Champagne for non-hipsters: what would you pour?

If you were invited to a sumptuous dinner at your friend’s boss’ house and had to bring the bubbly, would you bring a grower champagne or a better-known label?

That was a question I confronted head-on last week. Grower champagnes are a great story, since the wines are made in limited quantities by those who grow the grapes, not the norm in the region. But in the glass, they can be off-putting to mainstream drinkers since a trend in grower champagnes is to have low or no dosage, a jigger sweetness added before bottling. This can make the wines unbalanced and searingly acidic–or electric, vital and food-friendly, depending on the wine and where your tastes fall on the hipster axis. Further, grower champagnes lack the widespread name recognition of some of the big labels so some hosts may discount the unknown. Not to be superficial…but champagne is among the most brand-centered of all wine categories.

Would this gathering of non-hipsters appreciate the merits of good grower champagne in the glass and not miss a well-known label? I thought yes, given that they were wine enthusiasts, but I also thought they could find out for themselves.

So I brought two Champagnes and poured them blind. In the grower corner, I poured the Vilmart Grand Cellier, a multivintage wine (but based on 2006), a blend of 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir, all organically farmed on the 26 acres. After some deliberation in the aisles of Astor Wines, I opted for the Vilmart since it has a small dosage and is barrel-aged, for a bit more richness, perhaps better for an aperitif and for going against a grande marque. I also poured the 1999 Moët & Chandon Millésime blanc, perhaps not the best comparison given the age discrepancy, but it I figured it to be a reasonable effort form the bigger name.

The Vilmart was lithe with complex aromatics, good acidity (but not off-putting!) and a lovely arc. The Moët was more rich, round and certainly more mature and relied on weight than on subtlety. Everyone recognized them as quite different wines. More than one person in the group suggested they would be good for different occasions, such as with food or as an aperitif. I polled the group before revealing: four preferred the Vilmart while two preferred the Moët (with two not stating a preference). Everyone enjoyed the comparison. So maybe the moral of the story is to simply bring two bottles.

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23 Responses to “Champagne for non-hipsters: what would you pour?”

  1. This was interesting. I didn’t know about the low or no dosage in Grower Champagne, but it seems clear now that I think on it. I would have to go the hipster, or lets face it “broke as a joke” route. Jean Laurent Brut Rose (Non Vintage). If I am actually going to buy Champagne as opposed to drinking it for free I always go for grower b/c the bang for the buck factor is so much better than label champagnes under $80. So I agree with your point… choose wisely on grower. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I think something a bit grander would be coming with me to my friend’s boss’s dinner party. The grower would stay at home.

  2. Vilmart is the “poor” man’s Krug. Without question, at the very top of my list of very favorites, though curiously, as with Krug’s, I don’t like the rosé particularly.

  3. Nice solution to the challenge. Two points: (1) Savvy to have avoided any denigration of the grandes marques in that setting, as many have memories of important events tied to them (as do I), and (2) Good to have an obvious difference between the two wines–age in this case–to avoid the appearance of trying to prove a point. And I am sure the participants will remember the event much longer and much more fondly than if you had brought only one or the other.

    What was the price differential between the two bottles?

  4. Tough call- Times like these (where you are expected to bring something, but have little place to speak about the wines) are tough… You can either fall to something like Pol Roger or Billecart (brut not rose) where they are recognized and non-offensive to most (though the PRoger can overpower fans of lighter styles) Or can grower out w/ some that are round enough to be widely enjoyed buy everyday drinkers and fancy looking enough for label-chasers. Pierre Peters seems to work here- Heck- It says 100% Grand Cru bit@*hes! If that isn’t good enough, I’m breaking glass!

    It is funny how this is more complicated with Champagne vs other wines. I think a big part is that people don’t know what they like, but have an idea of who they “should” like.

  5. Pierre Peters was actually my first thought as well.

  6. It’s such a situational call. As you said, if there are people in the room that know why, a Grower Champagne can do the trick. But if you’re dealing with less wine savvy people, the brand name is going to win them over every time.

    Well played, Hardy. I’ve actually heard that Pierre Peters is adding “Bit@*hes” to the end of Grand Cru with their 2010 disgorgements!

  7. @BillC – thanks…I paid $60 for the Vilmart. I actually bought the Moet a few years ago for $30 but see it is about $60 now.

