Grape growers in France are making Champagnes with big personalities, reports Lettie Teague—and challenging the grandes marques.

Like most Americans I love a good underdog tale: the story of a little guy who bests a big corporation or a rube from the sticks who one-ups some society snob. But it's hard to find an underdog story in American wine today, when the "little guys" are mostly Microsoft millionaires making a few cases of Napa Cabernet. It's easier to find one in Champagne, where a handful of small grape growers are producing wines that can compete with—and even surpass—some of the most famous names in the world.

Admittedly Champagne seems an unlikely setting for this sort of tale. After all, its wines are synonymous with luxury and prestige. And the underdogs, in this case the growers, are not exactly downtrodden. In fact, they own nearly 90 percent of Champagne's vineyards, valued at around $1 million an acre. That's more expensive than any other region in France except maybe for some choice parcels in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

But few of the 15,000 or so growers own more than five acres, which means they can't make enough wine to offset the cost of production. Therefore, only about 4,000 growers make their own wine; the rest sell their grapes to the cooperatives or to grandes marques like Moët & Chandon and Perrier Jouët. In fact, big Champagne houses account for about 70 percent of total Champagne production and about 97 percent of sales outside Europe. They have long been the names that stand for Champagne.

But in the past several years, things have started to change. More growers have begun exporting their wines. And more sommeliers have been buying them. The reason for this new popularity is terroir—the untranslatable (and frequently invoked) French term for the confluence of weather, soil and aspect that gives a vineyard an identifiable character. Unlike the big houses, which buy grapes from all over Champagne (sometimes from as many as 1,000 different vineyard sites), growers make wines with grapes from a particular place. That sense of terroir, coupled with good prices (often 10 or 20 percent less than the big brands, and sometimes even lower), has incited sommeliers to add names like Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Egly-Ouriet to their lists, even according them special categories in some cases. For winemakers too small to have marketing teams, publicity departments or, for that matter, much wine, this seems like a clear underdog victory. But how had it all happened and why? I decided to take a trip to Champagne to find out for myself.

One of the first Champagne growers I met with was Didier Gimonnet, 41, of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils. In partnership with his brother, Olivier, Gimonnet owns nearly 64 acres of vineyards (almost entirely planted to Chardonnay); the company is easily one of the largest growers in Côte des Blancs (home to almost all great Chardonnay-based Champagnes). As a "large" grower, though, he produces only about 17,000 cases of wine (compared with Moët & Chandon's 2 million). Although the Gimonnets have been growing grapes in Côte des Blancs for hundreds of years, it was Didier's grandfather Pierre who officially launched the winemaking business in the 1930s.

According to Gimonnet, his decision to begin exporting wines to America about seven years ago was directly related to the poor market in France. "The big houses are the names you'll see on wine lists in Paris," he asserted. Although some great Paris restaurants now buy Gimonnet wines, more than half of the winery's sales come from abroad, with Germany and the U.S. its two biggest markets.

Like most growers, the Gimonnets live in a very small village: Cuis, whose only viable commerce appears to be Gimonnet wine. There are at least three Gimonnets making wine there. But Pierre Gimonnet had the biggest sign—a not-insignificant detail in a region where the smaller growers can be hard to find.

"Did you drive here?" Gimonnet asked me suddenly. I wondered if he'd seen me struggling to get my car into reverse. (French rental cars always seem to come with a manual transmission and a sticky reverse.) "Most Americans take taxis in Champagne," he said. "The roads are very small and dangerous." I felt a small surge of pride; who knew the mere act of renting a car could be considered a brave gesture in Champagne? Or was Gimonnet joking? He didn't seem the type. In fact, he seemed like a pretty serious fellow, with some serious ideas about making Champagne, specifically cuvées.

It's the creation of the cuvées (blends), after all, that makes Champagne unique. First, there's the combining of grapes: generally Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier (though some Champagnes are made with only a single kind of grape). Then there's the blending of the different lots of wines, sometimes from dozens of vineyards. And finally there's the blending of years. Champagne, even a basic nonvintage, can be made up of three or four different vintages. It takes a great deal of experience and an exceptional palate to meld all these parts into a seamless whole.

To explain his "philosophy of cuvées," Gimonnet sketched a picture. He drew 42 boxes, each representing a selection from his vineyards. "We'll say four are exceptional." He blocked out four boxes. Then he blocked out boxes as "very good," "good," "quite good" and "standard" and explained how he uses different percentages in each cuvée. Even his basic cuvée got 15 percent of "very good." I was impressed, though I wondered why "quite good" was inferior to "good." Was it a French thing, like calling the second floor of a building the premier étage? I considered asking Gimonnet but he was absorbed in his art.

