Most champagnes you see in stores on the export market are grandes marques – big brands from houses that buy in most of their grapes from an army of small landowners and grape growers in the Champagne region. There are also a few cooperative champagnes – Nicolas Feuillatte is perhaps the most well-known in the UK – which are made by an ensemble of growers who contribute their fruit and share in the eventual profits after the costs of pressing, fermentation and storage have been accounted for.
A much smaller category is that of so-called ‘grower champagnes’. These are wines made by the individual growers themselves and are often boutique, family-owned businesses. Growers in this category will typically have a history of selling their fruit to the big companies, or in a cooperative, but are trying to branch out and craft their own product. They will either have a micro-winery on-site or will contract a centralised winery to produce champagne from their fruit according to their own specifications.
Making champagne on a small scale is an expensive undertaking and grower champagnes are not necessarily cheaper than those of the grandes marques. They do, however, represent much better value as a higher proportion of the bottle price has gone into actually making the wine rather than into a multi-million euro advertising campaign convincing you to buy a particular brand.
Grower champagnes can be hard to find outside of France. However, for those in the UK there is now a specialist importer and distributor of grower champagnes – The Real Champagne Company. The company sources a range of high quality, boutique champagnes from small producers that present excellent value for money to the discerning champagne drinker.
I recently tasted Désir de Matthieu from the family-owned and -run outfit Pascal Leblond-Lenoir (rather an appropriate surname for someone in the champagne business I thought!). Unusually for a champagne, this wine is made from 100% Pinot Blanc. The grapes come from the Buxeuil area, which is apparently known for its small plantings of Pinot Blanc. Endearingly, the wine is hand-crafted – right down to the labelling!
The wine was medium gold in the glass, with a robust fizz. An intense, rich nose – ripe apple, nashi pear, a hint of confected apricot and cinnamon, clove and brioche that colluded to remind me somewhat of a pain aux raisins. Golden apple was the main feature of the palate with an intense entry that swelled across the mid-palate, the acidity pinching the corners of the tongue, before tapering to a fairly long finish. Crisp acidity, a rich body without being creamy and a fine mousse.
It gave me the impression of a ‘warmer-climate’ wine than other champagnes, although the alcohol remains a reasonable 12%. There was a hint of barley-sugar sweetness and some astringency. I enjoyed it as an apéritif, although if the idea of a bit of astringency in your champagne doesn’t appeal, it would go very well as a food wine.
Désir de Matthieu is still available for £28 from the Real Champagne Company. Kudos to the Leblond-Lenoir family for making such an interesting wine and to the Real Champagne Company for introducing it to the UK market! I’ll be back for more.