Stephen Tanzer's

Winophilia

Grower Champagnes—that is, Champagnes made by small, family-owned operations—are all the rage among hip wine folk these days. Unfortunately, some of the more rabid proponents of these wines attempt to promote their virtues at the expense of Champagnes produced by larger, usually corporate-owned houses, which produce the vast majority of wine in the region. To some people, “factory fizz,” as opposed to “farmer fizz,” means bland and soulless, while bubblies made by smaller wineries deliver greater character and pizzazz. As is almost always the case with wine, generalizations are dangerous, and that’s especially true for non-vintage Champagnes, which account for the overwhelming majority of the region’s production.

While it’s undeniable that a lot of lackluster Champagne is made by large firms, it’s also true that plenty of wine made by mom-and-pop operations is crude and lacking in real complexity. That has a lot to do with the fact that in the case of non-vintage Champagnes, which are blends of wines from various vintages, producers who have access to a range of vintages and vineyards are theoretically in the position to make more complex wines. Few small wineries have the stocks to blend across numerous years, while larger, well-capitalized firms often carry massive inventories of older vintages. Large houses like the ones I cover here can also afford to buy high-quality fruit or wine year in and year out, and they also retain highly talented staff and own state-of-the-art equipment, which make it possible to produce high-quality Champagne on a large scale.

Since non-vintage Champagnes are constantly being blended to maintain inventory, and since those blends obviously vary, lot numbers are often engraved on the bottle, label or foil. This allows some way for wine writers—and consumers—to identify each bottling. A few houses indicate the exact date on which the bottle was disgorged, which typically occurs just before the wine is released for sale. I provide those numbers here in the hope that readers can find the exact wines I have reviewed. But don’t sweat it too much, especially if you shop at a quality-minded, passionate retailer who takes good care of their stock. Non-vintage Champagnes are all about consistency of house style, and all of these producers are nothing if not consistent, not to mention quality-driven.

Incidentally, the half dozen wines featured below are just a tiny part of my annual coverage of non-vintage Champagnes in the International Wine Cellar, which features wines from roughly a hundred producers, including many of the top small growers. For as little as $19.95 for a two-month subscription, you can get immediate access to my tasting notes as well as to the IWC’s enormous archives of notes and scores on wines from virtually every important wine-growing region around the world.

Charles Heidsieck (Rémy Cointreau USA) is a highly reliable producer of complex, deep, smoky Champagnes that blend power and vivacity. Their Brut Réserve ($55; 2009 disgorgement), a classic example of the house style, compares favorably with plenty of Champagnes that cost twice as much.

Pol Roger (Frederick Wildman & Sons) is another producer known for rich, powerful Champagnes and the Extra Cuvée de Réserve Brut ($50; Lot 11961873B) shows the house’s weighty style while exhibiting bright chalk and citrus character as well. This hefty but vibrant Champagne is extremely flexible with food but is also delicious by itself.

One of the smallest big houses, Henriot (Henriot Inc.) has developed a reputation for Champagnes that combine deep, smoky character with brighter mineral qualities. Both of their NV bottlings, the Brut Souverain ($50; Lot 1106921210) and the Blanc de Blancs Brut ($60; Lot 1107221010) are excellent this year. The Souverain is a smoky, powerful Champagne while the Blanc de Blancs combines that rich character with more intense minerality.

Some of the most interesting big house Champagnes are made by Alfred Gratien (Domaine Select Wine Estates), who ferment their wines in traditional wooden casks, a rare practice in the region today. The oak gives the wines a toasty, warm character that I find enthralling. The basic Brut ($45; Lot 10334) is a spicy, highly nuanced Champagne offering an array of orchard and citrus fruit flavors supported by a strong mineral spine. Given the prices commanded by Gratien’s top bottlings, this is a serious value.

Louis Roederer (Maisons Marques & Domaines) is probably most famous, or infamous, for their luxury Cristal bottling, which is consistently outstanding, but quality here runs high across the full range of their wines. At $40, Roederer’s Brut Premier (Lot 0346408100107) is one of the best values in Champagne this year. A bright, racy wine, it’s loaded with citrus, floral and spice character, and finishes with excellent clarity and stony cut.

Please note that I have listed suggested retail prices for these Champagnes. In most cases, you should be able to find them for lower—even much lower—tariffs, especially in larger metropolitan markets.

December 29th, 2011 | no comments

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