Sun 14 Jan 2007
One reads on various blogs the opinion that may be summarized thus: The top champagne houses make such huge quantities that their products amount to industrial swill and that the real champagnes come from small, hand-craft, artisanal houses.
Well, o.k., there may be some truth to that assessment. Even the best producers of labels known around the world — Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Moet & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Perrier-Jouet, Bollinger — may stumble with their non-vintage bruts, their basic champagnes usually priced under $40. (I will say, however, that the non-vintage Pol Roger Cuvee Reserve, about $50, that we had with the recent Christmas breakfast — fried eggs, grits, country ham, red-eye gravy and biscuits — was as seductive as always.) While these heavily branded houses may dominate the market — and examples of a few tete-de-cuvee champagnes I have tried recently have been superb — hundreds of small independent houses exist whose products we rarely see in the United States.
Some I sampled recently have become my favorite champagnes, at least for the next few months; I bought all the bottles I could carry from a local store that seemed to be the only place in town that stocked them. These are products from “Champagne et Villages,” a negociant firm in Epernay run by Patrick Couvreur, who markets the products of a dozen or so small houses. The ones I tried are Jose Dhondt, Camille Saves and Godme Pere et Fils. Information about these producers and about Champagnes et Villages is difficult to find. I Googled like crazy and came up with very little, and except for Godme, nobody seems to have a website. Clive Coates mentions Champagnes et Villages favorably in An Encyclopedia of The Wines and Domaines of France (University of California Press, $60), calling the firm “a prime source for wines of terroir and diversity.”
The back labels tell us that these champagnes are brought into this country by USA Imports for Becky Wasserman Selections and The Miller Collection. Wasserman is a venerable and influential exporter based in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. The Miller Collection is a company run by Michael Miller in, of all places, the small town of Clarksville, Tennessee.
The champagnes I tried from this group are the Godme Brut Rose Grand Cru, non-vintage, the Jose Dhondt “Mes Vieilles Vignes” Brut Grand Cru, non-vintage, and the Camille Saves Brut 1998. These are champagnes of tremendous character, breeding, grip and power, though woven with, paradoxically, elegance and even delicacy. The ground and subsoil and strata from which the vines draw sustenance seem to resonate throughout these champagnes; they feel connected to the earth, yet they elevate us with balletic surges of tiny bubbles and ethereal nuance.
The rub is cost. Searching the internet brought few references to these products; prices mentioned ranged from about $45 to $60. I paid $60 to $70 — Ouch! — certainly relegating them to the special occasion category.
Are they worth the price? Whaddaya think? If I could get more, I would.
Other small houses whose products I esteem are Egly-Ouriet (try the Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny,” non-vintage, made from pinot meunier grapes, $35-$45); Champagne Fleury (the Brut Millesime 1996 is wonderful, about $75); and, especially, the unfortunately rare Champagne David Leclapart, whose dazzlingly dry Cuvee L’Amateur Blanc de Blancs 2002 is like drinking glaciers composed by Chopin, all steely tinsel and tensile strength, $50-$55.