I’M GOING TO tell you something that, not so long ago, I was afraid to say out loud: I used to hate Champagne. For much of my wine-loving life, I thought Champagne and most other sparkling wines were overrated. Don’t get me wrong—I still popped those corks on the regular, but it did take me a while to understand what all the fuss was about.
Here’s the thing with Champagne: It has an extremely detailed production process. In France’s Champagne region, strict laws govern every facet of production. From the alcohol content to the way the vines are pruned, if there’s a choice to be made, there’s a law to govern it. French law allows for seven grape varieties to be planted, but the three most common are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and it’s up to the winemaker to decide on how best to blend those grapes into a single wine.
For most Champagne houses—the aforementioned Veuve Clicquot, for example—the winemaker’s goal is to make a wine that, year after year, tastes the same. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the folks at Veuve Clicquot certainly know what they’re doing, but there’s an entire group of winemakers who are taking the opposite approach to Champagne. These producers are the ones who changed my mind.
Their approach? It’s collectively termed “grower Champagne,” named as such because, unlike the larger Champagne houses, these producers actually grow their own grapes. The next time you’re near the Champagne section, look carefully at a wine’s front label. You’ll see two letters: either NM or RM. NM stands for Négociant-Manipulant, meaning that the producer sources most of its grapes from other farmers, while RM stands for Récoltant-Manipulant, meaning that the grapes were sourced from a single grower.
Affectionately called “farmer fizz,” these RM wines eschew the traditional notions of what Champagne should be. Many grower-Champagne producers flex their wine-making muscles by playing with the grapes used in the blend, by experimenting with age when blending their wines and by exploring the intricacies of their vineyards—the way the sun hits one section differently than another, or the way the soil is compacted. Champagne, perhaps more than any other wine, is perfect for exploring terroir: that magical confluence of climate, soil, sun and vine. The resulting bottles are often thought of as the “ugly ducklings” of Champagne, unconventional, yet astounding.
When I first tasted these wines, it was like seeing in color for the very first time—the brightest of light-bulb moments. Good Champagne is an experience to be enjoyed, but a great Champagne— one that people spent their lives crafting, and one that’s as alive in your glass as it was in the field—is as close to high art as any food can become.
Moussé Fils ‘L’Or d’Eugene’ Brut, N.V. ($55)
This bottling forgoes white grapes altogether to focus on pinot meunier and pinot noir in an 80/20 split. The resulting wine is full-bodied and rich, with surprising notes of chocolate-covered strawberry and pumpernickel toast. Called blanc de noirs, this winemaking style results in a white wine that still carries the slight hint of fruity, red aromas. The flavors are dreamlike, the ghosts of raspberries and cherry dancing on your tongue.
Pierre Péters ‘Cuvée de Réserve’ Brut, N.V. ($75)
The word “Reserve” on the label of this wine made exclusively of chardonnay means that it’s been made from two vintages: half from the current vintage and half from wine that was “reserved” from the previous year’s blend. This creates a definite style without giving up the uniqueness of each vintage. There are heavy notes of brioche, marmalade and brown butter in this wine that even a novice Champagne drinker will pick out. If you see a bottle on the shelf, be sure to grab it—poor weather over the past two vintages means it’s in short supply.
Champagne Geoffroy Brut Rosé de Saignée, N.V. ($80)
Winemaker Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy’s rosé is rare in that it uses the saignée method to produce an intensely colored wine. To do this, he makes a traditional still wine from his pinot noir grapes, and during the first few hours of fermentation, while the wine is still bright pink but before it has the chance to become red, he “bleeds” off some of the juice to make a rosé. Rich and seductive, this is the wine that you’ll want to be opening with that special someone.
2007 Champagne Pierre Morlet Brut Mellésime ($80)
Lest I convince you that wines from a major Champagne house aren’t wonderful: This rare vintage Champagne from 2007 is a spectacular example of how dramatic the wine can be as it ages. Ten years after harvest, the wine is now the color of golden wheat with notes of yellow apples, baked pear and a rich, nutty essence. If the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast had a flavor, it would taste like this.