    @Hardy + Michael + Jon – I was thinking about Pierre Peters and have bought many bottles (cases?) of the wine in the past because it was such an exceptional value…Then sometime in 2008 or so the price moved from $30ish to $40+. The wine is still very good but it’s just not the absolute steal that it once was.

    And to all: yes, two bottles! When in doubt, bring two! Comparative tasting!

  8. As for growers I think something like Billiot NV or Chiquet NV would be A great bet. I would also say that the trend isn’t exactly “low” dosage, just ones that make sense to balance it. The above mentioned producers tend to be “sweeter” than many.

    As for the big houses. Bringing something like Bollinger is always yummy. Roederer always makes a well made NV. I don’t think you have to show up with a “Carte Jaune” or little white star to appeal the masses. The 4-2 victory should prove that.

  9. I always bring something that I know is great. Whether or not the host recognizes the name is not the issue. A sincere gift is appreciated no matter what. Growers make better wine and judging by the results, they are also becoming more recognized as such.

  10. If you really want to impress, then bring a magnum

  11. I would bring Flying Goat Bubbles. A bubbly Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley. It would not disapoint.

  12. great question…when I can get my hands on more than a bottle, it’s great to share Launois “Cuvée Reserve” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

    The “Hipster” in me however always attempt to bring the unexpected. I learned over the years to rely on the beautiful bubbles of Gramona. I believed this saying a few years back and it still rings true when popping the cork “Krug, the expensive alternative to Gramona”.

  13. I’d bring to the table a bottle of brut-zero Dry Sparkling Gewurztraminer;)

  14. Negociant Champagnes: Pol Roger NV, natch. Also Louis Roederer NV. Or maybe Jacquesson 733, or whatever number we’re up to (speaking of low dosage!).

    My favorite Recoltant bubbly, which I first heard of on Peter Liem’s old blog, is the Jose Michel 100% Pinot Meunier–hipster Champagne personified.

  15. I am a little uncomfortable with how grower Champagnes are defined. I represent a small Champagne producer that has been family owned and operated for generations. In my biased view their products are good as anything else on the market that retails for $35.00 – $80.00 per bottle. This house can not call itself grower Champagne even though they grow all of their own grapes and control every aspect of production. The reason why they aren’t grower Champagne is because about 75% of their grapes come from land that they rent, but totally control. So this tiny place has to get lumped in with the huge, true non grower houses. So this house has to live with the scarlet letters NM on their bottles which practically guarantees that disciples of Mr. Theise and hipsters everywhere will look down their nose at these excellent products. It is flatly silly.

  16. Bring 3 bottles.

  17. Full disclosure: I am biased because I work with Champagne Delamotte, which I like to take places because it falls between the big recognized names and the growers. It is considered a small house and is fun for people to discover, yet it has the cred as sister house to Salon.

  18. It is obviously an East Coast-West Coast thing but it does occur to me that you paid about $60 for the Moet Millisime Blanc. For that money, you could have chosen Roederer L’Hermitage or Mumm DVX, paid less and, in my CA opinion at least, have had better wine and perhaps impressed your East Coast friends with wines that are rich, crisp, complex and have equal or better wine chemistry.

    Obviously, they do not bear the name “Chanmpagne” but since you were serving enthusiasts, it is fair to assume that they would be tasting the wine, not the label.

    Charlie Olken

  19. @charlie – yes, the thought did cross my mind. But I opted for the intra-regional comparison in this instance.

    @vinogirl – the more the merrier, eh?

    Btw, has anyone found good champagne closeouts/deals in 2010?

  20. “So this house has to live with the scarlet letters NM on their bottles which practically guarantees that disciples of Mr. Theise and hipsters everywhere will look down their nose at these excellent products. It is flatly silly.”

    Whoa steady, big guy. “Hipsters” are still a tiny, tiny fragment of the Champagne-buying public. And anyway, Pierre Gimmonet is NM, and that’s “hipster” too (they have a connection with Larmandier). So, you know, don’t worry about it.

  21. Claude Genet Blanc de Blanc is the best “best of both worlds” Champagnes I’ve had in a long while…

  22. 2002 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill

  23. […] wines at a collector’s house recently, thanks to an invitation from a friend (I brought the Champagne, as we already discussed). Since I didn’t have my tasting notebook with me, I don’t […]


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