Many American consumers tend to associate Champagne with the large, commercial brands, and no wonder: The companies in question spend a great deal of money on marketing and promotion to create that linkage. In reality, there are nearly 20,000 growers in the Champagne region who control close to 90 percent of the land, and 5,000 of those growers are now bottling their own Champagne.
Grower Champagne is a recent phenomenon, but the trend is expanding. Winemaking facilities are expensive, and a number of growers simply can’t afford them; some rely on cooperatives to get their product into bottle. The situation is analogous to Burgundy, where many small landowners have stopped selling their grapes to négociants and are now putting out their own labels. The relative obscurity of grower Champagne in the United States is also because the French keep much of it for themselves—virtually half the bubbly consumed in France comes from small producers.
Some grower Champagnes span the gulf between cult and brand. A good example is Drappier, which has owned vineyards since the early-nineteenth century. An even better case is Philipponnat, a house with roots back to 1522, which is now distributed in 50 countries. Its Royale Réserve ($50) is rich and full-bodied, a smooth introduction to the Philipponnat style. For a dazzling experience, try the tête de cuvée, Clos de Goisses ($250). Composed of 70 percent Pinot Noir from a tiny, low-yielding vineyard, it is one of the world’s great Champagnes.
Among connoisseurs, Tarlant is known as one of the best sources for top grower Champagne. The family has owned land in the Marne valley since 1687; Jean-Mary and Benoit, of the twelfth generation, oversee the vineyard and cellar work, respectively. I sometimes refer to their Cuvée Louis ($95) as “the poor man’s Krug.” Matured in small oak casks prior to the second fermentation, it is intense and concentrated, with honeyed overtones of vanilla—a Champagne for food.
One of the best-known labels in this category is Egly-Ouriet, and its NV Brut Tradition Grand Cru ($85) is worth seeking out. Produced from 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay (the same blend as Philipponnat) by Francis Egly, the grapes are sourced from a 20-acre Grand Cru vineyard in Ambonnay. It reveals surprising depth, paired with a style that is fresh, racy and elegant.
Other noteworthy wines are made by Guy Charlemagne, owners of nearly 40 acres in the Chardonnay-dominated Côte des Blancs (NV Blanc de Blancs, $50); Larmandier-Bernier, producing natural wines by biodynamic methods (Tradition Premier Cru Extra Brut, $50); Diebolt-Vallois, also located in the Côte des Blancs (NV Blanc de Blancs, $45); and Marc Hébrart, whose 35 acres are spread over an amazing 65 different vineyard sites in the Marne (Selection Premier Cru Brut, $55).
How to identify a grower Champagne? Look toward the bottom of the label, where you’ll find a pair of initials and a number. If the initials before the number are NM (Négociant-Manipulant), then the Champagne was made by a large house that may own some vineyards but buys most of its grapes from growers. If you see CM or RC, it means the grapes have likely come from a small grower but the wine was made by a cooperative. The letters RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) signify a true grower Champagne—the mark of a respected craft that makes the celebratory drink even more special.