Monday, February 04, 2008

More Terry Theise Grower Champagnes

I was fortunate to be able to attend the Michael Skurnik tasting at TriBeCa Grill in mid January, and amidst the great lineup of German, Austrian, and French wines, there was of course a Terry Theise Champagne section. But these were not just any Champagnes, all were grower Champagnes, wines made by the farmers who tend the wines.

Although there are far more grower/producers than their are big-house Champagne producers, the big houses (Moet, Laurent Perrier, Pol Roger, or Veuve Cliquot, for example) tend to dominate the market in the US. Although I'm not sure that this will change anytime soon, I do think that demand is rising (growing, if you will) for grower Champs in the US. According to Theise in the catalog, grower Champs was about .67% of the US market several years ago, and is now up to almost 2%. I think this will continue to rise, and at a faster clip. Why? Because of the work of folks like Theise and Skurnik, and the other importers and distributors who are making the wines available. But even more so - because at the entry level (the only level at which I've tasted comparatively, to any real degree), the grower wines are just plain better. Much better.

That's a strong statement. But if you taste Veuve or Feuillatte, for example, next to Hebrart and Chartogne-Taillet, for example, you'll see what I mean. The grower wines achieve a personality that the big houses simply cannot - the big houses have numbed the character out of their entry level wines with chemicals and processes meant to create a uniform wine year after year after year, a wine that takes no chances and offers very little, other than the name "Champagne."

So if you're looking at a bottle in the store and you're not already familiar with the producer, how do you know whether or not it is a grower Champagne? Look for the letters 'RM' on the label stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, or grower-maker. There are producers such as Bruno Paillard, Diebolt-Vallois, and Guy Charlemagne, to name a few, who purchase about 5% of the grapes they use in their wines, and therefore they are not entitled to the 'RM' designation. But their wines are made mostly with their own grapes, and they are essentially grower-producers too. So the only real complication here is that some producers should be considered grower-producers, even if they are not entitled to the 'RM' designation. More about this another time - how 'bout those wines from the recent tasting?

I found a lot to love, I must say, from wines that I already know but enjoyed tasting next to each other, to wines that I haven't found on retail shelves. If I had to make a generalization about the wines, it would be this: they are absolutely individual, as are the wines of Burgundy or any other great region. Each producer has their own style. That may sound trite, but many people think of Champagne as one kind of wine, regardless of the name on the label. Not at all the case with these wines.

Following are some notes from the tasting, prices are approximate:

NV Jean Milan Spéciale Brut, $45 - A Blanc de Blancs. I've had Milan's Carte Blanche several times at home and enjoyed it very much. This wine, the Spéciale Brut, is a wine that I've not seen on retail shelves, but I hope that changes. The nose on this is much more complex than that of the Carte Blanche, with flowers and nuts and minerals. Broad and rich on the palate, but somewhat sheer in texture, very elegant, very precise. I liked this wine a whole lot. Won't one of you NYC retailers buy some, so I may follow suit?

NV Varnier-Fannière Brut, $40 - Also a Blanc de Blancs. Never had this at home, but I liked it at other tastings. This time, next to the other wines, it seemed a bit sweet to me. I asked the guy pouring the wines - and here I must tell you, unlike most of the other tastings I go to, the person behind the table at a Skurnik tasting KNOWS the wines, and can discuss them with you, which is such a great thing - and he told me that this version of the wine is made from '03 grapes. That means they are very ripe to begin with. He then told me that the dosage is high in this wine. Hmmm, maybe my Champs palate has benefited from recent exercise. Not to say the wine is bad, cause it's good. It was just sweeter than the others, a matter of taste.

NV Gaston-Chiquet Cuvée de Réserve, $50 - Although it is technically a non-vintage wine, this is made from grapes harvested in 1997 and 1998. That's some pretty old wine in there, for a NV bottling. And the wine is delicious and complex and worth more than you'll pay for it. The nose is deep with honeyed nuts, quinine, and orange peels. The palate is so well balanced, with cooked lemons, pastry dough, nice underlying acidity, and a lovely chalkiness. Excellent wine, maybe my favorite of the tasting.

