There’s more than one kind of Champagne

By Celia Strong

There’s more than one kind of Champagne? What does that mean? Just when I finally learned all about the one (and only) region that gets to call its wines Champagne. Really? There’s another kind of Champagne? Well, at least we get to drink while we learn. Drinking is good. And, so is learning.

So, we know Champagne is a sparkling wine that is made and bottled and aged in that region of northern France, from grapes grown in that region. They can use only three grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And Brut is drier than Extra Dry.  Most of the Champagne labels we are familiar with are the bigger houses (Moët & Chandon, Mumms, Piper Heidsieck, Perrier-Jouët, Laurent Perrier, Pol Roger, Taittinger, and more).  These bigger houses have a “house style,” or “cuvée” as it is called, and their blending of grapes and vintages means that a bottle of their non-vintage cuvée Champagne tastes the same every time we open one. If you’re lucky enough to taste a lot of different houses’ wines, just like Chardonnays and Cabernets, you find a style that you like better. (I need to stop a moment, here, and remind us of something. The house style is determined by the percentages of each grape in their blend. The more Pinot grapes, red grapes, in a cuvée, the heavier, fuller bodied the wine is. The more Chardonnay, white grapes, the lighter and more delicate their house style is. Houses based in the northern part of the Champagne region tend to have more Pinot grapes in their cuvées — more Pinot grapes grow in the north. Houses in the southern part of Champagne lean more heavily on Chardonnay.) The large houses use grapes from as many as 80 different vineyards, some that they may own, some that they buy grapes from. Still, the big advantage for us, from the big houses of Champagne, is the total consistency in their wines.

Moving on, though, there is a relatively new trend in Champagnes. (It’s been growing for about 20 years, so, while new to most of us, it’s time to get with it.) These “new” wines are known as “Grower Champagnes.” Truthfully, some of these wines have been available  all along. It’s just that now they have become more popular and acceptable and more fashionable. Grower Champagnes are basically wines made by the growers of the grapes. Another version of “estate” wines.  Because these wines are made from much smaller sources of grapes, they are expressions of those sources. Specific results from the grapes growing each vintage in each vineyard. The emphasis with these wines is not consistency of style, but the “boutique” or “artisanal” expression of their origins and owner. As numerous and strong as the big Champagne houses are, there are currently about 19,000 independent growers in the region. They account for about 88 percent of the total vineyards.

Some interesting facts about our new category of Champagnes?  As of 2003, there were 3,700 brands of Grower Champagnes available. About 130 have made their way into United States markets. As of 2008, Grower Champagnes were about 3 percent of the total production of the region. Because of their smaller size, and way fewer resources, producers of Grower Champagnes are less well marketed. They depend more on their wholesalers and retailers for their success. Also, Grower Champagnes tend to be released sooner, younger, than wines from the big houses. They still follow the production and aging laws of Champagne, but stay much closer to the minimum times required by those laws. For the buyer, meaning us, this translates to lower retail costs because there are fewer people getting paid between the grapes in the vineyard and the Champagne in our glasses and less time from harvest to bottle sale.

Grower Champagnes do have a notation on their labels that lets us know that they are Grower wines. The initials “RM,” meaning “récoltant-manipulant,” signify the grapes were grown and the wine was made by the owner. (The big houses’ labels show “NM” on their labels, “négociant-manipulant (grape buyer and wine maker). Usually, the “RM” is in small print on the front label of a wine. With some squinting, you can find it.

Now, finally, we are ready to talk about our wine for this week: The Charles Orban Brut Blanc de Noirs Champagne. The Orban family has been growing grapes in the small Champagne village of Troissy since 1770. Troissy is located on the left bank of the Marne River, in the northern part of the region. Their vineyards cover about 700 acres. These are planted with about 86 percent Pinot Meunier and 8 percent Pinot Noir and 6 percent Chardonnay. Their location is in an area known for its good Pinot Meunier grapes, but growing some of all three varieties lets Orban make several Champagne wines.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, Charles Orban decided he would start making his own wines under his own name. He started with his vineyards, even going so far as to do his own grafting of the vines. In about 1960, he bought a grape press and built a fermenting room. With his new independence, the next step was to determine his own house style of wine. From 1949 until now, his production has gone from 800 bottles to 200,000 bottles each year. (A large amount of Champagne, except compared to the big houses which make millions of bottles each year.)

Our Charles Orban Champagne is the Blanc de Noirs. Just as a reminder, this phrase on a bottle means it is a white wine (blanc) made from black, or dark, grapes (noirs). Specifically, this wine is 50 percent Pinot Meunier and 50 percent Pinot Noir. Even though Champagnes made from just dark grapes are considered to be fuller bodied, this one is still crisp and lively and effervescent. I’m sure if we tasted at the same time as a lighter style Champagne we could see the differences, but this wine stands on its own and is totally delicious. As a die-hard fan of lighter style Champagnes, I was so pleased at how good this one tastes. There is truly hope for all of us to like new things.

In addition to apples and citrus notes, it has pear and fig flavors. And it is great sipped on its own, perfect for holiday toasting, great with oysters, seafood, creamy cheeses, turkey, new and  leftovers, ham, Sunday brunch, and on and on. And we can have it for $35.97.  Enjoy. And Happy Holidays.

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