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Grower Fizz: too sexy for its flute

clicquotpaintbox_large.jpgEverybody in the room quickly emptied their flutes when they saw the cork popped from the bottle with the yellow label. After all, what was better than Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Not that any of the other bottles of Champagne were bad, after all, what wine region in the world had a higher across-the-board quality than the Champagne region of France?

Unfortunately this New Year’s Eve Party was twenty-five years ago and the world of Champagne has changed. Perhaps no other wine reflects the decline in quality in big name Champagne as much as Veuve Clicquot, that has gone from being a richly flavored wine to a thin, flavorless beverage with fizz as its only character that is available in endless quantities that are piled high in grocery stores throughout the country. At prices pushing $40 a bottle, I can think of few worse wine deals. Big brand French Champagnes have become the worst values in the world of sparking wines. Few offer more than a vague aspirin flavor to accompany their famous bubbles. Better values and quality than big brand Champagne are to found in sparking wines from Spain, Italy, California, Oregon and Australia. Sure Krug, Salon and Bollinger still make great wines, but the big names like Clicquot, Mumm’s, Möet, Piper don’t. Following the lead of the perfume industry they invest more in marketing than character.

Oddly enough, while we have hit the dark ages for big brand Champagne, we now entering a new golden age for the  Champagne region that is now producing  many wines of greater individual character than any conceived by the Grande Marque Champagne houses. This grand new era for the Champagne region is the emergence of the récoltant manipulant (R.M.) or grower produced Champagne. There has been an explosion of producers bottling wine from their own vineyards and the myriad of styles and the quality of wine they are producing is nothing short of thrilling. None of these producers will be hosting  parties at expensive Manhattan discos or will become the status symbols for any rap artists, but if you care about the wine in the bottle more than the glossy ads - these are the wines for you.

The hard part is that because these producers are quite small, especially compared to the millions of cases produced by the big brands,  finding and learning about them takes a bit more effort. To get a list of recommendations of grower Champagnes not to be missed I knew there was only one place to go, so I wrote to Roberto Rogness, the wine director of Santa Monica’s Wine Expo. Wine Expo (2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica CA 90404 - 310-824-4428) is a store I have written about often for offering an incredible selection of terroir driven wines of great distinction. Wine Expo features two things: Italian wine and grower Champagnes. This combination makes it one of my favorite places on the planet. While the Field of Dreams for the baseball fan may be in Iowa, for the wine nut looking for real wines it’s in Santa Monica. The ever passionate Roberto (wineexpo@earthlink.net), whom I consider one of the few experts on this new generation of Champagne producers, replied to my request not with a list, but with a complete article about his current offerings of what he calls “grower’s fizz”. Loathe to edit Roberto’s list or his famed tasting notes, I present it to you here in its entirety. Please note that Roberto’s first comment to me was, “Hard to narrow it down but here are some real gems” gives you an idea of the extent of their selections. I have never tasted a wine recommended by Roberto that was not exciting to drink and assure you that you will find that energy in all of these recommendations.

