I am old enough to have witnessed the shift from house champagnes to grower champagnes in North America’s major wine markets. Today, grower champagne has exploded, particularly among the Millennial set, who have followed the lead of several enlightened elders (such as Kermit Lynch, Eric Asimov, and Terry Theise) who championed these wines from obscurity to a major market player (see this article by David White for a more detailed history). Shipments have increased from close to 0% in the 1990’s to 28% of all champagne shipped today (amazingly the domestic French market is split nearly 50/50 between house and grower, with the three leading export markets being the UK, the US, and Japan, in order of importance). Quality, value, variety, and variation are the hallmarks of grower champagne. I had been enjoying these wines to the exclusion of house champagnes for years and so decided over the last year to revisit some of the top house prestige cuvees to compare them to the best of the growers. I found the results revealing.
The first grower champagne to grace my gullet was Larmandier-Bernier’s Terre de Vertus. Terre de Vertus is a single vintage blanc de blanc intending to be a ‘terroir’-driven expression of Vertus. It is 0 dosage. Back in the 2000’s this wine was bold and surprising to drink. Not only was the quality impressive, but more importantly it expressed idiosyncratic qualities that did not feel manufactured. Since the mid-2000’s leading restaurants challenged the dominance of the houses and peppered their lists with these grower champagnes at shockingly low prices for champagne. Today, savvy drinkers expect such wines to be on any good wine list.
Houses have responded. It is now increasingly common to find 0 dosage, single vintage, vineyard driven wines from the traditional champagne houses. Prestige Cuvees divide in two – some embracing the old blended approach and others the new hyper-focused approach. Today, traditionalists such as Pol Roger, Taittinger, Henriot, and Moët & Chandon produce hedonistic prestige cuvees that are both repeatable and easy to understand. Despite their immediate deliciousness, I often find them tiring and overpriced. On the other hand are producers such as Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Bruno Paillard, Jacquesson, and of course Salon, who always had a tendency to more terroir-driven wines and have increasingly moved in that direction, with the introduction of single vineyard and single vintage wines. Among the houses, I find these wines far more compelling.
But back to Terre de Vertus. I recently opened a 2007, which I had been cellaring. It was a remarkable wine, easily surpassing many house champagnes in intrigue and excitement. Only a couple months earlier I opened a long-cellared Gaston Chiquet Special Club from the 2000 vintage. It presented similar excitement but an entirely different profile. These wines are a third of the price of prestige cuvees. They prove the pioneering prognostications of 10-15 years ago true: grower champagnes should comprise the majority (if not all) of your champagne cellar, or that sole bottle you have managed to squirrel away for another day.
I have consumed many of the world’s greatest wines and I am not easily impressed or excited. The aged grower champagnes I’ve opened in the last year fit that bill. The dozen prestige cuvees I consumed from various houses did not. Take from that what you will.
~$120 for current vintages at various private stores