I've been slowly but surely exploring Champagne in the past year or so, tasting as many as I can from both the big houses and individual growers. "Big house" refers to producers who purchase grapes from various growers and craft a Champagne that expresses a certain style that will be consistent from year to year. Examples of big house Champagne include Perrier-Jouet, Bollinger, Krug, and Duval-Leroy. "Grower Champagne" refers to wines that are crafted from grapes grown by the producer. Examples of grower Champagne include Lallement, Pierre Peters, Gaston Chiquiet, and Henri Billiot.
The distinction between "big house" and "grower" Champagne is an economic one. If a grower can profit from making wine (assuming they want to make wine), they usually make wine. If the costs of facilities, equipment, labor, risk, etc. are high enough, a grower might instead elect to sell grapes. Some producers both sell grapes and make wine.
In Champagne, there is room for market manipulation, apparently, and this is much under discussion lately. What happens, for example, if the financially deep "big houses" band together to squelch the supply of "grower" Champagne? How would they do that? By promising NOT to purchase grapes from growers who also make their own Champagne. Alice Feiring wrote about this recently and Eric Asimov mentioned it also in his recent blog post.
Stylistically the difference between big house and grower Champagne might not be detectable in a blind tasting - I wonder whether or not tasters would be able to identify wines as big house or grower in a blind tasting. Note to self - make this tasting happen this holiday season. I prefer to buy grower Champagne because I like the idea of buying wine made by a family who also grows the grapes, and also the idea of supporting smaller (or medium sized) businesses. I happily drink big house Champs too, but only when some kind soul is pouring it for me. When it's my dollar, I go for the growers.
Grower Champagne in my favorite wine shops tends to cost in the mid $30 to mid $40 range, a bit more for rose. Not cheap by any means, regardless of the value. So how to choose bottles to taste when a flop means over $30 out the window? I look for " A Terry Theise Selection" on the label. Theise has been a thorough and amorous student of Champagne (and other wine too - German Rieslings...) and his catalog (also recommended by Mssr. Asimov) is a great place to start.
Take a look at these quotes from the Theise catalog regarding two of Henri Billiot's Champagnes:
Henri Billiot Brut Réserve, N.V.
Many times I’ve felt, and said, this is the best N.V. Brut in all Champagne. That I’ve tasted! But I’m going to hedge just a little on the current cuvee, until I see what it does on the cork. I tasted a wine disgorged 2/07, made up of 50% 2003 and 25% each of ‘02-‘01. It was racy, loaded, complex and potentially amazing, but it was also disjointed and querulous from disgorgement-shock. The cuvee is always about 80% Pinot Noir but no one ever guesses, the wine is so animate, kinetic and hyper.
Henri Billiot Brut Rosé, N.V.I don't know about you, but that really piqued my interest. So we recently tasted two Champagnes from Henri Billiot. We opened the Brut Réserve with a dessert of stewed rhubarb with fresh Vermont ricotta and a touch of wildflower honey - a terrific pairing. The astringent rhubarb with the rich and creamy ricotta went perfectly with the crystalline bubbly.
I forget how good this is because it’s always gone before I have a crack at it. They were pouring at at Alinea and I had a glass, and for a moment I almost forgot where I was (almost! It’s hard to forget when you’re sitting in the greatest restaurant in America…) the wine was so absurdly delicious. Again I tasted an 02/07 disgorgement but the Rosé withstood it superbly. The wine is always a year younger than the NV Brut, based only on demand; this one’s 50% ‘04 and 25% each ‘03-‘02, and the still red is 10-year old Ambonnay Pinot Noir. This may well be the best bottling yet; pure, direct roses and strawberries; chalky, vinous and charming; virtually perfect.
Henri Billiot Brut Réserve, N.V., $36 (Chambers Street Wines).
Nose of brioche and toast - lots of toast. Later on some berry and floral aromas. Honeysuckle, citrus, and a bit of yeast on the palate. All of this hangs on a strong frame of icy-stalactite acidity (yeah, that's a weird description, but work with me on this). Elegant and velvety mouth feel, but also structured and powerful. It is this contrast that makes the wine so fascinating to me. A definite re-buy.
We opened the rose to celebrate making it back to Brooklyn from out west in one piece, with a healthy and some what well rested baby. We enjoyed this wine with our brunch of Tello's Farm eggs, Flying Pig's Farm smoked ham, and Pain D'Avignon rye bread. Sorry - I am not one of those people who forces you to care about where my food comes from, but I do really like all of these products, so indulge me this once. Another great pairing, as the very dry rose bubbly worked perfectly with the smoky ham.
Henri Billiot Brut Rosé, N.V. $45 (Chambers Street Wines).
Lovely pale rusty pink color. Reserved nose at first but then glows with strawberry, flowers, toast, and caramel. Fresh palate with strawberry and some chalk, but the thing is the texture and the structure - light and elegant but somehow full and strong at the same time. Solid and ethereal. A great acid backbone. Another definite re-buy, but at $45 this falls into the special occasion category (sadly, as I could happily drink it every day).