The Only Option
"Shit - this is good!"
Rob Walters, Champagne: A Secret History
It was Christmas Day. Thirty-two degrees, sunny, the prawns were peeled. Everyone had arrived for lunch, and drinks were just being poured.
"Look at this!" Uncle Kev was excitedly brandishing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. My heart sank. I knew that the bottle of Frederic Savart I had brought would go un-opened and stuck in a cupboard somewhere, only to be discovered many years later when Uncle Kev might happen to come across it.
The Clicquot was okay. There's nothing wrong with it. But I longed for a wine with character and interest; a wine not made to a recipe to ensure a perfectly homogenised product. Something that tasted, well, like wine. This is the crux of the Grower-Producer argument, and the heart of the movement in Champagne.
So what exactly is a Grower-Producer, and how are they different to the other Champagne houses?
Generally speaking, a Grower-Producer is a vigneron who tends their own vineyards and then makes their own wine from the resulting fruit. As opposed to the big houses, or Grandes Marques, who buy all of their fruit from multiple sites and different growers.
For centuries Champagne has been dominated by the Grandes Marques - houses such as Dom Perignon, Ruinart, Krug, Veuve Clicquot, Moet et Chandon (interestingly, all of these are owned by the same company), and the smaller vignerons have either been squeezed out or forced to sell their grapes. Due to the prohibitive costs in Champagne production, it made economic sense for the majority of growers to sell their fruit. This played into the hands of the larger houses, because for the Grandes Marques, consistency is king. The ability to develop a house style through blending is paramount to their success.
It was only in the 1980s that a handful of producers began to break free of this negociant model and decided to make their own wines. They were seeking a more pure expression of their terroir; one that didn't require high levels of sugar to be added to the finished wine; one that didn't rely on chemical sprays in the vineyard; one that could be vinified in smaller barriques, rather than commercial-scale steel tanks.
Self-confessed Grower Champagne zealot and author of the best-selling book, Champagne: A Secret History, Rob Walters, recalls the first time he tried a Grower Champagne.
"The wine was a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier's Terre de Vertus, the food a slab of thick, earthy, duck liver terrine. My host had simply pulled the Champagne from the cellar and poured it into my glass. It was cool, but not truly cold... As soon as my friend poured the wine, I was disorientated. Intense aromatics of earth, salt flakes, and crushed chalk rose from the glass... This smelt like the ocean and like rocky soils immediately after the rain. In the mouth, [it was] a mineral blast, that was somehow rich yet intensely savoury at the same time, like essence of mineral water - ferrous and with a long, citrussy, saline finish."
The increasing popularity of Grower Champagne is reinforced by consumer interest in the provenance of the products they are purchasing. More and more, people are looking to where their food and drink comes from - think single origin coffee, grain-fed wagyu beef, or hand-made artisan cheese. Our commitment to, and interest in, detail and quality has never been stronger, and this is where Grower Champagne sits.
One little tip to tell whether or not you're drinking a Grower Champagne or a Grande Marque, is to check the label carefully. Every bottle of Champagne must carry a specific code on its label, identifying it as either a negociant house, or a grower-producer. In very fine print you will find the letters "NM" or "RM," followed by a series of numbers. These stand for "Négociant-Manipulant" (a large house that buys the fruit), or "Récoltant-Manipulant" (a grower-producer). There are other classifications too, but just look for the "RM" and you can't go wrong.
So if you're curious to see what all the fuss is about, (and I sincerely hope that you are!), take a look at the collection here.
We've also filmed an episode of Is It Called Wine Time?! featuring one of the finest Grower-Producers out there - Pascal Agrapart.
Oh, and in case you were wondering... I rescued the Savart from Uncle Kev.
In this week's episode of Is It Called Wine Time?!, Pete and Felix pop the cork on a bottle of Pascal Agrapart's Terroirs NV. Catch the latest Episode here!
This week Fresh Drops is all about Jim Chatto. His 2020 release is here, and we're stoked to have his three single vineyard Pinots, as well as the newly renamed Lutruwita Pinot (previously the Tasmanian Pinot).
