Pop the Cork
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Legendary sommelier Aldo Sohm on rarer bubbles.
I FIRST LEARNED the term “grower Champagne” on a sleety Sunday night at Charlie Bird. I was with my friend, a brilliant chef and hilariously terrible influence who often lives as though he’s dying the next day. He ordered a bottle of Champagne for us — Jacques Lassaigne “Le Cotet.” This, he explained with hearts in his eyes, was “grower Champagne.” He broadly defined it as Champagne grown and made by farmers — the indie sibling to those big names that come to mind when we think of Champagne: Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon, etc.
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What has always embodied Champagne in my mind can be more accurately understood as “house Champagne,” that is, massive companies that buy the grapes of hundreds of farmers and blend them all together, creating a unified and homogenous flavor consistently in line with the house’s flavor profile. “Grower Champagne,” on the other hand, is a whole other world — wilder, rarer, more flavorful — and less understood. My memory of our bottle was divine, albeit a bit blurry by the end. The one crystal-clear thought that did stay with me, however, was the desire to learn about and try more of it.
So I reached out to wine legend Aldo Sohm, wine director of iconic Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin, partner of namesake Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, author of “Wine Simple,” and one of the most awarded sommeliers of our time — Best Sommelier in the World 2008, the M. Chapoutier prize for the Best Sommelier of Les Grandes Tables du Monde 2019, and Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for Le Bernardin’s restaurant wine program in 2021, among many others. In a black apron, he led me to an alcove in his wine bar, where we sat beside a small army of Champagne bottles he’d set aside. With a gentle demeanor and a Band-Aid on his finger, he described himself as an “industry dinosaur” with a playful laugh, asking how in-depth he was allowed to get on the topic in question. “Very,” I responded. This is what he had to say:
“Champagne has two fermentations. First, the base fermentation to make the base wine. In the second fermentation, you add a solution, and then you put it back into the cellar and close it with the crown cap. The yeast breaks down the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide — one of the byproducts.
Once the fermentation is done, the yeast, or the “lees” (leftover yeast particles) dies down, and sits on the bottom. The longer you leave the Champagne on the lees, the finer the bubbles become, and the higher the quality. Then the lees loosens up, and what they do is — they pop it. They disgorge it — open the crown cork and it sprays out, so the lees can come out (otherwise you couldn’t sell the Champagne because it would be cloudy). We have a little bit of a loss then.
That’s when the dosage comes in. The dosage adjusts how sweet that wine is. You often see the terms ‘brut,’ ‘extra brut,’ ‘brut nature,’ and so on. People often think ‘brut’ is a quality, but that only tells you the residual sugar content. The dosage (sugar or sugar and reserve wine) adds a little bit of sweetness.”
‘Grower Champagne’ … is a whole other world — wilder, rarer, more flavorful — and less understood.
“Grower Champagnes have a tendency to look more toward winemaking to Burgundy since they’re farmed biodynamically. And the OG of that era is Anselme Selosse — one of the godfathers of these grower Champagnes. He created a trend. He learned winemaking in Burgundy, and started getting his Champagnes or his base wines richer, more concentrated, and more powerful as a result, because he thought adding sugar was just wrong. Sugar is a little bit like makeup. It can take off some edges, but if you overdo it, you don’t recognize the product anymore. Think of sushi. When you dip the fish into too much soy sauce, it completely takes over. So Anselme Selosse left the sugar out, and he farmed biodynamically. He looked into vineyards. He was very specific. And he changed the mindset. The trend, even with houses right now, is shifting also more into drier Champagnes. So he actually inspired the big guys.”
“When you go into these kinds of producers, we always look for one thing. For grower Champagne, there’s these little initials. You should see “RM,” récoltant manipulant. That means the person owns the land and farms the land — a classic grower. A house, they have “NM,” négociant manipulant. That means they’re purchasing the grapes. So the quality control is off. With growers, they farm the land; they farm biodynamically or organically, depending. They’re very particular about the soil and the microclimate. For instance, Alexandre Chartogne, they plow with horses. Because if you run with a truck, it compresses the soil more.”
“You have to drink grower Champagnes differently. Mostly we drink Champagne in flutes. But with grower Champagnes, flutes take away from the experience. In the flute, flavors are a little caged. Yes, you smell everything. But in a wine glass, it becomes more nuanced. It fine slices the flavors. A wine glass is one of the best Champagne glasses, even though people still only associate Champagne with flutes.
Climate change is relevant here — in Champagne it’s very noticeable. Winters become milder. As a result, the plant doesn’t really fall fully asleep. Then late-spring frosts annihilate everything. If you’re lucky, you get a second shot, but the plant is damaged. So you try to continue but then get these enormous heat waves. All of a sudden, the plant produces a lot of sugar. By the same token, you lose acidity quite quickly. And often these kinds of heat waves are interrupted with severe thunderstorms, which bring hail. And there goes another part of your harvest.
To the plants that survive, this climate change produces more varied flavors in the Champagne. More alcohol, more opulent, richer styles, creamier styles also. That’s why we have to now use wine glasses. Because otherwise it’s like we put the wine in a corset, and it’s completely boxed in, and you take your experience away. With grower Champagnes, which are particularly affected by changes in climate, flutes go to the sideline.”
