Mid-October I arranged a tasting of small grower Champagne that focussed on some better growers in this category. Some of those included were by now rather well-known names, and some were those that have emerged only in recent years. The latter category also includes some interesting growers in the “outskirts” of the Champagne region, i.e., outside the grand cru villages or the most known premier cru villages. To show this trend, I specifically aimed to include a coupe of growers at such addresses in this tasting, which was held in the Stockholm chapter of a large wine tasting club called Munskänkarna.
Small vine growers that produce their own grower Champagne (récoltants-manipulants, the letters “RM” will be found somewhere on the label in small lettering to identify them) is not really a new phenomenon in Champagne, but they have progressively gained more attention also in the export market. Traditionally, the large champagne houses completely dominate the export market, while the small growers sell their stuff on location, i.e., in the domestic French market. The cooperatives are somewhere in-between in terms of sales profile.
Out of 309 million bottles of Champagne sold in 2012, the Champagne houses (négociants) accounted for 69.1%, small growers for 21.9% and cooperatives for 9.0%. On the French market, small growers had a market share of 35.9% but on the export market inside EU it was only 5.0%. This means that many small growers don’t export at all, or only a little to one or two countries. There are surely many high quality small growers no yet discovered by the export market, but there are also small growers who only sell in France because their Champagnes are cheap but rather mediocre. Those small growers who have received foreign attention are therefore not entirely representative of what one can expect to find if a small grower is picked on random on location.
What is interesting with better quality small growers is that there are several different styles of Champagnes to be found. Many small growers produces wines that are rather similar to those from the major Champagne houses, but sometimes with a better price-quality relationship. The grapes used by good small growers are often of a quality that corresponds to what the large houses use only for vintage and prestige Champagnes. One of the advantage of the large houses is that they have the possibility – both in therms of storage facilities and financial resources – to cellar their best Champagnes for a long time. Small grower Champagnes on the other hand, tend to be sold young.
Then there are those who on purpose have chosen another style than the large houses, and produce Champagne in another style than the typical large house style. This tasting focused on this category of “different” small growers and their Champagnes. This difference goes beyond the location of the grape supply; most small growers will own vineyards in their home village or perhaps one or two neighbouring villages. So, what do I mean when I talk about a different style from that of the large Champagne houses?
- It is common with varietal wines, and not just from Chardonnay but also from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. (No blending of grapes.)
- Village or vineyard wines – “lieux dits”. (No blending of geographic origins.)
- No blending of vintages, also formally “non-vintage” Champagnes (that have been resting less than 3 years on the lees) originate from a single vintage, without use of reserve wines.
- Low yields and careful vineyard work, i.e., based on the assumption that the quality of the wine is decided in the vineyard, and not that the quality is decided or compensated in the cellar.
- In many cases use of oak barrels (but usually not any new oak).
- None or very little dosage (addition of sugar in the finished Champagne).
- Organic or biodynamic growing is common, and sometimes “natural wines”.
Of course, not all of the above is practiced by all high-quality small growers in all Champagnes they produce, but it is often possible to put a number of ticks in the boxes. In a way none of the things listed above are strange, but are rather similar the way many non-sparkling wines are produced by high quality small growers in other wine regions. Thus, Burgundy rather than the standard practice by the Champagne houses provides the inspiration for many small growers, i.e., they produce “white Burgundies with bubbles” using the grapes that can be found in their Champenois vineyards. This recipe often yields rather “vinous” Champagnes, and the producers definitely see them as wines that should accompany a meal and not just as something that should be popped and poured as an aperitif.
As mentioned earlier, it is common for small growers to sell their Champagnes after a relatively short time on the lees, but this is more out of necessity due to limited space, or a lack of capital, or large demand. By the way, many of the small growers that have become known only produce some 10 000-20 000 bottles per year. The most well know producer, Selosse, produces some 60 000 bottles per year.
The tasting consisted of two flights with a best vote in each flight.
This flight consisted of mixed Champagnes, and just as I had expected, it wasn’t too easy to tell in all cases what was Chardonnay and what was Pinot Noir.
2009 David Léclapart l’Amateur
Blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) from Trepail (a premier cru village) in the Montagne de Reims. No dosage.
Rather yellow colour. Nose with yellow apple, some cider notes, mineral. The palate is very dry, medium bodied, shows apple with cider and apple core notes, and is tart. Drinkable now, 88 p.
Very typical Léclapart notes with oxidised cider-like notes that tend to be a bit of “love it or hate it”, but it surprised me that they were so obvious already in the 2009, since young l’Amateur can be more mineral-dominated when it is newly released. No best vote, which surprised me somewhat. Less powerful than the 2008. l’Amateur is produced without oak and is the entry-level wine in the Léclapart range.
2011 Inflorescence Val Vilaine, Cédric Bouchard
100% Pinot Noir from Polisy in the Côte des Bar. Steel tank? Disgorged April 2013.
Pale colour. Typical smoky nose – is it gunpowder or perhaps bacon? – mineral notes with powdered stone, and some winter apples. Very dry on the palate, medium bodied, intense mineral notes, green and yellow apple, very fresh. Young, 89+ p.
What is interesting with this wine, other than its origin in the southern outskirts of Champagne which didn’t use to be the home of any well-known small growers, is that it is so blanc de blancs-like although it is a pure Pinot Noir! 7 best votes.
A remark: the Inflorescence Champagnes are formally not small grower Champagnes (they are classified négociant-distributeur, ND, and not RM), but the vineyard is owned by Cédric Bouchard’s father, and he is in the process of taking over control and combining all his Champagnes under the Roses de Jeanne label, which formerly was used only for some of them. Thus, I felt it justified to include this Champagne in the tasting. This was the first 2011 that I’ve tasted, but it is formally not a vintage Champagne. The vintage is specified in code format on the back label. Approximately on the same level as the 2010 of the same Champagne.
