Champagne is a wine layered in myth. From its very inception, with tales of a monk who compared it to tasting the stars, to marketing campaigns designed to cement it in our culture as a beverage of celebration, stories have shaped the way we think about and consume Champagne.
Often at the center of those myths are large Champagne houses, or négociants, that buy grapes from farmers all across the region. They vinify that fruit and blend it to make uniform house styles. Wines that seldom vary, that are consistently delicious, and represent the terroir of the region as a whole. But what they can’t do is capture the terroir of a specific vineyard or the style of an individual farmer or winemaker.
That’s where grower Champagne comes in. These sparkling wines are vinified by the same people who grow them. With grower Champagne houses, you’re just as likely to find a non-vintage cuvée blended from a few parcels and years as you are to find single-vineyard, single-variety bottlings of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, or Pinot Noir. These small producers offer the most site-specific representation of Champagne you will find anywhere.
Why grower Champagne?
Stories matter to us. But let’s make a distinction: interesting, compelling, emotive stories matter to us. Every wine we seek out at Dedalus, every bottle in our stores and on our website, comes from someone with a story. Someone who cares just as much about farming practices as what happens in the winery.
That’s why we love grower Champagne so much. (Also, because it’s just so good.) To commit to growing and vinifying their own Champagne, a producer must master two art forms. In one of the most challenging winegrowing climates, no less.
Champagne is the northernmost wine-producing region of France. It’s notoriously chilly, with a short growing season and temperamental weather patterns that often threaten the health of the vines. It’s also one of the most singular places to make sparkling wine: while bubbles can be made anywhere, the region’s cool climate and chalky soils coupled with long aging times on the lees consistently result in wines with unparalleled richness and complexity.
A producer who also grows their own fruit is taking a risk; they know the trials and challenges of farming in the region. And yet, a growing number of them opt to make their own wines — almost a quarter of all Champagne sales are from grower Champagne.
Kristen Murray, the general manager of our Burlington shop, says she first understood the significance of grower Champagne when she began working with Dedalus. “I knew of it as this broad concept, but it wasn’t until I came here that it clicked for me, and I understood why it’s important. It comes down to supporting farmers and the work they’re doing.”
“It’s not to say that négociant Champagnes are less impressive,” Kristen adds, “But when you have someone who is both farming and vinifying, these two totally different skill sets you need to master, and doing it in the type of climate they’re doing it in — where it’s so cold and there are a lot of elements going against them — it’s pretty cool.”
A little bit of history
Overcoming a challenge is nothing new for Champagne producers. In fact, the region’s history is riddled with challenges. To begin with, the wines used to be still. Up until the early 18th century, sparkling Champagne — resulting from an accidental secondary fermentation in-bottle — was considered undesirable. Maybe because the bottles kept exploding due to high pressure.
Eventually, society developed a liking for those happy accidents. But it wasn’t until innovations by Madame Clicquot, who figured out how to rid the wines of their spent lees; a young scientist named Jean Baptist Francois, who deduced the exact amount of sugar needed to produce bubbles but no explosion; and the development of stronger bottles by British glassmakers, that Champagne began to come into its own.
In 1911, France finally tried to delineate where Champagne could actually be produced. At the time, growers had just endured four years of crop loss because of the phylloxera epidemic. To make it worse, large houses were colluding to drive the price of grapes down and purchasing grapes for less from other regions, countries even. The disadvantaged farmers were fed up. And so began the Champagne Riots.
It could have been the drama of the century. But in 1941, World War I began. The focus shifted from infighting to defending the country. And while Champagne didn’t become a defined region until 1927, the riots highlighted the challenges that growers faced and how integral they are to producing incredible Champagne. Eventually, this led to greater protections and respect for growers. Which in turn, led to grower Champagne.
Back to the future of Champagne, and pairings
The grower Champagnes that we love are a part of this messy, challenging, proud history. They’re made by people who believe so strongly in the power of place that they choose not to sell their fruit to large houses, but to represent that place and history in their own wines. They gift us the most nuanced, and possibly the best, portrayal of Champagne we could ask for.
Maybe because grower Champagne is still an emerging format — or because of the prestige of large, familiar houses, garnered by centuries of mythmaking — you can get some truly incredible bottles for reasonable prices. As in, hand-picked, single-vineyard, single-variety wines for around $60. That’s the same price you would pay for the non-vintage cuvées — house blends incorporating juice from more than one vintage — of their big-brand neighbors.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorites (although it’s hard to choose). And because Champagne is one of the greatest food wines, we’re sharing our favorite ways to indulge.
Yann Vadin is a 9th-generation grape grower on his family’s vineyards, which are spread across the terroirs of five villages around Cumières, in the Vallée de la Marne, where the winery is located. When he took over in 2012, he immediately converted the vineyards to organic. His first cuvée is called Renaissance, an apt title, and is 100% Pinot Meunier. Normally, you would see this early maturing relative of Pinot Noir in blends, where it adds a dose of fruitiness. To vinify it alone is an uncommon and delicious choice.
