Shhhh: The New Party Sound Is the Gentle Sigh of the Champagne Cork (and Make That a Grower Champagne While You're At It)

Grower Champagne and study at Shorty's Cellar 157 wine tasting

Grower Champagne and study at Shorty's Cellar 157 wine tasting

With friends, I went to a tasting of five grower Champagnes last week at Shorty's: Cellar 157 (facebook) in downtown Lexington last week. I did this solely for educational purposes, so I could share with you, dear readers, any new intelligence that may serve you well on New Year's Eve.

I wrote earlier about tasting one grower Champagne at Shorty's—the remarkable Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru—as part of an earlier tasting in which it was the only sparkling wine. So I really looked forward to learning more about grower champagnes, and tasting several.

Jeff from Vintner's Select, an Ohio-based wine importer and distributor, ran the grower champagne tasting, wearing a Burgundy-colored velvet jacket. He said that Champagne is the only "upside-down" wine style in the world. With every other wine, we seek out and place a premium on wines from a specific parcel of land, made thoughtfully in small batches, while with Champagne, the premium wines have typically been made by big houses ("Grande Marques") with well-known names, producing thousands (even millions!) of cases annually, using blends of grapes from all over the Champagne region.

Before providing a little detail and a list of the wines tasted, here's a public service announcement: Open your New Year's Eve bubbly carefully. Jeff provided a little 88-second tutorial, and I filmed it (though not in high quality - everyone looks a bit squashed from above). It's a quick, clear demo on how to open Champagne (or other sparkling wine) safely and without the POP that lets too much good stuff leave the bottle. [Email readers, view the video here.] There's a little not-quite-family-appropriate surprise at the end.

To make his point about the wondrous variety among grower champagnes, Jeff introduced us to two Champagnes made from Chardonnay grapes, two made primarily from Pinot Noir grapes, and one from Pinot Meunier, which until recently mostly played a supporting role in Champagne production. The most expensive, highly rated (and beautiful) Champagne of the evening was a Brut Rosé. Prices for the Champagnes at Shorty's ranged from $45 to $77/bottle, with Jeff pointing out that big name Champagnes often cost hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Here's the tasting list, with some available ratings, and a bit about the size and capacity of the wineries. (One hectare equals roughly 2.5 acres.)

  • Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Blanc de Blancs Cuis 1er Cru: from a 25 hectare vineyard, with annual production of 17,500 cases.  (Wine Spectator 91 points/Stephen Tanzer 90 points)
  • Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Cuvée de Réserve: from an 18 hectare vineyard with annual production of 13,300 cases. (Wine Advocate 92 points/Wine Spectator 91 points)
  • Gosset-Brabant, a tiny producer (about 3,000 cases a year)
  • Jean Lallement et Fils Verzenay Grand Cru: from a 4.5 hectare estate with annual production of 1,700 cases. (Wine Advocate 91 points/Wine Spectator 92 points)
  • René Geoffroy Rosé Cuvée Rosé de Saigné Grand Cru: from a 14 hectare vineyard producing 10,000 cases a year. (Wine Advocate 93 points/Wine Spectator 92 points)
  • A. Margaine Champagne Traditionelle Demi-Sec: from a 6.5 hectare estate that produces less than 5,000 cases a year. (Wine Advocate 92 points/Wine Spectator 90 points)

Most of these Champagnes are products of vineyards that first began producing grapes in the 1600s or 1700s. Most are still run by families [note the "et fils" ("and son") in some producer names].

I know very few people who will buy these wines and drink them regularly. So in order to taste them, I recommend, as I have before, organizing a small group of friends to share both pleasure and cost while tasting these unusually delicious drinks. Do a little research, talk with wine store guides, look for the little "RM" or "RC" in tiny letters on the front label (the "R" stands for recoltant, meaning "grower") and help each other learn to open these precious vessels with the appropriate gentle sigh, not that familiar, over-exuberant pop!

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