This bubbly season, bypass the yellow label for something a little more unexpected.
For those who drink sparkling wine seasonally or save it for special occasions, cork-popping season has arrived. But while stocking up on Champagne for holiday parties and gifts, you may want to consider an alternative to the classic labels this year. While Veuve and Moët and Taittinger are ubiquitous for good reason, grower Champagne offers a certain je ne sais quoi.
Grower Champagne refers to sparkling wine that is not only made in France’s Champagne region (as a protected designation of origin), but is also specifically crafted by families who are cultivating the grapes on their own land.
The vast majority of Champagne flowing through the market is made by large houses like Moët et Chandon and Krug. While in some cases these houses grow a portion of the grapes that they use, they rely on dozens of farmers across the region to supply them with enough fruit to make Champagne at such a high volume. Alternatively, grower Champagne is made in much smaller volumes, and can really showcase the terroir of each farm. Since the elements that inform the terroir can vary (sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically), each year’s output is different than the one before.
It’s for this exact reason, though, that sommelier Samantha Germani appreciates it. While the beverage director at Lacroix restaurant at in Philadelphia names vintage Veuve as one of her all-time favorites, Germani says it’s the unpredictability of the farmer-made varieties that makes them so interesting.
“Certain Champagnes—like Ruinart Blanc de Blanc—are going to taste the exact same every time. That they’re able to do that every year is so impressive,” she says. “But it's the inconsistency of grower Champagne that makes it exciting. There's the intrigue—you almost know what you're going to get, but then something might throw you off a little bit. It can be a surprise in the best way.”
Germani also points out that grower Champagne can be a relative bargain. While some producers can demand any price, many don’t have the label recognition—nor do they have the costs associated with advertising and marketing, among other things.
“There's so much more value coinciding with quality in grower Champagne,” she says. “If I find something like a Marc Hébrart that's around $36 or $38, I’m thrilled. I can have a baller champagne for under $50.”
To find these gems, look for the initials “RM” on the bottle’s label, which stands for récoltant manipulant. (Alternatively, the bottle can be labeled with an NM, meaning negociant manipulant, which is the category that includes all the big Champagne houses.)
Below, Germani shares four of her favorites. She estimates only about 5% of grower Champagnes produced make it into the U.S., so grab these when you see them.
The family-run winery had been renting its vineyards to bigger houses since the early 19th century, and about 15 years ago, Olivier Collin decided he wanted to start making his own Champagne. Germani recommends the single vineyard, 100% pinot noir Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut, Les Maillons, calling it rich, full, and delicious.
Made in the village of Mareuil-sur-Ay by Jean-Paul Hébrart, son of the label’s namesake, Germani loves the label in general but calls the rosé her favorite. “It’s pure and elegant,” she says. “I find the most people enjoy this wine.”
At Lacroix, diners can get a Brut Nature from this nearly 150-year-old vineyard by the glass. “It’s the best first sip to dinner,” says the sommelier.
Germani calls the Zero Brut Nature, made by the twelfth generation of the Tarlant family (they’ve been in operation since 1687), her number one. Zero refers to its total lack of dosage, or added sugar. “It’s razor sharp and intense,” says the somm. “This one gets right to the point with acidity and freshness.”