"There are Gimonnet vineyards all around us," he declared with pride, gesturing to the scene just outside his office. I hoped we'd take a walk through them later as the vineyards of Champagne are some of the most beautiful in the world. In fact, their gleaming white chalk soil is actually an extension of the White Cliffs of Dover (though Champagne didn't make it into the famous Matthew Arnold poem). But Gimonnet was focused on tasting, not walking; he pulled several bottles from a small refrigerator. (Almost all the growers I met seemed to have the same dorm-room-size appliance; were its diminutive proportions a reflection of the growers' production size?)

The first wine we tried was the nonvintage Pierre Gimonnet Cuis 1er Cru. "It's very hard to make a young Chardonnay without acidity, and Cuis has very aggressive acidity," Gimonnet remarked, noting the characteristic style of his village. In Champagne (unlike in Burgundy), the villages are rated rather than the vineyards. For example, Cuis is a premier cru village (there are 38), which means all its vineyards are granted premier cru status. In contrast, villages like Cramant and Chouilly—where Gimonnet also has land—are grands crus (there are 17). Many villages have no cru rating at all, although a few can produce very good wine.

Gimonnet owns some of the best Côte des Blancs vineyards and is considered one of its top growers, though he does not favor particularly low yields—winemaking heresy in Champagne (and just about everywhere else). But according to Gimonnet, "When you have terroir and a great vintage you don't need small yields."

The terroir of Gimonnet's vineyards produces wines that are uniformly elegant rather than robust, and always marked by significant amounts of acidity. In fact, his juicy nonvintage reminded me of biting into a fresh apple, while one special bottling, a grand cru wine produced for a growers' club (of which Gimonnet is currently the president), was pure intensity, its flavors of minerals and stone reminiscent of a first-rate Puligny-Montrachet.

While Didier Gimonnet was talkative, even voluble at times, Françis Egly of Champagne Egly-Ouriet was fairly taciturn. Part of this might have been due to language (my bad French and his nonexistent English—his broker, Peter Vezan, came all the way from Paris to translate). Part of this might have been excess fame. Egly-Ouriet had recently been hailed by the French press as one of the two best Champagne growers, but he seemed to regard such praise as a distraction. "Don't encourage people to visit," was one of the first things he said to me. I assured Egly he needn't worry. Had Vezan not been in my car giving directions, I might not have found Egly's winery at all.

That might change as Egly expands his domaine—something that rarely happens in Champagne, where vineyard land is almost impossible to buy. But Egly had the good fortune to marry a woman who inherited almost as much land as he did, and their vineyard holdings now total about 30 acres. Thanks to the punitive French inheritance rules, when a property is handed down, it is not only heavily taxed but also divided among the heirs. Thus, a once-sizable parcel can become quite small. (Egly's great-grandfather had a great deal of land but also nine children, which meant that Egly's grandfather pretty much had to start from scratch.) Because Françis Egly and his wife are both only children, they each inherited all their family's land.

Egly-Ouriet may or may not be one of the two best small producers in Champagne (I'd put him in the top five), but he is certainly the most precise. For example, the label of the nonvintage Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition cites every source: Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay—all grand cru villages. Egly is also, less publicly, a low-dosage man. Dosage, the addition of a sugar-and-wine mixture to a Champagne before final corking, is a hot topic among many growers right now, who hold that it can be used to mask flaws with sweetness. "Egly got down to such low levels of dosage that he had to buy a new machine. His old one couldn't calculate such low levels," Vezan said with what sounded like pride.

Clearly Egly was putting his money somewhere other than in a tasting room. We sampled his wines standing between boxes and a woman working on the bottling line. Egly drew each bottle in turn from a sort of beer cooler. (No Egly money was apparently to be wasted on refrigerators, dorm-room-size or otherwise.) But the wines showed where the money had been spent. In Egly's hands, even the minor grape Pinot Meunier produced a wine of note: The Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Brut, made from 100 percent Pinot Meunier, was rich and seductive, with none of the grape's herbaceous qualities. The brut rosé was delicate and flowery. "I have a soft spot for rosé," said Egly, though he made this sound like a very serious thing. Egly's 1996 grand cru was pure brilliance: beautifully balanced and essentially bubble-free. According to Egly, the bubbles were there. As he explained, "The bubbles are anchored to the wine." But, I wanted to ask, in a glass of Champagne is that really where they ought to be?

