Small in size, big in character

grower champagne People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 30 May 2007

Delve into the niche world of grower Champagnes and you’ll find great value and a fascinating range of styles. Tom Stevenson picks his top ten

Delve into the niche world of grower Champagnes and you’ll find great value and a fascinating range of styles. Tom Stevenson picks his top ten

Growers are unlikely to dominate Champagne as they do Burgundy for the simple reason that most Champagne is consumed for celebratory purposes or served at swanky parties where, like it or not, only famous names will do. But there is a buzz for grower products among aficionados who see Champagne primarily as a classic wine. Trying to find a grower Champagne in the US in the mid 1990s was pointless. Now, however, America is awash with so many small producer specialists it’s embarrassing for the Brits, who were the first to take these niche wines seriously.

Not all grower Champagnes are mono-crus (whereby all the grapes within come from a single cru) and a mono-cru is not, by definition, superior. But they allow tasters to see the stylistic differences between neighbouring villages, such as Bouzy and Ambonnay for southern Montagne de Reims Pinot Noir, or Avize and Cramant for Côte des Blancs Chardonnay. When you taste 50 different Champagnes from the same village and vintage you realise it’s not easy but, over time, it helps to build a picture.

Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Gimonnet and Serge Mathieu are the epitome of grower Champagne, but the rest of the best change positions annually. Thus the following personal favourites are listed alphabetically, ending with my ‘grower Champagne multiple’ of the moment. All of these growers farm their vineyards according to sustainable viticulture except Larmandier-Bernier, who is biodynamic.

Champagne Paul Bara (Bouzy)

Annual production: 110,000 bottles

Vignerons in Bouzy since 1883, and Champagne producers since 1929, the Bara family owns 11ha (hectares). Grapes are vinified in 50 small vats. Non-vintage blends get 50% reserve wine. No malolactic. Archetypal Bouzy with delivery of strength through length; never heavy.

Champagne Paul Bara, Brut Réserve, Bouzy Grand Cru NV HHHHH

Pinot Noir 80%, Chardonnay 20%. Rich, classy fruit, with excellent acidity and concentrated Pinot flavours dominating beautifully on the finish. Will develop biscuity complexity. Dosage 9g. Up to 2012. £23.50; Loe

Champagne Gaston Chiquet (Dizy)

Annual production: 240,000 bottles

Cousins to the Chiquets of Champagne Jacquesson, Antoine and Nicolas own 22ha of vineyards in Hautvillers, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Dizy. Attention to quality extends to using a silicon insert in the base of their corks to prevent any TCA taint. Stainless-steel fermentation gives a fruity, early-drinking style.

Champagne Gaston Chiquet, Brut Tradition NV HHH

Pinot Meunier 45%, Chardonnay 35%, Pinot Noir 20%. Floral aromas and a fine mousse. Elegant, carefree drinking with plenty of fruit. Will go deliciously creamy-biscuity with age. Dosage 8.8g. Drink now for freshness, or 2008–10 for development. £15.95; BBR

Champagne Egly-Ouriet (Ambonnay)

Annual production: 100,000 bottles

Francis Egly-Ouriet owns 12ha, mainly in Ambonnay but also Bouzy, Verzenay, and Vrigny. Wild yeasts ferment in enamel-lined vats and barriques. Very good wines of classic structure that could improve, age longer and more gracefully if the dosage (2-5g) were 8 or 9g.

Champagne Egly-Ouriet, Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV HHH

Pinot Noir 75%, Chardonnay 25%. Not a mono-cru, as Brut Tradition is a blend of Egly-Ouriet’s vineyards in Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. The blend I tasted (bottled in June 2002, disgorged in September 2005) is still estery and young on the nose for a Champagne with more than three years on yeasts and more than 18 months post-disgorgement ageing, but the deep, rich Pinot flavours are impressive for a 2001-based blend. Dosage 4.5g. 2008–11. £27.50; L&S

Champagne Fluteau (Gye-sur-Seine)

Annual production: 74,000 bottles

The reverse of the usual grower-turned-négociant story. In 1935, Hérard et Fluteau was one of the first négociants in the Aube but, as recently as the 1990s, Thierry Fluteau and his American wife Jennifer reverted to grower-producer status, making Champagne from their own 9ha vineyard. An impressive stainless-steel cellar was installed in 1996 and is still being added to with more technology. A flexible approach to malolactic gives lots of fruit in these forward, friendly Champagnes.

