Krug. Ruinart. Dom Perignon. These names carry so much weight and have such longevity that even most adolescents know their names (thanks Jay-Z). Such cachet comes with a hefty price tag, one that is generally sprung for only on the most special occasions.
And while we’d never turn down a bottle of Krug, a lesser-known group of producers in Champagne is making bubbles that take the region’s telltale glamour in a different direction.
Most of the vineyards in Champagne are owned by the growers, but very few of them produce their own wines. Instead, they sell their grapes to the grand marques, houses that are responsible for vast majority of Champagnes (including the aforementioned labels) that end up in the United States.
But an increasing number of grower-producers have jumped into the export game, with more of these terroir-driven choices arriving on our shores each year.
Sommeliers, in particular, have flocked to these underdogs, championing them on their wine lists. Eamon Rockey, beverage director at Betony in New York, has a number of grower bottlings on his list: “There’s an importance of place, almost a fingerprint that you can find in many grower Champagnes,” he suggests. “Each one has a story.” Whereas grand marque Champagnes prioritize consistency from year to year, grower Champagnes are generally better mirrors of vintage variation, making for a larger variety of flavor profiles.
Grower Champagnes also offer an interesting value proposition within the category. Bryan Maletis, founder of Fat Cork, a grower Champagne store based in Seattle, says that grower Champagne prices more accurately represent the manufacturing cost, while grand marque prices are inflated with marketing dollars. But the real values, he suggests, are in the tete de cuvee and vintage categories: “You can find a beautiful bottle of grower Champagne with ten years of age on it for under $100; a comparable vintage from a grand marque will be twice the price.”
Though grower Champagnes still have a limited presence in the United States compared to the grand marque labels, these beguiling bottles are available for those who know where to look. Maletis’s Fat Cork has 70 exclusive grower Champagnes in its portfolio and ships nationwide. Importers Terry Theise and Michael Skurnik have also made considerably strides in bringing these Champagnes within our reach.
So this year, shirk the familiar and opt for growth. See below for a handful of our favorite picks.