Do your wines have bubbles?" I asked Elisabeth Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet Champagne soon after we met. She looked at me quizzically until I explained the reason for my question. "Egly gets very good reviews for his wines," she replied, though it sounded as if she wanted to say more. She and her husband, Philippe, had invited me to dinner at their house and winery just north of Reims. But first she helped me park my car. "The reverse is difficult," she said sympathetically, adding, "I have the same trouble."

I sensed that this wasn't true. Elisabeth Chartogne seemed like a highly competent woman. Although she'd been in the Champagne business only since her marriage to Philippe, some 20 years earlier (his family has been growing grapes in Champagne since the 16th century), it had been her idea to sell their wines overseas. Now their international sales represent 80 percent of their business, 30 percent of that in America. Even so, explained Elisabeth, "Most growers don't export their wines because it's so complicated."

The Chartognes produce fewer than 7,000 cases of wine and own just under 30 acres. Their one child, Alexander, will inherit their entire estate. (In Champagne, siblings aren't just about rivalry but fiscal pain.) None of the Chartognes' vineyards are in grand or premier cru villages, but old vines are the secret, said Philippe. The basic Cuvée Sainte-Anne, an intensely aromatic (and fine-bubbled) blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, is made from 25-year-old vines, while the voluptuous 1996 Fiacre Taillet comes from vines almost twice that age. Both are good deals: The Sainte-Anne is about $30 a bottle, the Fiacre about $61 (or half the price of comparable big-name Champagnes). When I remarked on this, Philippe, who went to enology school in Beaune, reminisced about his time in Burgundy: "Pommard used to be about the same price as Champagne. Now you can find Champagne for $15 but you can't find Pommard for less than three times that."

One Champagne grower who has developed as fanatical a following as any Burgundian star is Laurent Champs, whose winery, Vilmart & Cie, is a few miles south of Chartogne-Taillet and the city of Reims. The large Bavarian-style Vilmart winery hardly looks like the home of an underdog. Indeed, Vilmart is open to the public (unlike most growers) and even has a receptionist (wearing a long chiffon dress and trailing clouds of perfume).

There are less obvious aspects of Vilmart that set it apart: namely, that its Champagnes are all aged in oak, a departure from the traditional stainless steel. "My father was a carpenter," Champs explained jokingly as we stood in his tasting room, with its stained glass windows (the work of his father). The 36-year-old Champs, wearing pressed jeans and a very large Calvin Klein belt buckle, was clearly the man in charge. It was his idea to use small oak barriques for aging the special cuvées, something many people questioned at first but now seek to copy. "Some people from Louis Roederer visited recently because they were interested in this method," Champs remarked.

But it is the price of the Vilmart wines in relation to their quality (they've been called "poor man's Krug" for their combination of power and style—at half the cost or less of real Krug) that makes them underdog wines. Stylistically, Vilmart wines are so rich that they are more like wine than Champagne and, much like a great Burgundy (or, for that matter, Krug), they benefit from aging. The 1997 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée may best represent this. Made from 50-year-old vines and matured in small barrels, this Chardonnay-dominant wine is gorgeously round, with notes of quince and pear. Although it has been on the market for the past year, "I think it will be best in two or three years," Champs said, with the air of a man who expects his customers will wait.

My last destination was the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and the small grower Guy Charlemagne. Le Mesnil is the home of some of the most legendary and expensive blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) Champagne in the world, namely Salon and Krug's single-vineyard wine, Le Mesnil. But it's also where the Charlemagne family has been growing grapes for more than a century, in some of Le Mesnil's finest vineyards. Their grand cru Chardonnay, Guy Charlemagne Réserve Brut, is beautifully balanced, with excellent acidity and a long, minerally finish. It also sells for a fraction of the price of wines from its more famous neighbors (about $45 a bottle versus $170 for the 1995 Salon). Two bargain-hunting French couples bought a case of it while I was there.

As I drove out of Guy Charlemagne's tidy courtyard (directly across from Salon's grand edifice), I reflected on the fact that the growers seemed so flush with success, it was hard to believe they'd ever struggled. And yet I knew that for each of them the difference between one harvest and the next was potentially enormous. They are farmers, after all, and their grapes are all that they have. Or as Didier Gimonnet said, "When we are harvesting, I'm there 20 hours out of 24. I could give responsibility to someone else, but in the end, the difference between a good wine and a great wine is a very small detail." And that's the outlook that turns an underdog into a success.