Jan. 2 2013 12:00 AM

Grower Champagne provides good value for bubbly fans

Nestled along hillsides adjacent to tiny villages and riverbanks in the Champagne region of France grow grapes destined to create some of the finest sparkling wine in the world. These grapes will become “grower Champagne,” also known as farmer fizz. Freed from the burden of underwriting the cost of worldwide print, radio, television and Internet advertising campaigns, these delicious beverages gain consumer allegiance through the grassroots efforts of importers, distributors and retailers.

Although there is an American tendency to call any sparkling wine “champagne,” true Champagne refers only to wine grown under strict governmental regulation in the Champagne region. Traditionally a wine of celebration, its crisp acidity and palate freshening bubbles, make Champagne an extremely versatile, food-friendly beverage, suitable for any occasion. With holiday celebrations now behind us, perhaps readers’ palates have been whetted to the virtues of this refreshing drink. 

So what is grower Champagne? It is estate-grown Champagne created by a single producer, using the estate’s own grapes. Mass-produced Champagnes typically are assembled from fruit grown on dozens, or even hundreds, of vineyard sites, blended together, and marketed under widely known names. Grower Champagnes are likely to be more terroir-oriented and site-specific. They are created by growers who have spent years — or even decades — understanding the nuances of their vineyards, and they may be subject to vintage variation from year to year. That can be part of the pleasure of enjoying these wines.

Sparkling wine from Champagne must be produced from only three grape varieties, or any combination thereof: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Even Champagnes produced from 100 percent pinot noir typically have only a light straw color because the juice is separated from the skins before it picks up the red pigment during fermentation.  

A recent tasting of farmer fizz at Bar Divani, a Grand Rapids restaurant that is a terrific destination both for foodies and wine lovers, provided a peek at some current offerings worth seeking out.  

The tasting started with the Pierre Gimonnet Fils 1er Cru Brut NV, a 100 percent chardonnay from a chalk soil vineyard. A very enjoyable wine, it is clean, crisp and light, with wonderful mouth feel and a pleasing finish.

The Mousse Fils Brut Noir Reserve NV comes from a producer emphasizing organic viticulture with no pesticides. This philosophy extends into the solar and geothermal underpinnings of the winery. Unlike many other regions of Champagne, the vineyard land here has a schist subsoil underneath the clay. Yet another unique attribute of this wine is its predominantly pinot meunier base, with 15 percent pinot noir as the complement. The pinot meunier did not add quite as much earthiness as I anticipated. Despite the fact that all the grapes going into this wine are dark grapes, the wine is a light straw color, bright and clear, with more depth of flavor than the Gimonnet.

Next was the Marc Hébrart Brut Rosé NV from the Marne Valley. Hébrart secures grapes from several different vineyard sites under his ownership and supervision, vinifying grapes from each site separately and then deciding upon a final assemblage. This champagne is 50 percent pinot noir and 42 percent chardonnay with an 8 percent dose of red still wine to create added color. Effervescent and fruity on the palate, it has a bit redder berry character. Refreshing, but I preferred the first two.

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millesime 2006 (the first vintage dated wine of the group) is produced from grapes grown in soil characterized by sand, clay, chalk and limestone. Composed of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay, the wine was aged in bottle for more than four years. Bready and yeasty, this wine is much more powerful than the first three, perhaps a testament to the heavier soil. 

Last and certainly not least was the Henri Goutorbe Special Club 2004. Special club refers to wines that have passed rigorous, blind peer reviewed judging by a formal organization of growers in the region. Those that achieve approval by a two-thirds majority are in the running to be designated as a special club wine. These wines are then aged for a minimum of three additional years, after which they are again submitted for peer review. Only those that successfully navigate this rigorous two-stage process can be marketed as special club. The 2004 Goutorbe Special Club Ay is presented in a handsome, stout bottle with the raised Special Club emblem. With 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay, this Champagne is big and powerful, exhibiting nuances of yeast, bread, minerality and earthiness with a satisfying, lingering finish.

Grower Champagnes make up only 2 percent to 3 percent of the Champagne market. Although they can represent terrific values for the quality of the juice in the bottle, high quality Champagne doesn’t come at an everyday drinker price. If Champagne is on a menu, consider asking your wine merchant about availability of grower Champagnes. 

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)