The sky went a sullen gray, and
then with a crack and a boom
and a sky etched with electric
thrusts and haywire light, a New
York City deluge soaked me to the
bone. I forgot just how sultry and
affecting New York rainstorms are.
In high desert climes, rainstorms
are sharp and jolting; in New York,
it prompted thoughts of nakedness.
Had I not the distant worry of spending
a weekend in a New York jail, I
may well have attempted a return to
the hotel in a more carefree fashion.
I had the good sense to wait, and the
Champagne was on ice before I liberated
myself from my damp wardrobe.
I spent the evening lingering
over every sip. Aw, who am I kidding?
I chugged it like a beer—and
it was every bit as refreshing.
Champagne, the northernmost
grape-growing area in France,
like Burgundy or Bordeaux, is
split into distinct growing areas
rated for quality, age and reputation.
Producers are separated
into negociants, cooperatives and
growers. Generally, the negociant
owns some land and buys
most of their fruit, the co-op
owns the facilities and
a little land but allows
small producers to use
the facility by paying
in fruit, and the grower
actually owns the
land and grows the
land but sometimes
needs to supplement
his production of
grapes. However, he
can buy no more than
5 percent of fruit
from other sources
to still be certified as
a grower. These boutique
are, by their nature,
the most rare and exotic.
They are also the most abundantly
fascinating and the greatest value.
The appellation is stunningly
diverse; only 12 percent is owned
by the major industrial producers,
the remaining 88 percent divided
amongst nearly 4,000 different
grower/owners. This means the
industrial producers such as Veuve
Clicquot, Perrier Jouet, Moet and
Roederer, among others, must
seek out a tremendous amount of
fruit from small family-owned
farms to meet their production
needs. The very best
fruit comes from networks
of small farmers in each of
the Premier Cru and Grand
Cru villages. These small
family farms provide the
core of the great bottlings
from the “Grand Marques”:
Clicquot’s La Grande Dame,
Moet’s eponymous “Dom
Perignon” and Roederer’s
“Cristal.” These bottles run
anywhere from $150 to $300
with certain bottlings from
Krug costing over $1,000.
The delicious secret is
that the same fruit blended
into the backbone of these
legendary bottles is also sold
under the family farmer’s name for nearly
70 percent less—yes, that same fruit in the
$200 bottle of Champagne goes into a family
farmer’s bottle for somewhere between
$50 and $70. Where the Grand Marques
create compelling blends, the family farmer
makes a single vineyard expression for
considerably less. These wines are noted for
their expression of place (terroir). Since the
character hasn’t been sacrificed to make
a “house style,” farmers also pick their
grapes later resulting in riper, richer fruit,
and they use grape sugar in the dosage to
create the bubbles. The result is a harmonious
and complex wine that actually develops
as it sits open. I often describe them as
great wines that happen to have bubbles.
The trick for picking these out is simple: Along the border of the bottle label in tiny print is a tax code that begins with two letters. “NM” indicates a negociant, “CM” indicates a cooperative and “RM” is a grower. Read the fine print.
It is stunning that the same consumer
who seeks the exotic, the small production,
the rare and the unknown in other wines,
resorts to the worst sort of label whoredom
when Champagne shopping, their sense of
adventure having abandoned them somewhere
in the parking lot of the wine store.
My advice? Go back and rekindle that adventurousness.
Great wine awaits you.