It’s difficult to beat the big champagne houses for glamour and sheer elegance, but there’s a lot more to champagne than just those well-known names.
The small, independent champagne makers offer a quite different experience and it is arguably amongst these many thousand small companies that the real heart of champagne can be found.
The champagnes from these small producers are often called ‘Grower Champagnes’ and they can be spectacularly good. Here’s why…
Did you know that not a single one of the ‘big name’ brands has enough vineyards to supply all the grapes they need to produce the millions of bottles they sell every year?
Many of them own enough vineyards to provide only between 10 – 25% of their grape requirements, and those that have vineyards that can provide as much as 70% of the grapes they need are very rare indeed.
In fact, some famous brands have no vineyards of their own at all!
Every single grape they need to make their champagne is bought from someone else
So where do they get the rest of those grapes?
Yes, you’ve guessed it. They buy them from the thousands of smaller, independent grape growers and champagne makers who between them own most of the vineyards in Champagne.
The big brands are very demanding as regards the quality of the grapes they buy, so the grapes are usually very good, even if they have been grown by someone you’ve never heard of.
But with all those top quality grapes in their vineyards there’s an opportunity for the smaller champagne makers to hold on to some of their best grapes and make their own ‘grower champagne’ and this is exactly what more and more of them are doing.
It’s not just the quality of ‘grower champagnes’ that’s driving the growing interest (sorry for the pun).
In just the same reason why people sometimes want to go to a farmer’s market instead of the supermarket all the time. They want to know more about exactly who produced their food and drink and to get to know them a little. The smaller scale is something people can get their head around and relate to.
With ‘grower champagnes’ there’s a chance to do just that.
The trouble is that finding these champagnes is not always easy because the smaller makers are not always great at marketing.
Take Domaines des Champagne Leclaire, for example.
This family-owned company was founded way back in 1878 and the current owners Raynald and Virginie Leclaire represent the 6th generation of the family to follow in the footsteps of the founder Ernest Alfred Leclaire. The picture, taken in their cellars, shows Raynald in the centre, with his father to the right and his children too who, in a few years, will probably be the 7th generation of family champagne makers.
The family home is in the main street of the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, but you won’t find any signs outside – in fact it’s a bit of a challenge finding the door bell!
However, once you’re inside, and have manoeuvred past the four children and the golf bag and trolley in the middle of the hall, the hospitality and the champagne are great.
Virginie runs the commercial side of things and has secured business with several fine restaurants in France, whilst Raynald handles the champagne making. In fact, champagne making is only part of what Raynald does. His other job is as a ‘courtier ‘ or grape broker – he sources, buys and sells grapes acting on behalf of whoever is in the market. His many years experience as a broker, mean he is highly regarded and he certainly knows a thing or two about grapes and about good champagne.
Champagnes Leclaire itself has only 6 hectares of vines and makes a range of champagnes using only grapes from their own vineyards. Because they are not as commercially driven as some larger companies they can afford themselves the luxury of leaving their champagnes to age a long time.
Take their Cuvée Sainte Apolline, their youngest champagne ‘only’ aged for 6 years – Wow.
Cuvée Sainte Appolline is named after one of the Leclaire’s daughters, and it’s what is sometimes called a non-declared vintage – all the grapes in the champagne were harvested in a single year so technically it is a vintage champagne, but it is never declared as such to the authorities – there’s so much red tape involved it’s not worth the effort.
It’s a Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs (100 % Chardonnay) and has all the complex flavours, pronounced biscuity smells and warm golden colour that only extra long ageing can produce.
There are several other champagnes in the Leclaire range including some old vintages going back quite a while
Cuvée de la Princerie, a vintage 1996, Cuvée Carte d’Or from 1993, Cuvée Spéciale from1991 and last, but not least Cuvée Ernest Alfred Leclaire from 1976, although there are precious few bottles of this left.
Old champagnes are an acquired taste and they don’t suit everyone, but if you do enjoy this style then Champagnes Leclaire are well worth a try.
About the Author
Jiles Halling spent 10 years living and working in Champagne and loves to share his unique knowledge of champagne with anyone who enjoys this wonderful drink. This article originally appeared here.