Champagne Fluteau, Cuvée Reservée NV HHHH

Pinot Noir 85%, Chardonnay 15%. Yet more ridiculously easy-drinking Champagne from Fluteau. Four stars for sheer glugginess. Dosage 10g. Up to 2009. £19.99; Odd

Champagne Pierre Gimonnet (Cuis)

Annual production: 70,000 bottles

Didier Gimonnet owns an impressive 28ha estate of almost all Chardonnay in Cuis, Cramant, Chouilly and, since 2005, Oger. He is one of Champagne’s greatest exponents of pure Chardonnay but, in 2002, he purchased 50ha of Pinot Noir split between Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, enabling him to make a pure Pinot Noir Champagne called Paradoxe for the US market. Stainless-steel fermented with malo systematically applied, the hallmarks of Didier’s wines are purity and finesse.

Champagne Pierre Gimonnet, Club des Viticulteurs, Premier Cru Brut 1997 HHHHH

Chardonnay 100%. Although Gimonnet has been shipping the 1999 (£28.14; Ear) since September 2006, it’s not ready to drink for a few years. Instead, try the fabulous 1997, which is already nicely evolved and boasts rich, mellow, creamy, biscuity fruit. The only problem is that you’ll have to visit Gimonnet to get some. Almost half of this amazing cuvée is from vines aged between 40 and 86 years. Drink now. N/A UK; +33 3 26 59 78 70

Champagne André Jacquart

(Le Mesnil-sur-Oger)

Annual production: 70,000 bottles

With 24ha, strict bud thinning, harvesting by tries and pressing, Marie Doyard-Jacquart and her sommelier husband Matthieu Duval are keen to stamp their mark as the new generation of producers. They will lower volume from 120,000 bottles and focus on fewer wines of higher quality. The Jacquart style has always been crisp with light richness, but recently there has been more elegance and oak influence.

Champagne André Jacquart, Brut Carte Blanche NV HHH

Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, 33% each. Not pure Mesnil as it includes grapes from Jacquart’s vineyards in Vallée de la Marne and Aube. There is distinctive new oak on the nose and delicately rich, elegant fruit on palate. The finesse is heightened on the finish by impeccably minute bubbles. Dosage 4g. Up to 2009. £18.45–19.59; WCw, You

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier (Vertus)

Annual production: 130,000 bottles

The Larmandier and Bernier families have been vineyard owners on the Côte des Blancs since the Revolution, when the land was divided up. There’s a strict pruning regime and minimal fertilising on the old vines, farmed biodynamically. Fermentation is in stainless-steel, barrels and barriques, always with malolactic. Non-vintage blends get 40% reserve wines and the house style is enhanced by further bottle age for luscious, yet crisp, creamy fruit of finesse.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier,

Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru NV

HHHH

Chardonnay 100%. Splendid, ethereally light Chardonnay fruit destined to develop a lovely creamy, walnutty richness and finesse. Dosage 5g. Up to 2012. £19.25; VTr

Champagne Serge Mathieu (Avirey-Lingey)

Annual production: 110,000 bottles

The Mathieus have been growers in the Aube since at least 1760 but it was not until 1970 that the first Champagne was bottled under the family name by Serge Mathieu, who created the ‘Billecart Salmon of grower Champagnes’. His daughter Isabelle and her husband Michel-Jacob now run the business but Serge still works in the cellars. There are 11ha of picture-perfect vines and a superbly equipped winery. Malolactic is carried out with great delicacy, endowing these supremely elegant Champagnes with a creamy richness.

Champagne Serge Mathieu, Brut Tradition Blanc de Noirs NV HHHHH

100% Pinot Noir. Just so yummy! I defy anyone to guess blind that this light and elegant wine with its silky, pin-cushion mousse is a blanc de noirs. Dosage 10g. Up to 2010. £16.50; SVS

Champagne Vilmart & Cie

(Rilly-la-Montagne)

Annual production: 110,000 bottles

When I first tasted Vilmart in 1981 it was nothing special. But after it introduced oak in the late 1980s, a sea change in quality occurred. By 1991, I declared Vilmart to be ‘poor man’s Krug’, ‘mini Krug’ and ‘the greatest grower Champagne I know’. No malolactic.

Champagne Vilmart & Cie, Coeur de Cuvée 1998 HHHHH

80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. Great concentration, complexity and finesse. Montrachet with bubbles! Dosage 10g. Up to 2015. £50–59; Gau, Hed, Unc, WoI

Grower Champagne Multiple

The accolade goes to M&S for launching four grower Champagnes. Three of these are Jacques Defrance, Tarlant and Fleury, but my favourite is:

Champagne Herbert Beaufort, Brut Tradition Carte Or, Bouzy Grand Cru NV HHHH

90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay. Lovely floral nose. Light bodied for Bouzy but delightful, with a soft-silky mousse to add finesse to the fruit on the finish. Dosage 8g. Up to 2009. £24.99; M&S

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