Of all the wine classes I teach, Champagne remains my favorite subject. Students engage, eager to learn; the class feels like a casual conversation about artisans who inspire me.
My presentation always includes a wine flight showcasing the differences between the two main types of Champagne producers one would likely find at their local wine shop: The large well-known maisons, or Grandes Marques, and grower producers.
The Grandes Marques serve as the calling card of this illustrious place—carrying on a 350-year-old tradition that makes this region unparalleled. Stroll down the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, once called Fabour de la Folie (“crazy suburb”), and you will find the famous names of Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Boizel and Vranken, just to name a few.
These and the likes of Charles Heidsieck, Bollinger and Billecart-Salmon remain steadfast in their house styles. By design, these nonvintage sparklers show minimal variation and are only sustained by the management of long-term relationships with multiple growers. These growers account for at least 50–90% of their total production.
That production focuses on the intricate blending of vin clairs (still wines) from varying years to strike a perfect balance between youthful fruitiness and freshness and aged reserve wines, before adding the liqueur de tirage to start the secondary bottle fermentation process that Champagne made famous. The incorporation of reserve wines at this stage infuses layers of depth and complexity.
These reliable styles inspire fierce loyalty among fans. But perhaps even more captivating is the limited production and fleeting nature of vintage Champagne. This is where we may see deviation from the flagship styles and encounter one that begs for pause and discovery in the glass. In creating this rarity, producers seek to celebrate the uniqueness of the vintage.
On average, single-vintage expressions make up less than 10% of total yearly production and occur three to four times within a decade. However, we have been graced with an abundance of declared vintages the last two decades (2014, 2013, 2012, 2008, 2002 and 2000). A prime example: the 97-Point 2014 Louis Roederer Cristal, No. 1 on our 2022 Top 100 Cellar Selections list, showcases the concentration and purity of that vintage’s sun, coupled with the marked uplift of Chardonnay’s acidity in an otherwise Pinot Noir driven identity.
As much as we know about the Grandes Marques, there is much to discover about grower Champagne, which accounts for less than 5% of total Champagne imported to the U.S.
Champagne’s terroir is owned and cultivated by more than 15,000 growers, creating an incredible mosaic of varying expressions. However, only 26% bottle their own wine and produce on average 5,000 cases annually. By definition, growers produce wines with estate-owned fruit, with a maximum allowance of 5% of purchased fruit.
Due to limited production and land holdings, the imperfections of vintage variations are common in these wines. They can be quite charming—if not transcendent in great years. What’s revealed in the glass is always surprising—one can taste the vintage, the terroir. Low to zero dosage is commonly implemented, for better or worse, to provide the drinker the purest lens into that sense of time and place. To note, growers represent 90% of land ownership and drive quality standards. Today, producers are embracing full regional conversion to organic viticultural practices.
Plenty of grower Champagnes remain under the radar, so enjoy the relative affordability while you can. When these revered wines are discovered, prices can often compete with those of the Grandes Marques. These are wines you’ll want to grab now. Remember, there are multiple ways to approach Champagne, even beyond the Grandes Marques and grower categories. But, for now I hope this provides you inspiration for further discovery.
Under-the Radar Grower Champagne
Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Director Anna-Christina Cabrales pops the best bubbles you might have never heard of.
Structured, yet expansive on the palate with pronounced orchard fruits of fresh Bosc pear skin, lemon verbena, mandarin orange oil, a vein of dried pineapple, hibiscus petals, salted fresh almonds and fresh brioche. There’s also a cut of acidity and firm chalky mineral finish that is electrifyingly refreshing and carries through its fine perlage. Cellar or enjoy it now with gently braised proteins and rich firm fish with a creamy herb sauce.
The wine opens with fresh aromas of crème fraiche on top of a warm buttery tartlet filled with blueberries and plums. The noticeable bit of oxidation from the addition of perpetual reserve wine then fuses into the wine creating complex layers of Asian pear, yellow plums, basil and finishes with light toffee tones. Caractères is a winning match with savory or spice driven dishes such as roasted duck over wild rice or Moroccan vegetable tagine.
This new Solera release is a compilation of Chardonnay from the producer’s first vintage of 2008 to 2015. Enjoy this full-bodied wine in a tapered, universal-shaped glass to allow for aeration yet trap the entrancing nose of orange pith, white flowers, honeydew and light savory elements of caramel and salty Marcona almonds. Pair with comforting simplicities with a touch of umami such as cacio e pepe, mushroom quiche or seafood paella to let the wine shine.
L’Atavique is a stunning Pinot Noir dominant blend with great tension between rich and bright tart fruit: lemon oil, bruised Golden Delicious apple, Anjou pear, salted almonds, dry baking spices with a persistent fine chalk and flinty minerality. Enjoy this versatile wine with tempura bites, bhindi masala or traditional Greek cuisine such as taramasalata.
This perpetual rosé is cépage of Meunier, Pinot Noir with a dose of still Meunier as well. On the palate, experience a juicy fresh bowl of blueberries, black cherries, ripe Pink Lady apple, Ginjinha liquor, sugarplum, with a soft finish of fresh violets and sage. Match with savory dishes such as tomato pie, roasted poblano and cactus tacos or vegetable samosa.
Even with the sun-drenched 2015 base vintage, this current release is dosed at just 3 g/L of sugar, demonstrating restraint and balance. Find notes of ripe purple plums, lemon curd, underripe white peach, apricots and white pear, fresh quince, white pepper, dandelions, honeysuckle, brioche toast, almonds with a saline-kelp midpalate. This will certainly win the hearts of Blanc de Blanc drinkers and lovers of fresh seafood dishes.
This blend of 47% Chardonnay, 47% Meunier, 6% Pinot Noir, all from cuvée (first press), is vinified in 100% thermo-regulated, stainless-steel vats and undergoes spontaneous malolactic conversion, zero sulfites and zero dosage–a bold move! Technically a single vintage, it cannot be declared as such, as it sits on lees for only 20 months. The result: lactic sensations on the palate along with notes of fresh lemon curd, yellow apples, lilies, cherry blossoms and finishes with oxidative cider tones and salted butter. Expect bottle variation, but it is still worth the exploration.
Wine Enthusiast’s Top-Rated Vintage Champagne
Still young, with toast aromas and shining white-fruit flavors, the latest release of Cristal is just setting out. A dry, tight core of intense flavors are shot through with minerality from the pure chalk soil of the 45 individual parcels in the blend. Drink this wine from 2025. Organic. —Roger Voss
R.D., or Recently Disgorged, is a Bollinger hallmark. This wine stayed on its lees for many years before release, giving it intensity, maturity and great depth. The wine is powerful, concentrated and elegant. Drink now. —R.V.
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Last Updated: May 9, 2023