At professional wine tastings, the pop of a Champagne cork usually signals the end of work and the start of socializing. The experts know that the handful of brands that will be poured are so consistent and so familiar they aren't likely to provoke much critical discussion. Therefore, they can relax and put pleasure before analysis.
But this civilized tradition may be coming to an end--and happily so. While Champagne is still primarily identified with a few big houses (Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Taittinger), there are suddenly many more names to choose from, thanks to the top-quality small Champagne producers whose wines have arrived in the international marketplace.
The Champagnes of small producers are identified on labels by the initials RM, which stand for récoltant-manipulant, or grower-maker. There are no fewer than 2,700 of these producers in Champagne, vintners who grow grapes, make wine and, increasingly, sell it using their own names. That's an astonishingly high number, especially considering all the time and money and expertise it takes to make sparkling wine.
The emergence of these producers is part of a larger movement of French grape growers who have declared their independence from négociants (the merchants who bottle and blend wine) and have struck out on their own. And though many of the Champagnes in question remain undistinguished--souvenirs, mainly, for tourists to the region--some real stars have begun to shine. Champagnes from the following six producers are among them.
Fleury Père & Fils
This house is based in the Aube, a picturesque region of woods and river valleys so removed from the center of Champagne that historically it hasn't even been considered a part of the district. Indeed, the denizens of the towns of Reims and Épernay tend to look down on it. But it's home to many excellent growers. Jean-Pierre Fleury is unique among Champagne producers: he's an all-out proponent of biodynamic winemaking, an approach that stresses, among other things, planetary influences on the vineyard. (One of Jean-Pierre's first passions was astronomy.) Today, he follows a system of organic viticulture inspired by the teachings of the anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner. The critics who dismiss Jean-Pierre's theories as batty have to admit, nonetheless, that his wines are serious, particularly his prestige cuvée, Fleur de l'Europe, a richly flavored Pinot Noir-based blend with notes of honey and acacia blossoms. Fleury Père & Fils also makes first-rate nonvintage, vintage and rosé wines.
Situated on the northwestern slopes of the Montagne de Reims, Chartogne-Taillet is run by the husband-and-wife team of Philippe and Elisabeth Chartogne. Having made wine only since the Sixties, they are fairly new producers, though the family holdings date back some 400 years. In many ways the Chartognes' approach is quite different from that of their fellow growers. For example, they keep big reserve stocks to draw on, a practice that gives even their nonvintage Champagnes the complex character of well-aged wine. As Elisabeth says, "A small producer's Champagne doesn't have to be rustic or inconsistent." The Chartognes make four wines, including a prestige nonvintage Champagne, Cuvée Fiacre-Taillet Brut.
Anselme Selosse, of the village of Avize in Champagne, is in a superleague of his own. After taking over the 17 1/2 -acre family holdings from his father, Jacques, in 1980, he began applying winemaking techniques that he had learned in Burgundy, fermenting and aging his base wine in barriques (small French oak barrels) and employing organic growing methods. Critics contend that Anselme's Chardonnay-based wines taste like Burgundy with bubbles, and there's no question that both his vintage and nonvintage Champagnes, with their complex aromas, their fullness in the mouth and their hint of oak-derived vanilla, can make the wines of his rivals seem washed out by comparison. But as Anselme says, "These are wines first and Champagnes second." He makes four grand cru Champagnes: a nonvintage, a vintage, a sweeter demi-sec and the Cuvée Origine.
Like Selosse, Pierre Gimonnet lies in the Côte des Blancs, the subregion of Champagne south of Épernay dedicated to white grapes. While convention dictates that Champagne be a blend, Didier and Olivier Gimonnet, Pierre's grandsons, make their wines entirely from Chardonnay grapes. The result is a decidedly delicate (and underpriced) Champagne whose character develops and deepens with age. They make five wines: the nonvintage Cuis Premier Cru; the nonvintage Oenophile Maxi Brut (without dosage, a bone-dry style); and three vintage bottlings, Gastronome, Le Fleuron and a prestige cuvée.
The warm and unpretentious Billiot family makes wines that in at least one blind tasting have beaten out all the best-known names in Champagne. The Billiot cellars dominate the main square of Ambonnay, one of the grand cru villages of the Montagne de Reims, a region famous for its Pinot Noir, the dominant grape of the Billiot wines. Like his colleagues Anselme Selosse and the Gimonnets, Serge Billiot, the son of Henri, is a bit of an iconoclast. He likes doing things by hand, from the remuage (turning, or riddling, the bottles) to the disgorgement (removing spent yeast from the bottles). His Champagne house produces lovely, subtle nonvintage and vintage wines as well as a prestige cuvée made from the wines of the best years and named in honor of his daughter, Laetitia.
This small Champagne grower, located on the riverside slopes of the Vallée de la Marne, specializes in Champagne made from neither of the two classic grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but from the ostensibly less interesting red grape Pinot Meunier. Yet, according to René, it frequently happens that when he and his son, Jean-Baptiste, get together to blend their wines, they can't distinguish the Pinot Meunier from the Pinot Noir. Like Anselme Selosse, Jean-Baptiste loves the effect of wood on his wines, but hisChampagne house uses big vats instead of small barrels for fermentation and maturation. In addition to its Pinot Meunier-based nonvintage Champagne, the Geoffroys make a distinctive Pinot Noir-based Cuvée Selectionée, whose flavor Jean-Baptiste describes as cherrystones in eau-de-vie.
Patrick Matthews, a London-based wine writer, is the author of The Wild Bunch: Great Wines from Small Producers (Faber), which was named the 1998 Glenfiddich Drink Book of the Year.