France's Distinctive, Affordable Champagne

Courtesy Polaner Selections

Small-scale and artisanal, Champagne’s grower-producers are making some of France’s most distinctive bubbly—at remarkably fair prices.

When Anselme Selosse describes his Champagnes he says things like, “This one is a country gentleman, with the soil from the fields still on his boots.” Or, “This is a young girl, with the bloom still on her cheeks.” Discussing the oak barriques he uses for aging, Selosse says they’re “one family, but—like brothers, sisters, cousins—each with its own personality.” Even in the context of wine talk, which can veer between dully technical and vaporously poetic, this is pretty atypical stuff. But then Selosse isn’t a typical vintner. He’s one of an increasing number of grower-producers—winemakers who create Champagne from their own vineyards. Over the past two decades, this group has quietly revolutionized the Champagne industry by providing a compelling alternative to the grandes marques that dominate the market. What’s more, these Champagnes are often gently priced, especially the single-vineyard wines: At roughly $75, Selosse neighbor Larmandier-Bernier’s Vieille Vigne de Cramant Extra Brut Grand Cru isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s far less than comparable bottles from the big houses.

The grapes used to create Champagne have long been bought and sold like commodities, raw material for the big houses to make into their brand-name products. As a result the Champagne region has traditionally made viticulture less of a priority than the actual process of making the wine. But Selosse, whose family owns some eighteen acres of grand cru vineyards around the village of Avize, studied oenology in Burgundy, home to some of the most famously individualistic wines in the world. While there, Selosse says, he came to appreciate “the nobility of viticulture,” which eventually led to a belief that Champagne could be something different, an expression of the unique qualities of place, of the soil and weather, a true terroir wine.

When he took over his parents’ land, in 1980, Selosse put his theories to work in his fields. He cut back drastically on the yields in his vineyards and began experimenting with a singular mixture of biodynamic philosophy and organic and traditional growing and production techniques. He began planting and fertilizing according to the phases of the moon and doing his riddling—a multi-week process of tilting and rotating the bottles to consolidate the yeast sediment—by hand, when almost every other house had been doing this by machine for years.

The result was a rich, complex, and seriously intense Champagne. It was so good that in 1994, Selosse won the Gault Millau wine guide’s Vigneron of the Year award in every category—the first time a Champagne grower had ever done so. His wine also convinced a whole generation to take up his example.

Of the millions of bottles of bubbly consumed every year, approximately 70 percent comes from the big houses, whose names read like a roll call of frothy good times: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, and Taittinger among them. These companies, known as négociants, buy grapes from farms all over the Champagne region. Assemblage, the process of combining wines made from various farms’ grapes and various years’ cuvées, is the crucial step in creating a house’s signature blend. The job of determining the right mix is usually done by a committee, with the chef de cave, the directors, the heads of the firm, and tasting specialists all giving input prior to when the composition of the final product, the vin clair, is set.

All that happens before the wine is actually turned into Champagne, a long, complicated practice involving many steps, including a second fermentation and at least 15 months of aging. Clearly, the more philosophical considerations of how to create a wine that expresses the terroir, the particularities of vine and soil, of a single village or farm (let alone the values of riddling by hand) are difficult to keep in mind during this process.

And that’s sort of the point. For the big Champagne houses, the name on the label, and the flavor associated with it, is paramount—especially when it comes to the nonvintage bottles that make up the bulk of their production. The Veuve Clicquot that toasts this New Year is just as good as the Veuve Clicquot that toasted last New Year and should taste the same besides. Consistency isn’t the only virtue in this process, but it’s a big one.