NV Réne Geoffroy Empriente Brut, $55 - I'm a big fan of Geoffroy's Champs. I love the entry level wine, called Expression, an interesting blend that is mostly Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, with a touch of Chardonnay thrown in for good measure. I have yet to come across this wine in stores, which is such a shame. For about $13 more than the Expression, this is a step up in complexity and richness. This version is all 2003 grapes, and it is brawny and big, but finely chiseled and focused. Rich enough that I might think of pairing with a pork or lamb roast, but finely cut enough to serve as an aperitif with nothing more than a dish of unsalted roast almonds. Beautiful wine.

2000 Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre Brut, $55 - I like Chartogne-Taillet's wines. Even though the entry level wine, the Cuvée St Anne, is not as complex as many others, it is so drinkable, so refreshing and easy to enjoy. Your uncle who says "Champagne is too sweet, it gives me a headache" would enjoy it. I've had mixed experiences with some of the higher level wines, but this one, the Fiacre, was a hit on this day. 60% Chardonnay and the rest Pinot Noir, this had a gorgeous nose of white flowers, I'm talking big Brooklyn Botanic Garden hothouse acacia flowers. Very very floral, if you get my drift. Great balance and purity, with a nice mingling of biscuits, citrus peel, and slightly salty minerals on the palate. Delicious wine. I'll say again, just delicious. Not yet sure if my locals carry this wine.

I hope your interest is piqued, and that you'll take a crack at a grower Champs next time you're in the market for a bubbly. If your local carries one of these wines or producers, well lucky you. Hopefully mine will soon.


Vinotas said...

Nice, Thierry and Lynch were pivotal in inspiring me to start my own business. Nice to see Thierry's wines are still awesome.

Brooklynguy said...

hey vinotas - they are awesome, yes. are you importing any Champs? didn't see any on your site.

Joe said...

Keep 'em coming. Loved the Paillard at our blind champs tasting - didn't notice the RM on the label.

Brooklynguy said...

That's right Joe - Bruno Paillard not technically grower Champs. There is no RM on the label. They buy more than 5% of their grapes.

Vinotas said...

Nope, no Champagne yet, though that might change. I'm trying, man, I'm trying...

Joe said...

Gotcha - I've got to stop drinking and blogging...I will treat Paillard as an RM, regardless - loved it.

Debra Morgan said...

An ex-Terry T grower champagne I adore in all its pierce -you -through-the-heart-chardonnay-loveliness is Pierre Peters, but it was recently dropped from his portfolio. (Theise is an exceptional writer and his portfolios are harlequin meets Philip Roth.) Do you have any idea why this blanc de blanc was dropped by Theise?

Brooklynguy said...

hi vinotas- have fun in france, and i hope you find some champs to bring to us.

i hear you joe, Bruno is the bomb. Rm or no. there are plenty of great ones that are not RM.

hi genevelyn - i really like the Pierre Peters too, particularly the entry level champs. i didn't know they were dropped, and i'm surprised to hear it. i'll ask around. thanks for dropping by and for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Pierre Peters has not been dropped from the Theise Portfolio. The topic has never even been discussed.

You may be confusing Peters with Larmandier-Bernier. They are both in the Cote-des-Blancs. Larmandier-Bernier is no longer with Terry Theise, Pierre Peters is, and hopefully, always will be with us.

Brooklynguy said...

Hi Jonathan - thanks for clearing that up. And thanks for putting on such a great tasting.

Debra Morgan said...

Dear Johnathan-
Just saw your response and am happy to hear that I was completely wrong about Pierre Peters. (Note to self--don't listen to sales people and spread rumors on the internet)

Brooklynguy said...

genevelyn - too bad. glad to see you back around these parts. funny, i was just thinking of buying a peters champs -they have what seems to be a good deal on the 99 vintage, about $50. hope you're having a good spring