I'm a lover of the bubbles. And recently I've been on a little kick to try something a little different in the world of Champagne: the wine of Récoltant Manipulants, or growers of Champagne grapes who make a little of their own wine on the side.
Champagne is an interesting place. Since the 18th century, the wine business there has run a little like a feudal society. 19,000 serfs serve a handful of nobles, growing and selling grapes to them for their mega international brands so they can sell their product around the world.
Don't get me wrong -- these nobles spend a ton of money on marketing, packaging, and distribution. It's great for us because we get access to some really great wines and we can get them nearly anywhere (Veuve Clicquot Yellow label anyone?). But like the feudal system, the grower/serfs livelihood relies on selling grapes. Since they own 88% of the vineyard land in Champagne, the system continues. The large Houses need the growers as much as the growers need the Houses.
But the system isn't entirely feudalistic. About 1/4 of the growers hold some grapes back. They squirrel away part of their harvest and go through the expensive, arduous process of making Champagne in their own wineries.
The people who make this wine do it as a labor of love. But in the last decade or so, they are also making a name for themselves and some actually make enough wine and garner a good price for it.
On the positive side, critics and wine buyers have fallen in love with these wines and they're growing in popularity around the world. Now we have the opportunity to taste Champagne because more than the stylized wines of the big Champagne houses, these wines are wines of terroir. They're from the land and taste like it.
These wines aren't widely available. The quality varies based on vintage. They're made in small quantities. These growers rely on their importer or distributor to market them because they don't have the money to put out pretty boxes or fancy displays. And frankly, many sit on the shelf until a curious person or an enthusiastic salesperson decides to give them some love. And if you see RM or Récoltant Manipulant on a bottle, you may find them a great alternative to the big houses too.
I'm a huge fan. Here are two I thought were particularly fabulous:
Wine #1: Pierre Peters 'Cuvée de Réserve' Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs
Grape: 100% Chardonnay
Color: A light straw color with super small, persistent bubbles. This wine looks so delicate and elegant.
Smell: Cream-filled brioche, almonds, green apple, and a fresh garden full of freshly bloomed white flowers.
Taste: Just like it smelled -- brioche, almonds, and a light flowery flavor. The wine was so delicate. High acid with a consistent effervescence.
Drink or sink?: Drink! An elegant, light-styled wine. So much more mild and like a garden than the Champagnes from larger Houses.
Wine #2: Dosnon & Lepage Récolte Blanche Blanc de Blancs Brut
Grape: 100% Chardonnay
Color: A richer, darker yellow color with great fizz. Like the Pierre Peters, the bubble was small and persistent.
Smell: Yeah, this is a wine of the earth for sure. It was like chalk, a mountain stream, and kind of like bird poop (in a good way). But after that, there was this amazing gardenia, jasmine, and fabric softener smell. It was an outstanding balance of flowers and earth.
Taste: This wine was also just like it smelled -- earth, jasmine, and gardenia with a strong, floral, fabric softener, citrus flavor. This was richer, earthier, more floral, fuller and even more bubbly and prickly on the tongue than the Pierre Peters.
Drink or sink?: Drink! I loved this wine, even more than the Pierre Peters. A great example of a wine of place/terroir.That fresh laundry smell coupled with the mineral, streaminess, high acidity and consistent bubble made this one of the best Champagnes I've ever had. Great, great wine. I highly recommend it.