The Dirty Side of Champagne… Champagne Part 3

Each bottle of Champagne is adorned, in small print, with a producer’s number preceded by two letters which classify the producer within the framework of the larger Champagne community. These letters basically identify how the producer sources fruit and how they brand it. The most common initials to find on a bottle are NM or Negociant-Manipulant – these are typically the large houses such as Krug, Bollinger, and Ruinart who buy grapes to make Champagnes under their own label. Another important set of initials but slightly less common to find are CM or Cooperative-Manipulant, as I’m sure you’d imagine this denotes that the wine was produced by a cooperative of farmers and sold under that cooperative’s brand. It would be impossible, however, to have a thorough discussion about the terroirs of Champagne without discussing the importance of two more but incredibly important letters – RM. RM stands for Recoltrant-Manipulant which translates to Grower-Producer. These are the small farms that make wine from estate-grown fruit.


Before diving into the distinct subregions of champagne and the terroirs of some of its famous villages, I must state that this post does not aim to undress the most famous Negociant-Manipulant houses of Champagne in terms of quality or integrity.  Furthermore, this week’s post doesn’t propose that Grower-Producers make better terroir-driven Champagnes. How could it when Philipponnat produces a wine so expressive of a single-site as their Clos des Goisses and Krug with their release of Clos du Mesnil expresses a quality of that white barren soil that is rarely achieved by other producers. The main point of this blog is to highlight the rising number of small, quality-oriented Grower-Producers which are spread out across some of the best sites in Champagne and use their wines as a conduit to talk about the various vineyards and villages throughout the region. 


It is not uncommon for Grower-Producers to own multiple vineyard sites in a particular sub-region of Champagne and occasionally, they’ll even own vineyards with great distances separating them. As RM’s only make wine from their own sites, they tend to have an intimate understanding of the nuances and potential of each harvest and with that comes an opportunity to express what they feel is the unique character of their region year after year but terroir isn’t everything to these producers. Styles and techniques vary greatly between them as one winery, such as Larmandier-Bernier, may choose harvest late while another producer such as Tarlant may use extensive oak. As I said last week, the wines of Champagne, like all wines, emerge from the intersection of the vineyard and the winery but the difference is that, in this region, it is in the delicate nature of the grapes used to build these cuvées. Their incredible transparency magnifies the impact of both place and process. To be sure, these wines are crafted but it is fair to say that for the vast majority of the Grower-Producers, their goal is to maintain the purity of the fruit they gather from their fields.


As you’d expect, single-vineyard or village champagnes require a bit more financial commitment on the part of the consumer but you might be surprised.  The pricing is accessible or at least in line with other options for people who seek-out distinctive, terroir-driven wines. You can fetch a really expressive bottle starting around forty bucks but the heart of the quality and breadth of options lands between fifty and one-hundred. 


With that, We’ll work our way through the three main regions of the Champagne – the Cote des Blancs, the Vallée de la Marne, and the Montagne de Reims while showcasing a couple of bottles as we go. All of the following with the exception of Le Mesnil (CM) are Grower-Producers.


Cote des Blancs


If you’re familiar with the Cote d’ Or in Burgundy, the geography of the Cote des Blancs won’t seem too foreign to you. It is a long east-facing slope running North to south just below the heart of the Champagne region, Épernay. This is Chardonnay country. The eastern exposure protects the fruit from the cold western winds and the chalky soils produce Chardonnay with racy acidity, deep minerality, and focused pure flavors.  Even in lean years, these sites can produce impressive fruit with depth and concentration. Inside the Cote des Blancs, there are several Grand Cru vineyards and while all of them share the signature traits of the overall sub-region, further divisions that can be made.


In the southern half of the Cote des Blancs, the Grand Vru vineyards of Les-Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger can be separated from the other villages. These are mineral-driven, structured wines that produce fruit with long aging potential and best reveal their personalities with a few years under cork. To split the difference between these two Grand Cru vineyards, Rodolphe Péters from Pierre Péters Champagne describes Le Mesnil as similar to Winter, with cold, tight fruit whereas Oger is more like Spring – sweeter, rounder and warmer. Continuing with the metaphor of the seasons, Péters likens the fruit from the Grand Cru village of Avize to Summer with its juicy floral characteristics and the Grand Cru village of Cramant as autumnal – nutty, spicy and creamy. 


Le Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru -$51.99

This champagne is from a cooperative and pure in its an expression of the village. The racy acidity of this Cuvee is a great introduction to the wines of this region as 100% of the fruit comes from the village of Les-Mesnil-sur-Oger. The dense chalk in the region makes this wine incredibly ageable and could stand a few more years in bottle to reveal its true potential. It sees 3 years of sur lie aging.


