Feb. 2 2011 12:00 AM

’Grower Champagnes’ can be pricey, but they’re worth seeking out



The holidays may be behind us, but that is no reason to forget about the pleasures of bubbly, among the most versatile and food friendly of all wines.

And plenty of tasty bubbly exists off the beaten path, although it may take a special request to find.

So-called “grower Champagne,” a.k.a. farmer fizz, can be worth the effort.

Despite common parlance, remember that “Champagne,” by definition, must be produced from grapes grown and made into wine in the Champagne region of France. Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain or tasty sparkling wines from L. Mawby and other Michigan producers are not Champagne.

Most Champagne on the market today comes from large producers that purchase grapes from an array of vineyards and blend the wine into a relatively consistent product. But “grower Champagne” is strictly local and limited production, created from estate vineyards and made into wine by the grower.

Because of the small, artisanal production, but without bloated advertising and marketing budgets, grower Champagnes, while not cheap, can represent very good Champagne values, compared to quality wines from the well-known names. They also tend to reflect the “terroir” of their respective villages and can be very distinctive contrasted with mass-market products, although perhaps more variable from year to year.

A recent tasting of grower Champagnes at the oh-so-wine-friendly Bar Divani restaurant in Grand Rapids provided an opportunity to sample several current releases available through Imperial Beverage of Kalamazoo, which supplies many finer Lansing area wine shops and restaurants. (Listed prices are approximate and may not reflect actual local prices.)

Larmandier 1er Cru Brut Rosé “Vertus” NV (non-vintage, i.e. a blending of grapes from more than one vintage year) is a 400case release of a Chardonnay-dominated wine, which gets its pink color from a dosage of still (i.e. non-carbonated) Pinot Noir. It has nice, round mouth feel and abundant flavor — a crowdpleasing aperitif or companion to a meal, but not an everyday drinker at $65.

Hebrart 1er Cru Brut Selection “Mareuilsur-Ay” NV ($45) is a blend of 20 percent Chardonnay and 80 percent old vine Pinot Noir. Champagne, by French law, can be made only from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. But remember that even Champagne made from 100 percent Pinot Noir may still be only a light straw color if the grapes were not allowed to remain in contact with the skins after crushing.

This selection shows very bright fruit in the nose and on the palate, good acid balance, a terroir-based minerality of chalk and limestone, and overtones of strawberry, characteristic of the Pinot Noir base.

A similar 80/20 cuvee was reflected in Lallement Grand Cru Brut Reserve “Verzenay” NV ($55).

In the Champagne hierarchy, a 1er Cru (premier cru) is the second highest classification and Grand Cru is the highest classification. But it is important to note that classifications are both political and historical, and may not reflect actual differences in wine quality.

The Lallement Verzenay, with only a few hundred cases produced, is grown on sandstone and chalk soils. It presents with elegant floral notes intertwined with a doughy, yeasty, bready bouquet and per sistent fizz.

Pierre Gimonnet Special Club Blanc de Blanc “ Cuis” 2004 ($79) achieves the high honor of a “Special Club” designation only after undergoing a rigorous peer review evaluation process by a jury of other winemakers, and it represents a grower’s best bottling.

If you see “Special Club” on a Champagne label, you know it has successfully negotiated this tasting gauntlet not once, but twice, before it is released. Blanc de Blanc means white wine from white grapes, and this is all Chardonnay. It is crisp and complex, with a clean, yeasty nose, balanced acid, and very pleasing finish.

Last to be tasted was Margaine 1er Cru Demi Sec “Villers-Marmery” NV at $25 for a half-bottle. The Demi Sec designation means it is of a much sweeter style, which can also create an impression of greater richness and body. This 90 percent Chardonnay and 10 percent Pinot Noir bubbly is creamy and mouth filling, with aromas and flavors of pear and apple, and a long lingering finish. Fanciers of Moscato d’Asti may be drawn to this wine, which would serve equally well as a post meal digestif.

À votre santé

In Vino Veritas