By The Glass
Champagne growers craft hallmark wines
IN THE Champagne region of France, a winemaking movement called Recoltant Manipulant is steadily gaining worldwide attention. RC, or grape-grower-produced bottlings, are limited-production gems considered hallmarks of the unique terrior (sense of place), freshness and artisan quality associated with winemaking in small batches.
Why all the fuss? RC is no stranger to U.S. wine insiders, sweeping the East Coast about 10 years ago. But in traditional winemaking countries like France, RC is likened to a changing of the guard. Instead of selling their grapes to larger champagne houses, growers are producing signature bottlings of their own.
The movement started in the 1970s when a group of 12 growers bottled special "club" selections representing the best of their vineyards. They believed the true essence of champagne terrior and the villages that bear these fruits were swallowed up by the sea of high-volume, world-famous brand-name conglomerates. Since then, this group of farmers has grown to 26. And although RC bottlings represent less than 3 percent of champagne sales, their uniqueness and quality have made them increasingly popular.
The Champagne region is divided into three parts: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Cote des Blancs. Of the three, Montagne de Reims in the eastern corner is where the pinot noir grape thrives. Although pinot meunier and chardonnay are also used in champagne, I find that pinot noir-dominated blends, with their bright, elegant, fruity tones and supple long-finishing flavors, capture my attention.
HERE are three suggestions:
Jean Lallement Brut NV ($68): Grown in the village of Verzenay, this champagne is 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay. It carries a warm scent of Fuji apples, mint, cedar and straw. Richard Juhlin, author of the highly regarded book "4000 Champagnes," says the pinot noir used is distinctive, with a dark color and rich, peppery quality.
Henri Billiot, Brut Rose NV ($65): Down the road toward the south is the village of Ambonnay. Pinot noir grown here is the best, with a bright focused ripeness of strawberries and sweetness that exemplify great fruit quality. This is a finer rosé than the Billecart-Salmon (which sadly is no longer distributed in Hawaii). Although this wine is brilliantly refreshing, what entertains me most is its balance and long finish.
Villamart & Cie "Cuvee Rubis" Brut Rose NV ($78): Laurent Champs in the village of Rilly-La-Montagne, in the northwestern corner of this pinot noir-friendly region, crafts sublime wines. Since assuming the mantle from his father in 1991, Champs fine-tuned his still-wine blends before inducing the second "life-giving" fermentation. This rosé reflects the refined elegance and perfume of a 90 percent pinot/10 percent chardonnay beauty. The wine is round and gorgeous with pretty strawberry and cherry jam notes and a brisk lively finish.
As the world of fine wine becomes highly specialized, it is the well-informed buyer who is able to skim the crème de la crème from the sea of champagnes out there. I will always love the fine wines of Krug, Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger and Pol Roger. But it's always nice to appreciate these lesser-known, high-quality beauties from the hand-crafted cellars of Montagne de Reims.
Kevin Toyama is a sommelier at the Halekulani and an advanced certificate holder from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org