Pierre Gimmonet Special Club, 2012 – $109.99

This is a blend of fruit from 60% Cramant Grand Cru, 30% Chouilly Grand Cru and the rest from the Premier Cru vineyard of Cuis in the Northwest of the Cote de Blancs. This last piece is of special note. Since Gimmonet sourced 10% from the fruit from the vineyard of Cuis, the AOC denies him the right to market this wine as a Grand Cru. This is actually fairly common for the House as they see the laser-like acidity of the fruit from Cuis as an important aspect of their style and integral to their expression of the region. The fruit from this village makes it into nearly all their wines. Also of note is that this particular wine is part of the “Special Club.” This signifies it is a Tête de cuvée or Prestige Cuvée and from a member of the Club Trésors de Champagne, a society of twenty-eight Grower-Producers which band together to promote Grower champagnes and terroir reflective bottlings. All Special Club Champagnes use the same packaging and irregular bottle shape and are representative of the leading names in the Grower-Producer movement. 


Vallée de la Marne


It would be understandable to think of the Cote de Blancs as Chardonnay territory, the Montagne de Reims as Pinot Noir Territory and the Vallée de la Marne as Pinot Meunier territory but as exceptions are common in the world of wine, so they are common in each of these regions.


The Vallée de la Marne can be broken down into three distinct sub-regions: The Grande Vallée which is the area between Épernay and the village of Cumières, the Rive Driote which is the north bank of the Marne River and the rive gauche which is the south bank. Moving from East to West down the river, the topsoil becomes increasingly thick as sand and clay submerge the chalk and limestone soils so prevalent in the Cote des Blancs and the Montaigne de Reims. This soil type creates a cooler and wetter environment which is dicey for the health of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as botrytis and rot are common issues but the heartier Pinot Meunier thrives in this type of climate. Pinot Meunier is no obscure grape however, it actually makes up around 30% of the grapes grown in the Champagne region and because of its the propensity to flower late and ripen early, it is actually one of the most widely planted grapes in all of France.


Mousseé Fils L’Or d’Eugene Blanc de Noirs -$52.99

This is a cuvée made from 80% Pinot Meunier and 20% Pinot Noir and sourced nearly 100% from the Rive Droite of the Marne river which the farmers (there) insist has a better aspect than the Rive Gauche. Now time for a conspiracy theory; Pinot Meunier is widely considered to be the lesser of the grapes grown in Champagne. Could this be a prejudice perpetuated by the larger houses to ensure cheaper fruit? Jean-Marc Moussé, the previous head of the estate thought so. While tasting the tropical, robust, fruity characteristics of this wine, I must admit that the theory just might hold water. 


Montagne de Reims


The Montagne de Reims is a fascinating region containing the majority of Champagne’s Grand Cru Vineyards. While known for Pinot Noir, there are a few Grand Cru Vineyards dedicated to or permitting the planting of Chardonnay (typically these vineyards are found where the chalk is nearest to the surface or where the vineyard faces due east.) The soil in the area varies but typically features a chalk subsoil with some degree of sand, clay, and limestone topsoils which encourage Pinot Noirs to develop depth, acid, and nuance. Due to the size and complexity of the region, producing clearcut distinctions or generalizations can prove challenging but if pressed when talking about the Grand Cru Pinot Noir dominated vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, the aspect of the site would be a major defining characteristic. 


The Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay in the south of the appellation is warm due to the southern exposure of the sites. These are a couple of the warmest vineyards in the Montagne de Reims and produce full-bodied wines. Bouzy’s aspect is due south whereas Ambonnay faces south-east allowing it’s fruit to have slightly more refined or delicate aromas than it’s fruitier, weightier neighbor. 


In the north of the region, the Grand Cru Villages of Verzanay and Verzy produce highly renowned Pinot Noirs from their north-facing vineyards. These Pinot Noirs are mineral-driven and fresh – wrapped up in fruit but not overwhelmed by it. A side-by-side comparison of wine from Bouzy and a wine from Verzay would be great fun, let me know if you’re interested in doing this and we’ll try to coordinate a time to do a tasting.


Pehu Simonet Fins Lieux Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs No. 1 Verzanay – $76.99

Pehu Simonet is quickly becoming one of my favorite producers. His Champagnes tend to have a bit more body to them and he is also one of the rare Grower-Producers with landholdings spread across the region. This particular cuvée is exactly what I hope to find when I buy something from Grower-Producer; it is terroir-driven, fresh, and complex.  This is 100% of the fruit was sourced from the Verzanay Grand Cru vineyard. This is the first of his series of terroir-driven wines focusing on singular sites or Fin Lieux. I’ve reached out to our distributors to see if the number two or three is available to us in this market and I’ll have an answer shortly. If you’d like to be a part of what is sure to be a limited allocation of these wines, please get in touch with me at the shop. 


Jean Lallement et Fils, Verzanay Grand Cru – $61.99

This is another expression of Verzanay but in the hands of Jean Lallement. Contrary to the more plush style of Pehu Simonnet, Lallement is all focus. I don’t think I could sum it up better than Terry Thiesse when he said, “And when its wine is as amazing crystalline and transparent as Jean-Luc’s, it is like nothing you have ever tasted or could even imagine tasting. You have in effect all of the polish and silkiness of an haut-negoc but all of the quirks of a deranged terroir wolverine. There are other ornery terroir beasts in Champagne, and there are other chiseled and etched Champagnes-but show me anyone who offers both. Go on, try!”


Thanks for reading this week and we hope to see you around the shop soon,


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