“Grower Fizz” Recommendations from Roberto Rogness 

Champagne Andre Robert, Le Mesnil-Oger
A. Robert Cuvée Séduction Brut Grand Cru $46.99
Stunning! Bone dry with intense mineral and citrus notes, the Blanc de Blancs may be the perfect aperitif fizz and are sure to be a big hit with your guests. The Cuvée Séduction earns it name and then some
with big rich textures and flavors: 70% Chardonnay from Oger meets 30% Pinot Noir from Vertus, gets femented in small oak and emerges too sexy for its flute.
L. Aubry Fils, Jouy-les-Reims
One of our favorite additions to our list of super star Grower Champagne producers is really something special: not only do they still “draw inspiration from the characteristics of 18th century Champagnes” with super creamy mousse at slightly less pressure and an emphasis on aromatics drawn from the vineyards over yeastiness, they also are the ONLY producers in Champagne still growing the ancient and exotic varieties Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Fromenteau which are still approved for the AOC but are virtually nonexistent today. And they take Rosé seriously. AND, they are great value for money!
L. Aubry Premier Cru Brut Tradition à Jouy-les-Reims $39.00
A VERY different sort of fizz made with 50% Meunier (a black grape with spicy, herbal, even pumpernickel notes), fattened up with older vintage Pinot Noir then frosted over with 25% ultra ripe Chardonnay. Responds well to hearty, full flavored food, improvise.
Cuvée Nicolas Francois Aubry Premier Cru Brut Sable Rosé 2000 à Jouy-les-Reims $76.00
We agree heartily with the importer’s assertion that “I love pink Champagne and sometimes even wonder how seductions ever proceed without it”. The Aubry brothers are VERY serious about their Rosés, producing two completely different cuvées. The NV is made with 60% Chardonnay for superb finesse and drinkability then given a firm kick in the ass by Pinot Noir left on the skins for color, heft, verve and flavors ranging from ripe peaches and blackberries through menthol and pine into a rich biscuity finish. Superb! The Sable is almost a Cremant (super smooth and lower in pressure) and is more delicate in flavor with citrus and spice notes.
L. Aubry “Le Nombre d’Or Campanae Veteres Vites” 1998 à Jouy-les-Reims $66.00
A wildly aromatic blend of Fromenteau (which is a clone of Pinot Gris / Grigio!), Arbanne and Petit Meslier, grapes you are ALLOWED to grow in Champagne but which no one wants to bother with any more. This truly dances to the beat of a different blocco and is incredible with pate or smoked fish starters.
L. Aubry Premier Cru Brut 1997 Aubry de Humbert à Jouy-les-Reims $73.00
Deeeeeply flavored, made from the heart of the cuvée and only disgorged after six years on the lees, this fairly explodes with complex secondary flavors of dried fruit, almonds, ginger, coffee and
even truffles. Very limited.

H. Billiot Brut Réserve Grand Cru à Ambonnay $48.00
H. Billiot Brut Rosé Grand Cru à Ambonnay $54.00
H. Billiot Brut 1998 Grand Cru à Ambonnay $61.00
H. Billiot Cuvée Laetitia Brut Grand Cru à Ambonnay $83.00
H. Billiot Cuvée Julie Brut Grand Cru à Ambonnay $79.99

Henri Billiot is to Champagne what Emidio Pepe is to Montepulciano or the late M. Reynaud was to Chateauneuf du Pape: The Keeper of the Secrets of the Temple of the Elders. His wines (even the NV Brut!) are 100% Grand Cru (mostly) Pinot Noir from ancient vines that are never filtered or put through malolactic fermentation and thus have an amazing verve and intensity that can either stop you in your tracks right now or age for decades. So you’d best stock up for both scenarios! Unlimited quality, extremely limited availability. Ranked by aficionados in France and Britain as an equal to Krug and Bollinger, these are jaw dropping, life-changing, show-stopping wines with amazing complexity. The Laetitia is named for his lovely daughter and contains the best of eight different vintages reaching back to 1983! Cuvée Julie is a new offering named for a granddaughter that spent 7 months in old oak for richness.

Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte-Anne Brut à Merfy $39.00
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte-Anne Brut à Merfy $25.99 375ml
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte-Anne Brut à Merfy $96.99 MAGNUM
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Blanc de Blancs à Merfy $45.00
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre Taillet Brut à Merfy $66.00

WINE Magazine (a very serious British journal) ranked these wines among its “Best You Can Buy”, raving about “luscious, creamy, supple and sensual” flavors and textures and ranking the Cuvée Sainte-Anne NV first in a comprehensive tasting that included such famous but industrial labels as Dom Perignon. Huge, creamy, toasty wines, these are bold declarations of style made by a very confident husband and wife team who are obsessed with making WINE that also bubbles. The Fiacre (60% Chardonnay / 40% Pinot Noir, all from very old vines) is described by the importer as “the swankest Champagne I offer” and our buddy Tom Stevenson (the final authority amongst fizz scribes in the English language) extols its extraordinary “polish”. Flavors range from gunflint, white flowers and heather through super ripe white fruits all balanced on an incredibly refreshing spike of minerals and acidity.
To Quote Chrissy Hynde: This is SPECIAL: Guy de Chassey Brut Grand Cru 1996, Louvois $59.00
This blew our minds while dining with the importers at Josie on Pico one night: it smells EXACTLY like Rosé petals, tastes like green apples and white pears, is creamier than Sicilian gelato yet has a crisp, bone dry finish. Get some before Ali takes it all home….You work hard, you deserve the GOOD stuff. This can either clear some sushi off your palate tonight or age for twenty years, your call. Also don’t miss their base (but hardly basic!) bottling:

Pierre Gimonnet Brut Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru Cuis $42.00
Pierre Gimonnet Brut Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru Cuis $24.99 375ml
Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome 2000 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs, Cramant et Chouilly $47.00
Pierre Gimonnet Fleuron 1999 Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, Cramant et Chouilly $53.00
P. Gimonnet Oenephile Extra-Brut 1er Cru Bl. de Blancs 1998, Cramant et Chouilly $54.00
Pierre Gimonnet Special Club 1998 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs, Cramant et Chouilly $62.00

These are wines worthy of consideration by the snootiest White Burgundy fan: 100% Chardonnay from vines ranging from 40 to 80 years in age producing intense reductive flavors of lanolin, flint, almonds and honey suspended in a hugely textured mouthfeel. The Cuvée Gastronome has a little lower pressure to make it more food friendly while The Extra Brut could be sparkling Corton Charlemagne, don’t chill it too much as it has a lot to say.

Bruno Gobillard Champagne Vieilles Vignes, Pierry $67.99
Bruno Gobillard Champagne Vieilles Vignes 1998, Pierry $142.00 MAGNUM

Just HOW good is this Champagne? Well, we were once having dinner with the importer and the agents of Camille Savese, Jose Dhondt and Raymond Boulard and were adamantly telling them “We have enough different Champagnes already, we CAN’T take any new ones this year!” but they poured this with the Blue Crab Spring Rolls and somehow we found ourselves DEMANDING that they give us the lion’s share of the mere 20 cases destined for the US. If you imagine an old fashioned cream soda made out of perfectly ripe pears, fragrant apple blossoms AND the pure minerality of the chalk beds underlying this famous suburb of Epernay you’d be on your way to getting your mind around this stuff. The incredibly fine mousse, and endless echoing finish will make a serious impact on your guests or any giftee. VERY limited
Jean Lallement et Fils Brut Grand Cru à Verzenay $45.00
Jean Lallement et Fils Brut Cuvée Réserve Grand Cru à Verzenay $57.00

These performed way “out of class” in several recent tastings and are very limited as M. Lallement has a mere 4.5 hectares of vineyards. The wines are fermented with natural ambient yeasts, are never filtered and are given so little dosage that the importer calls them “militantly dry, martial law in a glass, powerhouse Champagnes with fresh hay and mineral noses, there is nothing else remotely like them”. The DRIEST Champagnes we offer!

Jean Milan Brut Carte Blanche, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Oger $42.00
Jean Milan Brut Speciale Selection, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Oger $44.00
Jean-Charles Milan Cuvée de Réserve Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Oger $54.00
Jean Milan Brut Cuvée Symphorine 1998, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Oger $60.00
Jean Milan Brut Selection “Terres de Noel” Selection 2000, Grand Cru Oger $72.00
Jean Milan Charles de la Milaniere Rosé Grand Cru Ambonnay $62.00

Absolutely terroir—ist facsimiles of the chalky-pencil lead soil of Oger glazed with the deepest most complex fruit imaginable. The Carte Blanche is fluffy and frothy, “let’s have a drink” fizz while the Special Selection is much rier and more minerally. The Jean-Charles Réserve is fermented in oak for a creamier texture. The Terres di Noel and Cuvée Symphorine are made from separate plots of very old vines producing a ha-uuuuuuge mouthfeel that expands for literally minutes with buttery, toasty, “I didn’t know they made sparkling Montrachet” flavors and textures. The Rosé is made from fruit they vinify for friends with Grand Cru holdings in Ambonnay and is so rare
as to be nearly non-existent. And then there is this:
Jean Milan Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Sec “Tendresse”, Oger $47.99
Hey, you…yeah, YOU! Wanna get lucky? Then this is the one you want: rich, smooth, round, perfect with fresh strawberries, chocolate, a care package from Victoria’s Secret…use your imagination. Finally, a truly high quality off-dry (no, we’re actually going to say it: SWEET!) Champagne that’s the perfect thing with breakfast in bed, dessert, sunsets, fireplaces and long French kisses. A public service from your friends at WINE EXPO

Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru le Mesnil $102.00 MAGNUM
Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru le Mesnil $45.00
Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru le Mesnil $25.99 375ml
Pierre Peters Brut 1998 Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru le Mesnil $65.00
Pierre Peters Brut 1998 Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Special Grand Cru leMesnil $72.00
Pierre Peters Brut 1999 Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Special Grand Cru leMesnil $151.00 MAGNUM

We must defer to importer Terry Theise (who can spin prose that makes
even our stream of consciousness screeds look like The Wall Street Journal) who says: “The wines I’d tasted from several small growers in Mesnil had a certain distilled exquisiteness, as if the prettiest and finest essence of Chardonnay had been skimmed like sweet cream. But these wines were eye-poppingly vivid and distinct, impeccable and gleamingly firm, like diamonds.” Perhaps the single greatest artist working in Chardonnay based fizz, M. Peters’ wines are simply mindblowing: insanely complex crystalline encapsulations of both the unique terroir of Champagne’s greatest white wine vineyard and his fanatical attention to detailing every nuance of the fruit. Aside
from the wine, the packaging is some of the most elegant in Champagne, perfect for gifts.

Camille Savès Brut Carte Blanche Premier Cru à Bouzy $49.00
Camille Savès Brut Carte Blanche Premier Cru à Bouzy $27.99 375ml
Camille Savès Brut Grand Cru à Bouzy $60.00
Camille Savès Brut Grand Cru à Bouzy $147.00

As tired a cliché as it seems, these literally DANCE on your palate: they are the most physically active Champagnes we have ever encountered, powered by 100% Pinot Noir from Bouzy (the heart of the beast for Pinot Fizz).
Camille Saves Brut Millesime 2000 Grand Cru Bouzy en Magnum $147.00/ 1.5 liter
Wow! This will teleport you directly to the Oh! My! Gawd! Zone in one quick sip. Direct from the heart of the beast, Bouzy, a village in la Champagne producing perhaps the ripest and most complex Pinot Noir of
all the Grand Crus, this just melted our hearts on the first taste. VERY limited, worth it.

Varnier-Fanniere Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Avize $50.00
Varnier-Fanniere Cuvée Saint Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Avize $56.00
Varnier-Fanniere Grand Vintage Brut 1997 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Avize $66.00

At a Champagne dinner our good friend Sang Yoon, a self confessed”champagne freak”, the proprietor of Santa Monica landmark Father’s Office and a way serious Chef besides (ex Spago, Chinois and Michael’s among others), was expounding on how these amazingly complex and minerally bubblies are “everything I look for in great Champagne”. That’s good enough for us, taste and believe….

Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Grand Cellier Brut à Rilly $59.99 BIODYNAMIC
Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Grand Cellier d’Or Brut à Rilly $67.99 BIODYNAMIC
Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée 1997 Brut à Rilly $110.00 BIODYNAMIC
Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Grand Cellier Rubis Brut Rosé à Rilly $95.00 BIODYNAMIC
Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Creation Brut 1997 à Rilly $100.00 BIODYNAMIC
Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée 1992 Brut à Rilly $225.00 MAGNUM BIODYNAMIC

Tom Stevenson’s standard reference to Champagne raves that “…the Vilmart range begins at brilliant and just keeps getting better.” The importer is “…absolutely certain that you will freak over these…drink them when they’re ready and great chambers won’t be able to contain your freaking!” The grapes are bio-dynamically cultivated, painstakingly selected at harvest then every drop is barrel fermented in the grand tradition of Krug and Bollinger with
stunning results and are every bit as age-worthy. The owner professes “we do wine first then we do Champagne”! The Coeur de Cuvée is the top of the line from a producer who has been heralded as making “one of the three greatest Champagnes of the last 25 years” by Stevenson (the other two were Krug). This intense wine is known amongst French collectors as “The Poor Man’s Kru
g”.