“Try to smell for five seconds and focus on it. Most people swirl, and swirl, and swirl. I typically smell twice. One without swirling to raw characterize it. It’s a little bit like meeting a new person. If I would’ve started hugging you right away (i.e., swirling immediately), that would be a little bit weird. So first, without swirling, what do you smell? It’s spice driven, it’s fruit forward, it’s very flowery, but there’s a richness. There’s a complexity. Then when I start swirling, I get to know it better. Okay, when I said spice, what type of spice? When I said fruit, what type of fruit? And so on. I break through that.
But typically, and you see this often in films, all over, people go ‘(sniff) strawberry, (sniff) raspberry, (sniff) flowers.’ It sounds ridiculous, right? Because firstly, it’s like sprint, stop, sprint, stop, sprint, stop. You fatigue yourself. You can’t taste like that. With grower Champagne — like every product farmed in a proper way, which is truly a craftsmanship — it evolves with air. It’s like cutting an apple and eating one half. The half that you let sit oxidizes a little bit. Air has an impact. After a bit, when you go back, it makes things taste different.”
“A friend came to this tasting I was doing. He overheard me say, ‘If you really want to get the real deal of that Champagne, get the Les Barres vineyard.’ Of course, he immediately wanted a bottle. I said, ‘It’s unlikely there’s something in the U.S. market.’ He said, ‘I'll get it in London.’ ‘In London?’ I told him, ‘Absolutely not. It’s for restaurants only.’ So he went to Italy; the Italians promised him everything. And of course, the deal fell through. He came back to me and said, ‘I don't understand. I don’t get it. I cannot get that Champagne. Dom Pérignon is more expensive!’ I said, ‘Welcome to the grower Champagne world.’ It’s not necessarily defined by the price. Most of the time they’re actually much cheaper. Les Barres, he makes 12 to 1,500 bottles a year. Another one, Bérêche, he makes 4,000 bottles. They come out and they disappear. It’s an artisanal production.”
There’s no wine which works with everything. Except for Champagne.
“There’s no wine which works with everything. Except for Champagne. You have this acidity which typically cuts through richer foods but is delicate enough for lighter foods. Then the sugar gives it a little bit more generosity in the fruit. It can hold up, especially with richer foods, with langoustines. With salads — it’s acidic enough, and the sweetness is also there. Try a red wine with salad. It’s terrible. It puts wrinkles in your face. You need a Botox session after. But Champagne, it even works with Thai cuisine. Try to drink a cabernet with Thai — worst experience. Korean food? I think of Champagne immediately. Look how many different spices, how many layers, textures. You have that with Champagne too. That’s what Champagne is all about. It’s easy to drink, sometimes a little too easy to open up a second bottle. It just works with everything. It makes you happy.”
“It tastes better. You get more value for your dollar. An aggressive comparison: You go to Costco and buy salad. You go to Whole Foods and buy salad. And then you go down to the green market and buy the salad from the farmer. It might be occasionally more expensive. But that salad from the farmer tastes the best out of all of them. However, there’s a feeling that in the last five years has gotten even stronger: We’re so brand focused that the brand almost gives us the instant gratification of the purchase. Think of the Hermès shopping experience. Even Apple. They figured that one out like nobody. We’re happy to buy a cable for $30. (And people argue with you about wine markups!)
For me, I look for complexity. That’s why with grower Champagne, you have to have the right mindset for complexity. But no matter what, you get a ton of value: You get sustainably farmed, or organically, or biodynamically farmed, which is good for the ecosystem. If it’s $5 more, it’s not going to kill you. Most of the time it’s actually not. That’s the irony. The Champagne market is one of the more undervalued markets. Obviously, I’m not talking about Dom Pérignon or Cristal. Those are prestige brands. But none of these grower Champagnes costs nearly as much.
For lots of people, it’s very important that Dom Pérignon is on that label. I couldn’t care less. But ultimately, there’s room for everyone in the game. Right now, people often bash big houses. I wouldn’t go that far. These big brands pull an audience in. They open us to Champagne in the first place. And the greatness about our palate is that it always evolves. Do you know anyone who loved their first oyster?”
“Build a relationship. Go to a store in your neighborhood. Wine people like to talk about wine. I do this still: Can you assemble me a case? Of six bottles or three bottles? Give a price range. If you don’t like it right away, give it half an hour. Again, it’s like meeting a new person. Sometimes they take a little time to ease out.
And if you still don’t like it after half an hour, so what? Open a new bottle. Or give it to your neighbor. They might like wine, who knows? I do this with my neighbors all the time. Then you go back, and tell the salesperson. And that’s how you learn. You also get invited to the tastings. Building a relationship means you don’t always have to take the direct purchasing risk.
We live in an Amazon world, but online you can’t build that kind of relationship. What I might like, you might hate. And we both are right and wrong for the same reason. Because there is no right. One liberty I don’t have is judgment. Imagine if we all drank the same thing. That would be a disaster!”
(A great tool to find stockists online and near you is Wine Searcher)
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Anna Williams shoots for a diverse range of editorial and advertising clients such as Google, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Williams-Sonoma, New York Times, Crate & Barrel, and Real Simple. She currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, daughter, and son.
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