writer.
I can’t find a photo of the Brut Perle, so here’s a delicious Blanc de Blancs 2006.
My friends would tell you that I do have something of a passion for the Blanc de Blancs style, yet here is another producer from the Montagne, with plenty of Pinot Noir. Vilmart & Cie are based in the village of Rilly-la-Montagne. Vilmart has been in existence since 1890, but currently farms eleven hectares of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, under the watchful eye of Laurent Champs.
Vilmart was one of the originals when it comes to talking up the grower revolution. Their exemplary range, which gets better and better the higher up the range you travel, is marked by fermentation in large, and small, oak. If you are lucky enough to land a visit to their Rilly premises, aside from the wines and the wonderful stained glass created by Laurent’s father, René, one of the highlights is the temperature controlled room full of foudres and other oak barrels.
The wines really hit their stride, in terms of magnificence, with the Grand Cellier d’Or. This is the second tier from the top of the range, but the organic grapes which go into this cuvée see three years on lees. Malolactic is stopped, so the wine retains real tension. With age, complexity builds (with nuts, brioche and stone fruits like peach and apricot). It seems cut from granite in youth, but age brings out genuine complexity. It’s very drinkable when mature.
Coeur de Cuvée gets, as the name suggests, to the heart of the matter, and tops out the Vilmart range. The first pressing juice is fermented in 225 litre oak before long ageing (the current release is 2009). The grapes are only “Premier Cru” (about 80:20 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir), but the wine is monumental and magnificent in almost every vintage (in fact Coeur has a knack of producing something pretty special in many so-called off-vintages). A mature bottle (which will generally be, at the very least, twelve years old) will introduce you to some new flavours and aromas. Try looking for crème brûlée and linden blossom. Try not to pop one too soon, as well.
I used to love Cuvée Création, a Chardonnay with a lovely label depicting one of René’s stained glass works, but for some reason Laurent decided to discontinue it. What he does still make is (yet another) beautiful Rosé. Grand Cellier Rubis comes in both Vintage and Non-Vintage format, and it is the former which really lights my fire. It’s a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from a single parcel at Rilly, which is aged ten months in foudre, then thirty or more months on lees. Unusually, for pink Champagne, it ages pretty well. I have one bottle left of the 2006 (pictured below), which online sources suggest will go another six or seven years (it won’t survive longer than this summer though, if I remember to drink it).
With all of these wines I would recommend avoiding a flute. Particularly with Vilmart’s Coeur, Bérêche’s Reflet, and Péters’ Chetillons, something like a Riedel Sangiovese/Riesling glass works well. The large bowl allows these big wines a bit of space to grow as you drink them (with food, of course).
It’s probably not the time to write a book-length article, but I must make a few shorter recommendations for names to try. Everyone knows Selosse, but likewise everyone knows how expensive his wines are. A so-called disciple of Anselme Selosse is Jerôme Prévost, in the “Petite Montagne” village of Gueux. For some years Prévost made just one wine, called La Closerie Les Béguines, a cask-aged Pinot Meunier of majestic quality and expression. Then he added a haunting, pale, pink, extra brut called fac-simile. If you can find a bottle, you will be beguiled.
Another so-called Selosse disciple is Olivier Collin, who makes wine under the family label of Ulysse Collin, well off the beaten track at Congy, southwest of Vertus, beyond the Côte des Blancs. Any wine from Collin is worth a go, they are all wood fermented and made with the greatest of care. Les Maillons is an old vine Blanc de Noirs from a site with clay over chalk not far from Sézanne. Both appley and nutty, with some spice (though the wood used is not new, some sees small barrels). I’m sure Olivier is pretty well known in Champagne circles now, but six or seven years ago he seemed like a real discovery.
Cedric Bouchard makes very tiny batch Champagnes right in the far south of the region, on the Côte des Bar (Aube), under the Roses de Jeanne label. There are several small parcel wines, and you might find Les Ursules and Inflorescence in the UK. Personally, I’m very taken with the pink Le Creux d’Enfer. I’d hardly call it a rosé, more a wine with a dash of colour. It’s another haunting pink which reminds me on the nose more of a weak Earl Grey tea than a wine (depending which way the wind is blowing). Made by the saignée method, it’s pretty and delicate, but has that thin backbone which keeps it tight.
Another “B” is Francis Boulard. His vines are on the rather unfashionable slopes of the western side of the Montagne and the Massif de St-Thierry. Farming biodynamically, Boulard really does create silk purses from what by rights should be sow’s ears. I always had a very soft spot for his Cuvée Petraea, a multi-vintage perpetual blend of around nine vintages, fermented in wood. Honey and spice.
Rightly, Francis’ wine of the greatest renown is Les Rachais. It’s pure Chardonnay from silex terroir on the Massif. Fermented in oak and bottled at a very low dosage (maybe a couple of grams per litre), it develops a real rounded Chardonnay flavour, and complexity.
The first bottle below (on the left) is under the Raymond Boulard label (vintage 2002). Francis split from the family firm some years ago, forging ahead with his daughter on the path of biodynamics. The bottle on the right is labelled Francis Boulard, retaining a similar look.
Heading back down to the Côte des Blancs, I want to finish on two very different producers and wines. Pascal Agrapart is based in Avize with a selection of Grand Cru vineyards there and nearby. Pascal is another proponent of biodynamic viticulture, or methods very close. The small range is exemplified by Cuvée Mineral. It’s an extra brut which sees a dosage of around 4 g/l. It increases in complexity with age, but it is well named, being above all mineral and fresh. It’s far from being Pascal’s most expensive wine, but I love it for its purity of expression.
Contrast with the Cramant-based domaine of Diebolt-Vallois. Jacques Diebolt makes exemplary wines which eschew the wood of several producers highlighted here, for ceramic and stainless steel tank fermentation, for most of the range. And indeed, I love the non-vintage Prestige Brut for its lively finesse. But the true prestige cuvée here is made in wood (205 litre Champagne pièces). Fleur de Passion is a non-malo vintage wine from the family’s finest crus and appears to be a bit of a secret to a relatively small number of aficionados in the UK. Not so in France and the USA. It’s yet another wine which develops peach flavours in maturity, replacing more apple tones in youth. Perfect balance between power and elegance in a good vintage, but again, with time.
As I intimated, I could go on for days extolling the virtues of Grower Champagne. There are also many lesser growers who, whilst not reaching these heights, have the advantage of being less well known and commanding lower prices. None of the top wines mentioned above are any cheaper that the prestige bottlings of the famous Houses. Indeed, the oft-cited cheapness of Grower Champagne can be a false economy. But then cheaper Burgundy is no different.
If you know these wines, I hope you found it interesting seeing what my tastes are. If you have found a few new names, then I hope you like them, if tempted to seek them out. But these are not wines to pop the cork when you get them home. And even when you do, a nice big glass, and even a carafe (for the brave), may be a good move.
Clockwise from top: One of René Champs’ lovely pieces of stained glass at Vilmart, one of Raphaël Bérêche’s negociant wines (Côte), and the elephant in the room, Selosse, and his least expensive cuvée. You don’t need me to tell you about Anselme Selosse.