This article could also be titled "How Veuve Clicquot and Moët and Chandon almost ruined Champagne," by One Very Biased Individual. In the 1970s and 1980s Champagne had reached its lowest point- sales were sluggish, the name of Champagne no longer held the same respect or admiration that it had carried since the 1600s when a certain monk put bubbles into a certain wine. Even the Grand Marques or Great Houses of Champagne were struggling. But they had no one to blame but themselves. There was no competition in Champagne other than the big houses, and thus no desire or reason to produce quality wines. Grapes were harvested from all over the region and transported to gigantic factories for processing. Wines were blended in big vats and thrown into bottle with hardly a care towards individuality or vintage variation. The treatment of the soil bordered on inhumane. The wines were made with only one attribute in mind: profitability.
Fast forward a few decades, and even though very little has changed in the production methods of the big houses Champagne is a celebrity again. Much of this is due to the very clever marketing of the Champagne brand by the Grand Marques as a product of the affluent, to be enjoyed by famous people in famous situations. An elixir of the rich, something to be cherished and envied. Women want him and men want to be him.
But what does this have to do with wine?
Vueve Clicquot produces 1.4 million cases per year of their yellow label Champagne. Feuillate, Moët, Duval-Leroy and Perrier-Jouët have tanker trucks to transport their, ahem, product from one place to another. It is impossible for a wine to be produced in such large quantities from a sleepy little vineyard on a hill next to the winery. The result is that grapes are brought in from all over the Champagne region. Some companies even use finished wines which they blend to create their "house style," a term used to denote a blended wine which they very proudly claim tastes the way that they intended it.
The result of all this artful muddling is a wine that lacks individuality, or character, or any semblance of variation due to atmosphere, terroir or style. In essence they have removed all possibility of individual expression in an effort to create a product that tastes exactly the same from one year to the next.
I know of another product made in this fashion: Budweiser. Now, don't get me wrong- I like Budweiser. I can drink a Bud now or ten years from now and know that it will taste exactly the same. It tastes fine. I don't have to think about it. It is cold comfort after a long hot day. But is it the greatest product of its kind in the world, a beer to be touted by the elite and envied by the masses? Hardly.
Noted wine guru Terry Thiesse had a great analogy: Imagine if one of the greatest and most famous winemakers in the world presented you with a new wine (in this case he used Marcel Guigal- one of the world's finest and certainly a master of wine from the Rhône Valley). Now imagine Mr. Guigal told you that this new wine was a blend from all over the Rhône Valley, and that it did not matter if the wine hailed from the famous regions of Hermitage and the Côte Rôtie, or from the scrublands and scree-covered hills that produced more paint thinner than wine. Now imagine that Mr. Guigal wanted to convince you that neither the vintage nor the grape varieties involved made any difference in the final product whatsoever, and that through his skill he would produce a wine that tasted the same every year, regardless of quality of vineyard or vine. Scary, huh?
Thankfully there is a growing movement in the world of Champagne- that of the Recoltant Manipulant or the Grower-Producer. These are small, family-run estates that believe in the qualities of the grape, and of the soil, and of making the finest wine possible instead of a Champagne that lives on the virtues of its name and nothing else. They own their land, they tend their grapes, they lovingly care for them and coax them into their greatest expressions just as many of the finest winemakers do all over the world. They want their wines to taste of the land and of the soil from whence they came, to sing of their home in loving terms instead of having their voices muted by blending, complacency and indifference. They are in essence hand-made, and they come from a farmer and not a factory.
One of the greatest of the Grower-Producers is the house of Gaston Chiquet. The Chiquet family first planted grapes in the Champagne region in 1746, though it wasn't until 1935 that Gaston Chiquet crafted his own wine. Today the estate stretches over 22 hectares of vines in the villages of Dizy, Aÿ and Maureil in the Vallee de la Marne area of central Champagne. Aÿ is home to Grand Cru vines of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and was the favored wine of King Henry IV, while Maureil is known for producing some of the finest Pinot Noir in France. These villages boast some of the most famous vineyards in all of the Champagne region, and it would be just as blasphemous to blend away the virtues of their soils as it would to mix grapes from Oakville with those grown in Oklahoma.
Though considered large by Grower-Producer standards, Gaston Chiquet produces just over 10,000 cases a year total of several different cuvées. Today the house is headed by Nicolas Chiquet, and though they have modernized the facilities, there is always an eye on the past. "Our essential goal is to maintain the quality requirements we have inherited," proclaims their website. "The techniques improved, the tradition remains."
After numerous green harvests the grapes are collected by hand. They undergo a rigorous inspection on the tirage table so that only the finest grapes make it into the vats where they are pressed very slowly and gently. At least 90% of each wine produced by the Chiquets is sourced from free-run juice. Once in barrel the wines are kept in small lots to preserve a larger selection for the final wines. Malolactic fermentation is controlled by temperature and used only when deemed strategically necessary. The wines undergo a long, slow rest on the lees in order to add richness and complexity. In short, they are crafted to be the finest wines in the world, and it just so happens that they also are some of the finest Champagnes in the world.
