The holiday season is quickly approaching. Holiday and family gatherings always require bubbles – or sparkling wines.
It’s all too easy to grab the recognizable bottle, but for those interested in a more unique experience, look no further than grower Champagnes.
Not all sparkling wines are Champagnes, but all Champagnes are sparkling wines. Champagne is a region in northern France and home to the world’s greatest sparkling wines. The namesake is often abused in that it has become a household name for any sparkling wine. However, it is illegal for countries and producers outside of Champagne to use the name.
There are several reasons as to why the French have legally protected their revered bubbles. Grape variety, yield, secondary fermentation in bottle and other restrictions apply to the standards of true Champagne and are directly reflected in their cost.
The most influential element in why Champagne is the worlds greatest sparkling wine is the region’s soil. The region benefits from a deep layer of chalk that was once a seabed. This chalk facilitates the vines’ ability to produce grapes with intense acidity and minerality, which ultimately results in wines of intense structure. Getting consistent harvests from year to year is also a challenge that far north. As a result, all Champagnes are a blend of vintages, which enables them to be consistent from year to year.
In warm years when the fruit fully matures to ripeness, the coveted vintage Champagne is declared. With that comes a vintage date on the bottle and typically a significant price increase as well. It’s important to know that vintage Champagnes are different from the house style from the same producer. Often, consumers are more privy to the blended house style rather than vintage bottlings.
The region is home to over 19,000 independent growers, with only 5,000 of them producing wine from their own grapes. Furthermore, only 5 percent of the Champagne imported to the U.S. is considered grower Champagne. This shows how much fruit the large Champagne houses purchase for their production and how they dominate the marketplace. That’s not to say these classic Champagnes aren’t delicious – they are – but a large portion of what consumers pay for is the large marketing budget that fills the pages in magazines, online ads and billboards.
What makes grower Champagnes different?
These producers take extra care in managing their vines to produce the best quality fruit. In addition, these artisan growers and producers typically have vineyard holdings in the best vineyard sites in the region. Most are classified Premier Cru and Grand Cru hillside vineyards that offer the best slope and aspects for maximum sun exposure.
Typically, these producers create wines that are dryer than their industrially produced counterparts. These artisan producers vinify very little wine and are always in demand because of their tiny production and unique quality. Yet, oftentimes, these artisan Champagnes can be found at a lower cost. Within this growing cult of awareness, one can find bubbles with bracing acidity to richer, more voluptuous-styled wines.
One thing is for certain: Grower Champagnes offer an entirely different experience than the usual suspects we’ve all tasted in the past.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.