I’ve got a problem with champagne (and it’s not just that I can’t afford to drink it every day – well, actually it is, but that’s another post…). Let me explain: I’m a big fan of terroir, that elusive French term that encompasses climate, soil type, elevation, aspect, and lots more, and champagne eschews terroir for something much more industrial. What I personally love about wine is the beautiful confluence of a vigneron matching his piece of land to a specific grape and using all his skill, dedication, instinct and know-how to get the best out of both and ensure wines of wonderful character are created.
But champagne doesn’t operate like this. All those big houses (or brands, as we call them) that you see lined up on the shelves, your Moëts, Jouëts, Rogers, Roederers, Clicquots, et al, the ones we’re all so familiar with, don’t make their wine this way. Instead, they produce a consistent product by blending grapes of varying quality from all over the Champagne region, bought in from myriad different growers, from different harvests and years, to create a blend (or cuvée) that’s indistinguishable from the previous year’s, or the one in ten years’ time. This champagne isn’t made in the vineyard, it’s constructed methodically in the winery, with an almost scientific approach that’s not interested in grape attribute or vineyard characteristic, but simply in recreating a ‘standard’, an end-product that is identifiable, that sits within a larger brand and forms part of a ‘lifestyle choice’ for the consumer standing at the shelf trying to make a selection.
And what’s wrong with that? Well, for me, a great deal. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much how McDonald’s approach making a Big Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE champagne, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it could (and can be) so much more interesting. It’s a process, and every individual element of that process is stripped of its own character to ensure that the end product is always the same. And that’s not what I want when I pour a glass of wine. I want to taste the earth the grapes were grown on, I want to feel the sun, get a sense of the area, connect with the winemaker’s toil in the vineyard that year. Call me a romantic, call me a idealist, call me a massive idiothole if you like, but that’s what I want.
But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. There IS an alternative. Away from the mighty champagne houses, the little guy is fighting back. Known as ‘grower champagnes’, these champagne winemakers are the opposite of the big houses: small domaines who grow their own grapes and make them into their own champagne. These are sparkling wines a million miles away from the big houses’ consistent cuvées: rich, characterful wines made in often minute quantities, but bursting with distinctive charm, and susceptible to change year on year.
These types of champagnes are much more popular in France, where savvy consumers know to look beyond mighty marketing budgets and get a far more interesting return for their expense. Granted, not all RM champagne (RM means Récoltant-Manipulant, as opposed to NM – Négociant-Manipulants – such as the majority of the big houses are, who buy in grapes and make their wines from these) are good, some can be distinctly iffy, but when they are good, boy do they deliver some characterful and terroir-focused wine. Here are three particularly noteworthy examples:
Probably one of the most well-known RM champagnes is Pierre Gimmonet, a family-owned Epernay estate with prestigious vineyards on the famed Côtes des Blancs. Working only with Chardonnay grapes, some from vines up to 80 years old, the domaine produces a range of exceptional wines, from its entry-level non-vintage Cuis Premier Cru to its Gastronome and Oenophile vintage cuvées and its top-end wines. What separates Pierre Gimmonet from the big houses, for me, is both their humble price (these are champagnes that make you feel like the expense and the incredible contents of the bottle actually match) and the great class and refinement of the wine. Characterised, across the range, by a soft and silky opulence that is (or at least, should be) the very essence of this ‘luxury wine’, they are an absolute joy to drink and experience, time and time again. And it’s probably why the wines are so hard to get hold of!
Another particular personal favourite is Bénédicte Jonchère, available in the UK through The Perfect Cellar, who, rather impressively, have managed to bottle their own exclusive house champagne from this estate called Brisson-Jonchere. Based in Bar-sur-Aube, in the Côtes des Bar area of the Champagne region, Bénédicte Jonchère is a small, family-owned estate, but one highly focused on quality and expressing the individual character of their terroir. The Grande Reserve, a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, shows a wonderful aromatic intensity and incredible balance between fruit and yeasty depth. Their Grand Reserve Rosé has a beautifully fine mousse and is not overly sweet, as some rosé champagnes can be. The red fruit flavours balance perfectly with the richness of the toasty, yeasty notes. An absolutely perfect Valentine’s Day treat.
Lastly, and sadly a champagne I haven’t seen over here for some time now, is the lovely Ruelle Pertois, another small RM champagne house, this time based in Moussy. These wines really hark back to a bygone era, before the advent of the modern giant houses, when things in Champagne were, presumably, much simpler and a great deal more humble. Ruelle Pertois are a family affair and produce their wines with great care and peerless commitment to quality and tradition. Elegance and freshness seem to be the key to these champagnes, from the beautiful, Pinot Meunier-heavy non-vintage cuvée, to the wonderfully complex Blanc de Blanc vintage, a wine simply bursting with richness but also an incredible delicacy. Their Rosé, made from high quantities of Pinot Noir, is pure opulence and celebration. I really miss these wines.