Chances are that the next time you buy a bottle of champagne it will be from one of the major brands such as Heidsieck, Lanson or Moet et Chandon. These companies - known as Negociant-Manipulant (NM) - dominate the market, accounting for 70 per cent of shipments. They buy in grapes from 15,000 wine growers who own more than 90 per cent of the vineyards in Champagne. The remaining 30 per cent of shipments is taken up by grower brands and co-operatives. These growers make their own wines instead of selling the fruit to the major houses.
Michael Edwards, a champagne expert, says "for individuality and terroir, consumers should focus on grower champagne". Most of them are family owned businesses, producing small volumes under their own brands. There may be more variation from one vintage to another as the fruit comes from a specific plot of land. For large houses, buying from grape growers all over Champagne can maintain consistency in style. Grower champagne remains a niche product, and can be found in specialist wine shops and restaurants. On the label, look for RM which stands for Recoltant-Manipulant.
One that has an established following among champagne lovers is Egly-Ouriet. Francois Ouriet runs the family business from the village of Ambonnay. His holdings are about 11 hectares, of which 9.7 hectares are Grand Cru status. His most recent acquisition is two hectares of Premier Cru pinot meunier in Vrigny.
Ouriet practices sustainable winemaking. The grapes are riper when picked and have higher sugar levels. He uses natural yeast and his wines are fermented in oak casks. All the wines have an extended maturation time of at least three years.
Egly-Ouriet Brut 1er Cru Les Vignes de Vrigny
Made from 100 per cent pinot meunier. Rich, honeyed, yeasty and with some savoury mushroom notes. A broader palate, with soft acidity, high fruit intensity and a long finish. A complex wine, showing developed character and power. Ready for drinking. HK$432
Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Millesime 2002
A great vintage which Egly-Ouriet describes as "the kind of vintage you would love to see year after year". The wine is a blend of 70 per cent pinot noir and 30 per cent chardonnay.
A deep lemon colour with a fine consistent bead. Notes of buttered toast, kumquats and honey. Fairly full-bodied, ripe fruit and balanced acidity with a long finish. A powerful wine which can be enjoyed now, but has ageing potential of 10-plus years. HK$1,080
Egly-Ouriet Coteaux Champenois Ambonnay Rouge 2009
Francois Ouriet has broken away from tradition to produce a dry red wine made from pinot noir. The grapes are sourced from old vines in Ambonnay and the wines are matured in oak for 18 to 22 months.
Delicate berries with some smoky notes. Medium body, refreshing acidity and soft tannins. Perfect as an aperitif or served with lighter dishes. HK$675
Wines available from world-of-wines.com.hk