Champagne Secret 

Sidestepping the big boys for lower-priced, exotic, grower Champagnes.

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 Champagnes 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.

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About The Author

Francis Fecteau

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