Lots more fizz for your funds

Anthony Rose travels beyond the big names to look at some of the small champagne producers
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The French love to make a song and dance out of dirt, or terroir as they call it. Their firm belief that the character of their wines emanates from this particular south-facing slope, or that bit of gravel, underpins the entire appellation contrÿlée edifice. So it seems a tad contradictory that champagne, arguably its most famous wine, should be better known by who makes it, than the chalk soil it springs from. By its big-name brands shall ye know it, as anyone will testify who stumbled over the detritus of empty Lanson, Piper and Mercier bottles littering the Embankment on New Year's Day 2000.

The French love to make a song and dance out of dirt, or terroir as they call it. Their firm belief that the character of their wines emanates from this particular south-facing slope, or that bit of gravel, underpins the entire appellation contrÿlée edifice. So it seems a tad contradictory that champagne, arguably its most famous wine, should be better known by who makes it, than the chalk soil it springs from. By its big-name brands shall ye know it, as anyone will testify who stumbled over the detritus of empty Lanson, Piper and Mercier bottles littering the Embankment on New Year's Day 2000.

But imagine yourself, for one moment, out for Sunday lunch in champagne country, in the region's answer to the Beetle and Wedge at Moulsford-on-Thames. You are surrounded by le tout Epernay - every table sporting a bottle of champagne. Instead of a familiar Bolly or a Moët in the silver bucket, there's a name you probably haven't heard of: Bara, Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier, Ployez-Jacquemart, Marguet-Bonnerave, to list just a few. These are among the increasing number of sought-after champagnes made from grapes grown by local producers making and selling their own wines, often to Parisians hammering on the cellar door.

There is a secret that the French are very clever at concealing under their berets. It is that champagnes made by local growers are not just affordable, but in many instances superior to the better-known big brands. More than four in every 10 bottles of champagne the French drink - and they drink five times as much as we do - are supplied by small growers. By contrast, in the UK, just two in every 100 bottles of champagne we buy come from this plentiful, affordable source.

The region's growers started to market their own champagnes in the 1930s. From a cottage industry of 1,300 growers selling just two million bottles, the number of récoltants-manipulants (RMs on the label, as distinct from NMs, the houses) has now burgeoned to more than 5,000, each with its own label. Collectively they are now almost as strong as the negociant houses, supplying the French with 75 million bottles, as against 100 million from the negociants.

To supply the market, volume requires the big companies to blend grapes from different areas. Growers make champagne from their own vineyards, typically comprising a kaleidoscope of tiny plots in the same village, and perhaps a neighbouring one too. As with the brands, growers have their house style, and their non-vintage fizz, which is the mainstay of the whole region, is likely to include a proportion of mature reserve wine held over from an earlier vintage. Wine from each plot has also to be blended, as may the grape varieties themselves, if a grower has planted more than one of the three grapes that make champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

But the character of a grower's champagne is more likely than that of a big house blend to reflect its origins, or terroir. The growers, rather than the houses, are maintaining the French belief that a sense of place is the key to a wine's individuality. As Chantal Bara, a grower in Bouzy, points out: "The big houses have to make a blend which pleases everyone. The blend we make is designed to appeal to our customers - and they love the character of pinot noir from Bouzy."

At the same time, leading growers who make and sell their own fizz are setting standards of quality, by reducing yields and leading the charge against what one grower, the dapper Alain Robert of Mesnil, calls "industrial manufacture". Pierre Larmandier-Bernier aims to get the best expression of the terroir of Vertus without using herbicides, and by encouraging the roots to penetrate deeper into champagne's chalky soils. "It limits the yields and increases the expression of terroir," he says.

Benoit Marguet Bonnerave is another dynamic young grower doing his utmost to extract the maximum character from the 13 hectares of family-owned grand cru vineyards in the villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Mailly. "People hide too much behind blends. I want to try to capture the expression of different plots," he says. By adding chardonnay and reserve wines to his rosé champagne, he's also one of a small number of the region's growers working to change the image of rosé champagne, from little more than fashion statement, to serious fizz.

With a thirsty Parisian (and local) market mopping up the best growers' relatively limited supplies, it doesn't leave much room for our custom. The British wine trade's subservience to the big brands, and the amount those names spend on promotion, limit the supply of these interesting alternatives. This shouldn't prevent the more tenacious consumer in search of authentic character from heading east of Paris and stocking up. At an average cellar-door price of £8-£10 a bottle for a really good champagne, why leave it to the French to plunder the cellars of Reims and Epernay, when we can make inroads of our own?

 

Grower's fizz

* Larmandier-Bernier, Né d'Une Terre de Vertus, £16.25, The Vine Trail, Bristol (0117-921 1770). The name neatly encapsulates this grand cru fizz whose hint of honeycomb and creamy texture is enhanced by the lack of any added sweetness. Look out for the very fine 1996 vintage, vieilles vignes, in soon at £19.95.

 

* Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Brut 1er cru Gastronome, £16.99, Oddbins. Stylish champagne with the intense fruit flavours, finesse and verve of Cÿte des Blancs chardonnay.

 

* Bara Brut Reserve, £20.95 bottle, O W Loeb, London SE1 (020-7928 7750). Perfumed, pinot noir-based, raspberryish fizz from Bouzy which is finely textured and elegantly dry.

 

* Forget-Brimont, Justerini & Brooks, £15.50, London SW1 (020-7484 6433). Mouthwatering, apple-crisp fizz with a degree of finesse.

 

* Marguet-Bonnerave, Grand Cru, Brut Rosé, £15.95, Berry Bros. & Rudd Ltd, London SW1 (020-7396 9600). Serious non-vintage rosé champagne with smooth strawberry-like Ambonnay fruitiness and an evolved, biscuity character.

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