Nicole Bull, Marketing and Creative Manager, and Brittany Galbraith, Director of Education, opened a bottle of Yann’s Rennaissance to get a sense of how he and his vineyards express themselves in the wine. This is the first time we’ve carried Yann’s wines, and as of publication, they aren’t carried anywhere else in the U.S.
If she was blindfolded, Brittany said, she might think it’s a rosé Champagne because of Meunier's vibrant floral character and the aromatic intensity of red fruits, like underripe strawberry and pomegranate. Its notes of crunchy green apple and rocking acidity would pair perfectly with a luxurious brunch featuring a dollop of Siberian caviar on lox. Alternatively, enjoy with fresh-picked strawberries.
Piollot is another new-to-us, very small producer who you won’t find anywhere else in the U.S. (as of publication). Roland Piollot and his wife Dominique Moreau farm 10 hectares of vines primarily in the town of Polisot. Since 2009, they’ve been doing it organically. Roland’s family has a long history of farming this land — his great grandfather was a leader during the tumultuous riots of 1911. The family’s passion for place continues in the current generation; as of 2018, they are joined by their daughter Jeanne.
A time-honored Champagne pairing is fried chicken. The juiciness and textural bubbles of Champagne cut right through the crunchy, fatty, saltiness of perfectly fried chicken. Pop a bottle of the Piollot Brut Réserve to see what we mean.
Nicole is also especially enthusiastic about the Champagnes of Ruppert-Leroy, produced by a husband and wife team, Emmanuel and Bénédicte Leroy. Since beginning their operation in 2009, they’ve switched to entirely biodynamic farming — something especially difficult to achieve in the challenging growing climate of Champagne — and have become favorites of the Paris wine bar scene.
“I love Champagne and pizza,” Nicole says, “and I’ve tested this pairing with the Ruppert-Leroy Papillon,” an entirely Pinot Noir champagne that is the fruitiest of their offerings. “The bubbles and the high acidity can match the brightness of tomato sauce and cut through the fat of melty cheese. I also think there is something undeniably fun about the irreverence of drinking Champagne with a very casual meal.”
Whenever I leave Vermont, I’m struck by the intense desire to stash a few bottles from Dedalus in my suitcase. Just in case wherever I’m going there is a lack of, let’s say, Paul Bara Champagne. The domaine in Bouzy in Montagne de Reims is now run by Paul’s daughter, Chantalle, who continues his practice of harvesting from old vines, bottling with a brut dosage, and giving the wines plenty of time on the lees to develop incredible richness. The result is a mouthwatering Champagne with a luxurious frothy texture.
I recently carried a split of Paul Bara Brut Réserve Grand Cru to Mexico and opened it on my first night. My normal meal after a long day of travel is generally something comforting and quick. In this case, I opted for french fries and crisped a bit of parmesan and rosemary separately which I sprinkled on top just as I pulled them off the stove. The combination of salty, crunchy parmesan and the fatty, crispy fries with the bubbles was delectable. I wish I’d had a full-size bottle to appreciate in further depth.
Kristen recommends Robert Moncuit. The Moncuit family has been growing Champagne in the Côte des Blancs since 1928. Pierre Amillet is the fourth generation to lead the winery, having taken over in 2000. He is rightly obsessed with their chalky soils, as well as the depths that their old vines penetrate. In his words, you can’t have wines with roots that go down only one or two meters that express terroir. His roots reach up to ten meters. He often produces single-vineyard Champagnes in an effort to allow each terroir the chance to fully express itself.
Pair the Moncuit with cheese, particularly his Blanc de Blancs ‘Les Grands Blancs’. Blanc de blanc Champagnes tend to be some of the most structured and highest in acidity. This one in particular is dry, toasty, and rich. Marry it with a creamy washed-rind cheese like the Rush Creek Reserve. The texture of the Champagne will completely transform your experience of the cheese. Cut the lid off and let it warm up, bust open a bag of truffle-scented potato chips, and go nuts.
Ella Donnelly-Wright, an expert in our Burlington location, recommends Frederic Savart. Frederic is someone completely, exuberantly fascinated with the terroirs of the Montagne de Reims. He makes almost a dozen wines from just under four hectares — a testament to his fascination with the possibilities present in the site.
And lastly, another time-honored pairing: oysters and Champagne. Savart’s ‘L’Ouverture,’ a blanc de noirs from the clay-y soils of Ecueil, and is bottled with a brut dosage, so it’s incredibly aromatic and fluffy. Oysters, on the other hand, are delicate and pillowy, with incredible salinity and umami. The bubbles and acidity of the Champagne act as a palate cleanser, an opportunity to refresh and appreciate the flavors of the next bite.