The Gaston Chiquet Brut N.V. Tradition is a fine expression of what a "basic" Champagne should be: linear and detailed yet suave and sophisticated. There is no one part that stands out so far as to overshadow any other. A gentle fruitiness flows forth from the Meunier while high-toned acidity swings in from the Chardonnay before a long and sturdy finish swings into high gear from the Pinot Noir. The wine is silky and smooth, yet the mousse seems as crisp and clean as a fresh morning in early March.
A word about the term "Brut" and its use in the world of Champagne: Many of the Grower-Producers tend to use less sugar in their dossage (if they use any!) and in general their wines will always seem a little more crisp and vibrant than those of the big houses. Though this is not always the case, one will often find more bright acidity in these wines, so lower dossage or not the resulting Champagnes will seem "dry." Generalizations are hard, but bear in mind that up to 15 grams/liter of residual sugar is permitted in the dossage, so that a wine with 10 grams of r.s. and low acidity will always seem sweeter and fruitier than one with 9 grams but brighter acidity. However, many wines from the small growers will seem just as full and flush with fruit and in better balance due to the use of healthier grapes, better vineyards and longer stays on the lees.
Another real treat was the Gaston Chiquet Brut N.V. Blanc de Blancs d'Aÿ. Sourced entirely from Grand Cru vineyards planted in 1935 by Nicolas' Grandfather Gaston, and though it is a Non Vintage all of the fruit is sourced from the much-heralded summer of 2004. If colors turned to wine this would be a palette of light greens and silver dotted with the whites and purples of spring flowers. Just a well-made expression of what fine Chardonnay can taste like if you get all the oak and butter out of the way. Fresh and fragrant, the wine positively danced on the palate with hints of fresh citrus, chamomile and racy green apples. The finish was long and lovely, and though I would like to see where this wine ends up in a couple of years, it is drinking wonderfully right now. Bring me some oysters, stat!
The 2000 Gaston Chiquet Vintage Brut was a lesson in what fine Champagne tastes like when it is on the way up. This wine will do nothing but get better in bottle for years to come, but as it stands now it is a rich and broad wine with a fine mix of young Champagne notes (citrus zest, fine herbs and white flowers mixed with fresh acidity that tingles and refreshes the palate) along with heavier notes that speak to the length of time on the lees. Notes of smoke, roasted almonds and a touch of caramel suggest this will someday bring an amazing array of secondary and tertiary notes along with zippy acidity and long finish.
Finally there was the 1999 Gaston Chiquet Brut Special Club. Ahh, what can one say about perfection? In my years of drinking Champagne there is only one other wine that I can say bested this beauty, and that was a bottle of Krug 1988, a wine that had ten years more age and required $200 more retail than the Chiquet. Dom, La Grande Dame, Sir Winston Churchill and Cristal- put them all in a blind tasting with this wine and they will be blown away. It was just that good. A blend of 70% Chardonnay from the Grand Crus of Aÿ and 30% Pinot Noir from the should be Grand Crus of Maureil, this boasted a haunting perfume of rose and iris mixed with aromas of ripe apricots, spicy quince and orange marmelade. The palate was clear and focused and offered incredible grace, charm and beauty considering the seemingly endless amount of flavors that drifted in and out of my sense memory. Very little of the Special Club wines make it to U.S. soil, but if you can find this wine you will be amazed, I promise!
The Special Club is a consortium of Grower-Producers which was created in the 1970's to show to the world that the small houses could make wines every bit as good as the top of the line cuvées from the Grand Marques. Only the best wines from each Grower is submitted to the tasting panel, which is by no means a rubber stamp of approval. If you make it past their rigorous selection the wine will be given the Special Club packaging in which a more rotund bottle is adorned with the name and label of the Special Club, all of which resides in a green box. Only on the center of the label will the name of the Grower and vintage be listed. After trying several of these wines I can attest to the quality of these wines, and I recommend them in the strongest terms possible as they are amazing examples of Champagne at a fraction of the cost of their more famous brethren from the Grand Marques.
Though the word is out about Grower-Producer Champagnes they are still fighting an uphill battle. Though their market share in the U.S. has risen from just 0.62% in 1997 to almost 7% of all Champagne sales now, too many people purchase the large brands because they know the name and are familiar with the label. Too often cases of Dom Perignon are sold during the holidays to be given away as gifts because the recipient will know how much the gift giver spent on that bottle of wine. I say hogwash! Would you rather eat Chef Boyardee because you know the name? Would you rather give your boss or a trusted client a gift that says that you foolishly spent a lot of money on something, or would you rather give them a profound and beautiful bottle of wine at one half the price?