There are around 2,000 grower-producers, or to use the French term, récoltants-manipulants, scattered around Champagne’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), and in France their bottles have been sold alongside those of the big names for years. But in the last 15 years or so, as movements like Slow Food have made the idea of artisanal food production increasingly popular, winemakers like Selosse have come to the fore. American importer Terry Theise was an early enthusiast of Champagne’s grower-producers—he started bringing in bottles in 1997 and still has the largest portfolio of these Champagnes in the United States—and as he sees it, the difference is one of character. “It’s the chance to drink a wine that isn’t homogenized,” he says, “the chance to buy from someone who’s a ‘them’ rather than an ‘it.’ ”

It was Theise who coined the term “farmer fizz.” Like heirloom tomatoes sold at farmers’ markets, where the people who grow them are there to talk about the process, these Champagnes are the unique product of unique personalities. They come with a sense of place, a narrative, and a point of view.

Even if they wanted to, there is no way grower-producers could create a Champagne like Krug; they simply don’t have the land, labor, or infrastructure. Instead, they’re now thinking more like growers in other regions and producing something that’s very different from traditional Champagne. Part of that is simply a way to stand out in a crowded market. Grower-producer Cédric Bouchard, for instance, named his Champagne Roses de Jeanne because, as he told Peter Liem in an interview for Liem’s blog, Besotted Ramblings and Other Drivel, “Champagne Cédric Bouchard, c’est super-nul, quoi [that’s, like, super lame].” But like Selosse, Bouchard also produces wine that is as devoted to terroir as anything from Burgundy. Made with no added sugar, it is still so rich and deep that Bouchard actually recommends decanting it before serving. There’s not much of it—he makes some 300 cases of his Blanc de Noirs and only 300 or so bottles of his Rosé de Saignée. But even those tiny quantities have been enough to earn him a Vigneron of the Year award from Gault Millau.

Bouchard grows only one variety of grape per parcel and produces just one wine from each parcel per year. He’s an extreme case, but he is by no means alone. After years of notoriously lousy viticulture, the current generation of grower-producers in Champagne is, if not organic or biodynamic, committed to sustainable farming. As a rule, they are deeply engaged with their fields on a day-to-day basis. “I am a scientist,” says François Péters, who recently turned over the management of Champagne Pierre Peters, one of the largest of the grower-producer houses in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, to his son Rodolphe. “My laboratory is the vineyard, and when I do experiments, it takes ten to fifteen years to see results. This is something I can do that the big houses cannot: I have the time to make a wine that expresses my terroir, my fruit.” Similar experiments, at once philosophical and practical, are now being carried out by a growing number of farmers in Champagne. As for the results, they can be found in the wines.

The True Original

Strictly speaking, Champagne Salon is a négociant, but of such a distinctive type that it is really in a class of its own: the first and oldest of the cult Champagnes. The house produces an average of only 60,000 bottles a year of one wine, a single vintage made from Chardonnay grapes harvested since the turn of the 20th century from the same 20 vineyard blocks in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. And Salon—named for the house’s founder, a furrier and devoted epicure named Eugène-Aimé Salon—doesn’t necessarily produce the wine every year. Since 1921, the year Salon went from being Eugène-Aimé’s hobby to a commercially available wine, only 33 vintages have been released—a rate that works out to about three or four per decade. The issue isn’t so much the quality of the harvest but the type. Since there’s no blending, the wine from each year’s harvest has to have precisely the right combination of acidity and sugar to be considered for a Salon vintage. It’s then aged for an average of ten years and sometimes longer: The 1985 vintage was kept for 14 years and not released until after the 1988.

The result, priced at around $300 a bottle, is a serious wine drinker’s Champagne. In fact, it might actually taste better the day after opening, once the bubbles have dissipated. The 1996, an already legendary vintage, is still young but just starting to come into its own. At a recent tasting with friends, it began as a mix of raw almonds, citrus fruit, biscuits: delicious but not as spectacular as I’d hoped. By the second glass, though, it had opened up and become rich and complex, one of the most heartbreakingly gorgeous wines I’ve ever tasted. Heartbreaking because by that point it was almost gone.

Tasting Notes

Grower-producer Champagne is much harder to find than bottles from the big négociants. But in the age of the Internet, it has become easier to track down artisanal bubbly. These nonvintage picks should be more widely available than their vintage siblings.