The is a myriad of lesser-known champagnes in the market, so the first thing you need to be able to decipher is which are grower champagnes and which are Negociant champagnes. You can do this by looking carefully at the front label (usually the bottom right hand side). There should be a batch number starting with two letters and followed by some numbers. The letters will tell you the type of producer the champagne has come from. If it has come from a merchant like Veuve Clicquot or Lanson it will start with NM (Négociant manipulant) and if it has come from a Grower it will start with RM (Récoltant manipulant).
So how do you know what to choose? There are so many grower champagnes in the market there are obviously going to be many good ones and many bad ones. Here are my tips for helping you choose:
1) The best grower champagnes tend to come from the best vineyard sites. Picking a bottle with 'Grand Cru' on the label is a good indication of quality (its not a guarantee though)
2) Due to grower champagnes coming from small estates they have less ability to blend from multiple different sites (or Lieux dits) and vintages to ensure a consistent style. I say, ignore consistency and embrace vintage variation, after all, we do it with every other wine we buy. Buying vintage grower champagnes should be another indication of quality. If you are buying a champagne from an excellent site and from an excellent vintage you should be on to a winner, as long as the grower has a proficient winemaker.
3) Buy from a wine merchant which you trust. My favourites to buy from are:
- The Sampler (South Kensington, Islington) - winner of best independent champagne retailer 2011 by the Champagne Summit. A thorough list headed by cru.
- Berry Bros and Rudd (St James Street) - The worlds most famous wine merchant with a top champagne list.
- Champagne Growers Direct (online) - lots of big name grower champagnes, plenty of tasting notes from well known critics and free delivery for purchases of three bottles or more. It also has profiles on all the growers that it uses.
Here are some of my favourite grower champagnes:
- Eric Rodez - Eric Rodez is based in Ambonnay and spent a year working at Krug. He's famous for his full bodied, meaty Blanc de Noirs champagnes which are vinified in oak.
- Egly Ouriet - another Ambonnay grower whose average vine age is 35 years producing intense, powerful Pinot Noir based champagnes which are aged for a minimum of 3 years before release.
- Bonnaire - from Cramant this grower concentrates on Chardonnay based champagnes which are full of elegant fruit, floral notes and a flinty stone character. An excellent example of the Cramant regional style.
- Guy Charlemagne - This Le Mesnil-sur-Oger producer makes champagnes which epitimise the Le Mesnil style. They are so pure and racy with heaps of delicate fruit and a chalky minerality. The average vine age in their vineyards are 31 years which helps explain why they produce such focused champagnes.
- Jacques Selosse - Jacques Selosse is a legend in champagne who produces truly unique, vinous champagnes like no other. Selosse is based in Avise with vineyards in Cramant and Oger as well. His champagnes all vary in style massively and do not come cheap but are worth splashing out on for a treat.