Over the years I've watched "grower Champagne" evolve outward from its cult following into something almost mainstream. What is "grower Champagne," or "farmer fizz," to quote a term put forth by importer Terry Theise? It's Champagne made by small estates that own the land where the grapes are grown.
Before the rise of grower Champagne, large-scale Champagne houses would buy grapes from independent growers and blend them together to achieve a consistent style, which was not variable in quality. But eventually this turned drinking it into a cliche. Fancy rich people drank expensive brand names and the people who actually pruned the vines, picked the grapes, racked the barrels and tended the vineyards were nameless and faceless. And the land? It was a dumping ground for the trash bags of Paris, not the venerated earth that yielded complex, engaging wines.
But why is the land where the grapes come from important?
Wine tied to its point of origin forges a special connection with the people who produce it. When you buy this kind of wine, you're also supporting a grower who makes an artisanal product and represents a family who has farmed for generations on their own land. Just because a wine is grower-produced doesn't mean it's good, and just because it is made by "big house" Champagne doesn't mean it's bad. And the roots of the larger houses are also deeply tied to the history of Champagne. Yet there is a different kind of historical significance to reaffirming the status of the primacy of the land, a sense of purpose in applying the same sort of quality standards to Champagne as are applied to other wines. In short, Champagne and sparkling wines are finally thought of as a wine, and not just an aperitif, a brand name, a luxury good or party lubricant.
So if you care where your vegetables are grown, how your meat is treated before it's butchered or how much the people who pick the beans that go into your morning roast get paid, why aren't you buying wine that is a product of a historical narrative, rather than a corporate one? If you've forsworn Big Macs, Walmart and Budweiser, why not put your money into a different kind of wine and put that wine where your mouth is?
When I say that Champagne is now thought of as wine, I mean that the trends that the modern wine world has embraced are now applied to its production. For example, look at the rise of organic growing and what that looks like when dealing with a product as subtle and tricky as wine. A successful example would be Egly-Ouriet. Francis Egly was one of the first on the scene of the grower movement, although the fourth generation to make wine in his family's cellars. He converted his vineyard practices to organic long before it was en vogue, and employs similar methods of quality control during vinification as well. Over the years, his wines have become even more refined without sacrificing any of their trademark power, of which the pinot-noir dominant Brut Tradition Grand Cru is a prime example. It's creamy and intense, a perfect wintertime Champagne.At $94, it is expensive, but only because the work of making this wine takes years—not because this year the marketing department decided to sink millions into advertising to female millennial "influencers" on Tumblr like some Champagnes (I see you, Veuve Clicquot).
Another profound trend is the renewed importance of the soils in which the grapes are grown, especially relative to villages. If a wine's grapes come from only one village, then it has a uniqueness to it that other wines do not possess. For example, Guy Larmandier's Cramant Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ($67) is sourced from grapes grown in a village famous for a mineral-driven chalk known for yielding intensely flavored chardonnay grapes. This village is shaped like an amphitheater, so the grapes also receive maximum sunlight exposure and are especially suited to ripening. This wine is concentrated enough for wintertime drinking but with brightness and briochey undertones that make it a compelling example of chardonnay-based Champagne.
I realize these are expensive examples, so for a more value-driven alternative, the Marc Hébrart Cuvee de Reserve from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ definitely delivers for the money. It is still pricey at $46, but it won't make you sweat as much. This pinot noir-dominant blend from current winemaker Jean-Paul Hébrart is a fantastic entry point into the world of grower Champagne—not overly austere or overly fruit-forward, loaded with personality and character. Perhaps his wines are more value-oriented because the estate's holdings lie in the Vallée de la Marne, a region of Champagne that historically did not command as much respect, but through the efforts of good growers has gained renewed modern prominence.
As we rapidly approach holiday gift-giving season (and holiday drinking season), maybe eschew the yellow label and pick up a bottle from a small producer this year. It's a great way to give back in more ways than one.