Wine: Natural champagne
A grower's champagne is made by the person or estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown. These champagnes show much personality and character - evocative of terroir as they are usually from a single vineyard or cluster of vineyards around a village. They also showcase the skill of the winemaker-grower.
When buying, look for the initials "RM" in small print at the bottom of the label, which means "Recoltant-Manipulant". To me it means "really marvellous" wine, as these champagnes are so much more interesting than those from the larger commercial houses. Of Champagne's 19,000 independent growers, about 3,800 produce champagne from their own grapes. In 2008 this was about 3 per cent of the market. The quantities that they make are so small they are only available in selected overseas markets. While the larger champagne houses mainly aim for consistency, some do produce premium-priced terroir champagnes from Grand Cru villages - think of Krug's Clos de Mesnil and Billecart-Salmon's Clos St Hillaire.
A technical detail that separates the growers from the larger houses is the issue of dosage, the amount of sugar added to aid the secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles. With growers, dosage tends to be lower, allowing the flavours of the wine to come through.
I recently met four growers who were in Hong Kong to promote their champagnes.
Olivier Collin - Ulysse Collin Champagne
Located in the village of Congy (yes, it's pronounced "congee"), which is south of the Cote des Blancs.
Collin worked with champagne maker Jacques Selosse in 2001, an experience that inspired him to buy back 4.5 hectares of his family's vineyards that had been rented out to Pommery. After many trials, he managed to produce his first vintage in 2004 from a plot called Les Perrieres, where the vines average 30 years in age. Today, it is his benchmark champagne.
His winemaking style is natural and non-interventional. Fermentation is done with indigenous yeasts, and the champagnes are neither filtered nor fined. He uses a mixture of organic and conventional practices, but no pesticides. Collin is considering converting to organic, and experimenting with biodynamics.
It was Collin's first visit to Hong Kong and, when I met him for lunch, I saw he was a very adventurous eater. I had to suppress a giggle when I watched his face while he ate his first preserved duck egg with pickled ginger. He noticed that, "Cantonese food is very pure and simple with little sauce; the champagnes as a result must be pure with little dosage."
Raphael Bereche - Bereche & Fils
Bereche is from the Valle de la Marne. His family owns a total of 9.5 hectares and has been growing champagne grapes since 1847.
They began making their own champagnes in the late 1970s and today make about 90,000 bottles a year.
Bereche and his brother, Vincent, have been involved in the family business since 2004, doing their best to follow the family motto: "Precision, Passion and Devotion."
The vineyards (vines are an average of 38 years old) are managed as naturally as possible, using no pesticides or herbicides.
The cuvées are kept in the cellars for two to six years before release. Bereche does not use beer caps to hold his champagne in the bottle before dosage as other houses do, preferring to use champagne corks. His dosages for all his champagnes are minimal to zero (his Brut Nature, 100 per cent chardonnay, is delicious).
Asked what he thinks about the knowledge of champagne here, he replies, "Very impressive in terms of wine knowledge and the appreciation of champagnes. The sommeliers are very international with a real desire to be different. The wine lists that I've seen are up to the level of London. Food pairings are quite interesting when there is something oily with herbs and delicate spices in Asian cuisine - it matches beautifully with rich champagnes which are largely based on pinot noir and pinot meunier."
Alexandre Chartogne - Chartogne Taillet Champagne
One of the oldest growers in Champagne, Chartogne Taillet has records dating from 1683 in Merfy, northwest of Reims, and is the only Recoltant-Manipulant in the village. Chartogne, along with his brother, has worked with the Selosse family and Anselme Selosse has had much influence on his vineyards and champagnes. In their Les Barres vineyard the vines are ungrafted, over 55 years of age and have never been touched by phylloxera (Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Francaises is the only other champagne that I know of that has that distinction).
Chartogne thinks that this is a market of real champagne lovers. "Champagne goes well … the spiciness of some dishes, the bitterness of others, go perfectly with the acidity and the delicate taste of champagnes."
Sebastien Crozatier (brand ambassador) - Champagne Andre Beaufort
Amaury Beaufort decided to take his vineyards biodynamic in 1969 when he had a severe allergic reaction as a result of a medical treatment. His vineyards in Ambonnay and Polisy receive no treatments other than natural compost, hoeing and homeopathic oils. Vinification is done naturally, too, using indigenous yeasts and little, if any, fining or filtration, to showcase the purity of the pinot noir (80 per cent) and chardonnay (20 per cent) grapes. The result is a rich smoothness and intensity, with exceptional fruitiness and vibrancy. Also, unusually for a grower, he tends to cellar his champagnes longer before release.