Jacques Lassaigne Montgueux Brut Réserve
100% Chardonnay from Montgueux in the Côte des Bar. 12-24 months in a mixture of barrels, malolactic fermentation, no sulphur. Disgorged 7 December 2011, (base) vintage 2007 according to the price list of the dealer, but no information on the bottle.
Yellow colour. Powerful nose with ripe yellow apples, bread, white flowers and some development. Medium bodied, very dry palate with yellow apples, bready, good acidity and an aftertaste with yellow apples. Drinkable now, can develop more, 88 p.
The entry level Champagne from Lassaigne, and had rested for a bit longer on its cork. 5 best votes. By the way, in terms of terroir, Montgueux is similar to Côte des Blancs although it is a part of Côte des Bar, where Pinot Noir otherwise dominates greatly.
2002 Françoise Bedel Brut L’Ame de la Terre
42% Pinot Noir, 36% Chardonnay, and 22% Pinot Meunier from around Crouttes-Sur-Marne, far to the west in the Vallée de la Marne. Partially vinified in oak, 7 years on the lees, disgorged in November 2010.
Yellow colour. Nose with yellow fruit, notes of kelp and ocean, cocoa powder, a hint of damp cellar (that probably wasn’t cork defect), slightly developed and bready with oxidation notes. The palate is medium bodied+, shows an intense mineral note, green apple, high acidity and an aftertaste with green apples. Drinkable now, 89 p.
11 best votes. Other releases of this wine, such as the 2003 (which was available before the 2002), has had a higher proportion of Pinot Meunier. Unusually long time on the lees for a small grower, and as far west (i.e., in the Paris direction) that one can come and still be in the Champagne region.
2008 Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or
80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir from Rilly-la-Montagne (premier cru) in the Montagne de Reims. 10 months in small oak barrels.
Light yellow colour. Nose with ripe yellow apples, noticeable oak notes, some perfume, elegant. Medium bodied+, palate with yellow and green apple, some peach, high acidity and mineral. Young, should be allowed to develop, 90+ p.
13 best votes, most in this flight. Quite simply, 2008 rules in Champagne, and this wine will climb to a high level. What keeps my “now score” somewhat down, although I found this wine to clearly be the best of the flight, is that the oak notes are rather obvious at present. This is often the case with young Vilmart, but in an top vintage such as this one, the oak will integrate well with some cellaring.
This flight consited of three different vineyard wines from Ulysse Collin, an excellent small grower in Côte de Sezanne who produces wines in a very concentrated and oak-influenced but purely fruity style. I put this against a classical reference in an unusually good release: the “entry level” Selosse, Initial.
2009 Ulysse Collin Les Pierrières
Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay from La Gravelle, a southeastern-facing vineyard, 30 year old vines, chalky soil, with an unusual surface of charred flint. Disgorged 7 March 2013.
Yellow colour. Powerful nose with ripe citrus and zest, beeswax, slightly flowery and perfumed, mineral. Powerful palate, citrus, yellow apple, powerful concentration of fruit, mineral, good acidity, very pure aftertaste with citrus. Rather young, 91+ p.
2 best votes. More mineral than Les Roises.
2009 Ulysse Collin Les Roises
Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay from Congy, a south-facing slope with 50 year old vines on a soil of clay and chalk. Disgorged 7 March 2013.
Powerful nose with citrus, zest, yellow apples, some apple compote, a hint of beeswax and perfume. Very powerful on the palate, with citrus, powerful mineral notes, spice, and good acidity. Rather young, 91+ p.
5 best votes. More power than Les Pierrières, and a more powerful nose. The reason that I didn’t score it higher than the previous wine is that it is somewhat shorter on the palate. The difference in style is however much less than for the 2008s (tasted late 2012), when it actually was Les Roises that came across as more mineral-dominated while Les Pierrières was the fruity one!
Jacques Selosse Initial
Blanc de blancs, Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant, and Oger (grand cru) in the Côte des Blancs. The base wine raised in oak. Three successive vintages, could be 2006-2007-2008 in this case. Disgorged in September 2012.
Deep yellow colour. Powerful nose with ripe apples and winter apples, some citrus, some bread, nuts and cocoa powder, white flowers, oak, and discrete oxidation notes. Powerful palate with yellow apples, winter apples, citrus, peach, good acidity, long aftertaste with some green apple. Rather young, 93(+) p.
26 best votes! An exceptionally good Initial! Therefore my guess is that the base vintage is 2008. When placed next to Ulysse Collin’s style, the oxidation notes in this wine are quite obvious. This said, Initial isn’t too oxidised for being a Selosse, more on the level of “white Burgundy with some age”, while the more oxidised wines in the Selosse range tend to show more Sherry notes. In a way it wasn’t too pedagogical to including such a good release, since I wanted to show the very high level of Ulysse Collin, but then again, it’s seldom a bad thing to include good wines in a tasting.
2009 Ulysse Collin Les Maillons
Blanc de noirs. Pinot Noir from Congy?, an east-facing slope with 40 year old vines on chalky soils with heavy red clay. Disgorged 7 March 2013.
Œil de perdrix colour, i.e., almost rosé. Powerful nose, peach, wild strawberries, red apples, some herbs, some perfume, oak. Powerful on the palate, red apples, noticeable mineral, some spice, a hint of tannin, aftertaste with apple. Rather young, 92(+) p.
2 best votes. A very powerful and vinous Champagne in my taste!
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