I’ve been thinking about Champagne a lot, lately. Perhaps, it’s due to the proximity of the New Year’s holiday, or it may have been the result of an exchange that I witnessed at a local wine shop a while ago, where a customer, seeking to impress a Champagne-loving friend, opted for the usual brand of industrial Champagne over the truly unique, characterful, wine recommended by the salesperson. The proffered bottle, a non-vintage Brut from Egly-Ouriet, a small grower in the Montagne de Riems, known for producing rich, powerful wines of great depth. This small estate farms approximately eight hectares of all Grand Cru vineyards, mostly in Ambonnay, but also in Bouzy and Verzenay. The vigneron, Francis Egly, is recognized as one of the finest growers in the region; his Champagnes are nothing, if not expressive of their terroir. Clearly, the aforementioned Champagne-loving friend would have been in for a unique experience.
But, the sad fact is that this scene is played out hundreds of times a day in wine shops across the nation. People who wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to lay down their hard-earned cash for a terroir-driven, 93+ wine from Parker, will, more often than not, opt to buy an innocuous factory Champagne that is available at every mom ‘n’ pop shop in the land.
In 2006, the top-3 Champagne brands accounted for 62.6% of all the Champagne sold in America, whereas Grower Champagnes accounted for only 2.47% of the market. This translates into approximately 2,000 growers out of the 20,000 that exist, who are making and selling their own juice, although the numbers that have the ability to export their wines to the United States is far smaller. However, the good news is that their numbers are growing: last year, according to Terry Theise, a top American selecter of Grower Champagne, there were 129 Grower Champagnes available in the U.S., this year the number has risen to 160.
So, what do you actually get when you opt for Champagne from these grower-producers, or récoltant-manipulant (RM), as they are known in France? You get, as Eric Asimov eloquently states, “Champagnes with clear, pronounced personalities that bubble up through the wine, expressing the quirky nuances of each particular combination of soil, climate and producer.” That is to say, something honest and real; wine grown and made by a vigneron; by a family that tends the vines and grows the grapes. Not “product” served up by a mega-conglomerate that also sells overpriced luggage. These are wines that are an eloquent expression of their individual terroirs, much in the same way as other storied wines, such Barolo from the Cannubi vineyard, or Meursault-Les Perrières.
The problem is that your average consumer suffers from a mild form of disconnect with regard to Champagne; wine is wine and Champagne is that other beverage reserved for celebratory occasions and special holidays. It’s no wonder then that most Champagne drinkers don’t wax eloquently on the differences between say, a single-vineyard Varnier-Frannière “Cuvée Saint-Denis” Grand Cru from Avize, and a Vilmart & Cie, “Grand Cellier,” non-vintage Champagne from probably the best grower-producer in the Montagne de Reims, as they do with their expensive Burgundies. And it is partially because of this disconnect, that the big Champagne houses have been able to foist their homogenized, ultra-blended, house-style wines on a largely unschooled public. Their wines (with the exception of some Cuvées de Prestige from the likes of Krug or Bollinger) have been largely stripped of any traces of terroir or distinctiveness. Perhaps, the second reason for this disconnect is the fact that most people do not perceive Champagne as being, essentially, a food wine. The more mineral-laden Champagnes are a perfect match for shellfish and Sushi, while the more robust styles are perfect match for roast meats. And it is in this realm that Grower Champagnes really shine, affording drinkers unique, untold pleasures that a homogenized, industrial product cannot provide.
So, what Grower Champagne would I recommend for the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration? The aforementioned Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru; a sublime paring for just about any holiday meal; and probably a splurge for simply toasting or ringing in the New Year, but hey, it's only once a year!
Wine and grower information from Michael Skurnik Wines, the importer:
Egly-Ouriet is one of the original Grower Champagnes distributed by Michael Skurnik Wines, long before "Grower Champagne" was even part of our wine vernacular. As such, Egly has earned a soft spot in the hearts of many Champagne groupies. Based in the village of Ambonnay, this small estate claims approximately eight hectares of ALL Grand Cru vineyards, mostly in Ambonnay, but also in Bouzy and Verzenay. Francis Egly is one of the most conscientious, skilled vignerons in the entire region, and his vinous, terroir-expressive Champagnes are unique and incredible. The vines average 30-50 years in age and are planted to 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. In order to preserve the integrity of the base wines as much as possible, all wines are unfiltered - a somewhat unusual practice in Champagne. Once the assemblage is complete, all wines spend a minimum of three years on their yeasts, often significantly longer, resulting in rich, full-bodied Champagnes. The date of disgorgement can always be found on the back label.
Golden colored with some hints of green tinges. Lemon and honey suckle butter on the nose with some wet stones, chalk dust, white roses, nuts and cooked peaches on the edges. Lots of pepper and raspberries with white roses here, Mirabelle plums, and lemon and lime rind. Mid palate of baked dried red-fuits with a long finish.
Simply one of the finest growers in all of Champagne, this is their flagship
wine; 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, all from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. Unapologetically vinous, and with amazing depth. The vines are between 35 and 40 years old. The sheer ripeness and quality of the fruit allow for a very moderate dosage of 4 grams per liter. Egly's Champagnes are legendary; taste why.
Wine Advocate Review:
The NV Brut Tradition Grand Cru (75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay) is made in a muscular, weighty style that reveals impressive richness and density in its fruit. The wine possesses outstanding persistence on the palate but finishes rather tight, suggesting at least a few additional months of bottle age are warranted. This is a distinctly fruit-driven, opulent style of Champagne. The Brut Tradition Grand Cru spent 36 months on its lees and was disgorged in July, 2008. Anticipated maturity: 2008-2011. 91 points.-
Wine Advocate (Dec 2008)