Here are Jim's thoughts on the wines -
2020 Glengarry Pinot Noir
Planted in 1991, Glengarry Vineyard is located on the West Tamar, but more inland, and at higher altitude, than the majority of Tamar vineyards. This makes for a slighter cooler, later ripening site, providing real purity, and focus, to the bright red and black fruits and lifted florals. A spicy mix of three (predominantly Dijon) clones: 115 (50%) MV6 (25%) and D5V12 (25%) Jim first made Pinot from this site way back in 1999, and the inaugural Chatto Pinot in 2000. Feels full circle to have this special wine back in the range.
2020 Marion's Pinot Noir
Planted in 1979 by West Tamar pioneers Marion and Mark Semmens, and now lovingly managed by their winemaker daughter Cynthea, Marion’s Pinot Noir is one of the oldest plantings in Tasmania. A dark berry fruited, brooding and muscular style, our Marion’s reflects the nature of this wonderful site, and the structure West Tamar Pinot is known for, whilst holding true to the Chatto house style of intensity over concentration, and natural balance.
2020 Bird Pinot Noir
Planted by Tasmanian pioneer Dr Andrew Pirie, Bird vineyard is one of the newer (15 yo) sites in the Pipers River region in the north east of Tasmania. Thanks to the generosity of the team at Pipers Brook, we are lucky to get a lovely parcel of clone 114 Pinot from the Bird Vineyard. The most elegant of our ‘Grower’ wines, Bird displays bright and crunchy red fruits, laced with super aromatic spice. Ethereal and racy, with a long sapid finish. A lot of intensity packed into a lighter frame.
2020 Lutruwita Pinot Noir
Lutruwita is the agreed Palawa kani (indigenous Tasmanian) name for Tasmania. A complex blend of no less than 5 clones (114, 115, MV6, D5V12 and ‘unkown’) and 4 vineyard sites in the north, and east, of Tasmania. Our 2020 Lutruwita blend comes from two vineyards on the West Tamar (Marion’s & Glengarry) one from Pipers River (Bird) and one from the East Coast (Maclean Bay).
A perfumed mix of red and black berry fruits, violets, and lifted ‘five spice’ notes, brought together in a long and elegant, yet intense finish.
Click here to see the new 2020 Chatto release.
It's no secret that 2016 was a perfect vintage in Barolo.
Antonio Galloni MW called this vintage "career-defining" for many producers. But what makes 2016 so special?
Like all agriculture, vignerons are at the mercy of the elements - if the fruit isn't up to scratch, the resulting wines simply won't pass muster. It takes a special confluence of weather, climate and temperature - where everything occurs at just the right time - to make a vintage spectacular. And this is what we are seeing in Barolo 2016.
First off, there were no disastrous weather events. No frost or hail damage, and no extended periods of elevated heat. Secondly, the growing season was long and slow. Normally, fruit is picked in late September, or the first week of October. But 2016's weather was so fine that growers were able to pick well into October - a date set by them, rather than the cosmos. This allowed perfect physiological ripeness, which, for Nebbiolo, is paramount. Given Neb's naturally high tannins, if a good ripeness isn't achieved, you're already playing catch-up.
Thirdly, the diurnal range through ripening was spot on. This refers to the shift in temperatures from the warm, sunny days, to the cool, still nights. It's important for the vines to have a cool break from the heat of the day. Ultimately, it helps the grapes to retain their acidity and freshness. Without this diurnal change, the fruit is at risk of over-ripening, leading to broad, high-alcohol wines with very little structure.
Finally, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle: stable weather during the last month before harvest is vital. As the saying goes, "the last month makes the vintage." Perhaps this is where the 2016 Barolos come into their own. The weather leading up to harvest was flawless - no heavy rains, no heat spikes - nothing to detract from beautifully ripe fruit.
Each year, the University of Turin analyses grapes from fifteen strategically chosen sites throughout Barolo. They assess the quality of the fruit by looking at things such as sugar levels and acidity in the grape clusters. Once the data is collated, they score the vintage out of 100. 2016 was given a near-perfect 99.3.
So to the wines. The word I keep seeing is "balance." And from the few samples I've seen of the 2016s, it is perfectly apt. They are seamless, with nothing out of place - a wonderful harmony of fruit, acid and tannin. They are wines that will cellar beautifully. They are truly spectacular, breathtaking wines that captures all the pedigree that Nebbiolo and Barolo are capable of.
We've added a few new producers to our 2016 Barolo collection, so make sure to check them out before they're all gone! Click here.