John Szabo’s Annual Fizz Report

A look at the Best Bubbles in Ontario
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

As the year is winding down and celebrations are ramping up, it’s time for the annual look at the best bubbles available in Ontario. Read on to find the top buys in all categories, from inexpensive everyday, to stroke of midnight extravagance, from LCBO shelves to top agents’ consignment portfolios. Also featured in this report are some thoughts on the expanding universe of grower champagne and a spotlight on several leading producers and available champagnes. And since oyster season is in full delicious swing, I’ve posted a separate article – a special panel review of all-time favourite wine and oysters pairings. To do so, I enlisted a crack squad of oyster-loving experts from various fields to re-test the benchmark matches, and experiment with some improbable outliers, with a classic selection of oysters at Rodney’s oyster paradise in downtown Toronto. Serious oyster lovers will not want to skip this. Happy Holidays.

Special Report: Grower Champagne

Broadening the Appellation’s Horizons

If you’re a champagne lover, chances are you heard about the rise of “grower champagne” over the last decade. These are champagnes made by producers who own their own vineyards and grow all of their own grapes, and can be identified by the tiny letters “RM” on the label, which stand for Récoltant-Manipulant or essentially “harvester-producer”. Such wines are often contrasted with those made by large houses, who purchase most of their grape and/or wine requirements, denoted by the letters “NM”, or Négociant-Manipulant, or “buyer-producer”.

While grape growers and purchasers co-exist in most of the world’s regions, the distinction is especially important in Champagne since, rather uniquely for France, the overwhelming majority of wines from the region are produced by companies who own few, if any vineyards, and purchase all, or at least some, of their grape needs from among the region’s 16,000 or so growers.

The reasons for this are both practical and historical. For one, traditional method sparkling wine production is both capital and knowledge-intensive. To produce top quality champagne requires significant technical expertise – it is, after all, a highly processed type of wine that hinges on many small steps. Equipment is also expensive; the type of press, for example, is central to quality outcome. Time is also a major cost. Even basic champagne must be cellared for at least 15 months before it can be legally sold, while vintage-dated champagne requires 36 months, minimums which all of the best producers regularly exceed. This means that while all of those nouveau producers are rolling in cash mere weeks after harvest, champagne producers are footing a frightening inventory bill, and digging ever-deeper caves to store all of those bottles.

Considering that even today very few Champenois farmers have either the knowledge or the cash flow to fund production, the logical outcome is for a few large houses to buy the grapes, and to produce and distribute the wines. The situation is similar to Burgundy a generation ago, when grape growing was in the hands of farmers with fractured, tiny holdings, and production and distribution were managed by large negociants. The rise of domaine-bottled Burgundy has been the biggest change in that region in the last half century. And now Champagne seems headed in the same direction. This is excellent news for consumers.

Now, this is not an anti-grandes marques manifesto. The success, financial and otherwise, of the region’s growing cadre of RMs is due in no small measure to the centuries of work and investment in the region of the big houses – Champagne Charlie (Heidsieck), the Veuve Clicquot, Louise Pommery and many other great past figures of the Champagne industry are singularly responsible for the region’s technical advancements, its worldwide reputation, its intimate association with prestige and celebration, its luxury prices. Without the grandes marques and their significant investment in the region’s image, champagne would be utterly different.

Nor are large brands necessarily inferior. In an ironic twist, growing competition from small producers has raised the quality bar for everyone, forcing all of the major houses to pull up their socks (much like what has occurred in Burgundy). Many large houses now own at least some vineyards of their own, drawing on these holdings to produce their prestige cuvées, as is the case for Roederer’s exceptional Cristal, for example.

But the reality is that most of the big brands are predicated on consistency, regularity and volume, aspects that are incompatible with the very French notion of the uniqueness of terroir. Buy a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in Paris or Singapore or Toronto, at any time, and it will taste the same. In the world of brands, consistency is king. For many, this is comforting.

But consistency and quantity necessitate a vast blending operation to smooth out unwanted variation: multiple grapes, multiple vintages and hundreds of vineyard parcels are pieced together like a puzzle to create a consistent image, one that matches a house philosophy, not a vineyard expression. Along the way, of course, you obliterate the finer nuances of terroir, aside from the general character of the Champagne region itself.

Indeed it’s striking that there is just one single appellation that covers the entire Champagne region and its 34,000 hectares of vines, especially in such a terroir-obsessed country. To put things in perspective, Burgundy, which has about 6,000 fewer hectares of vines from Chablis to Mâcon, has well over 600 appellations, counting all of the premier crus of the Côte d’Or. In a region as large as Champagne, there are naturally dramatic differences within; no one would reasonably claim that Champagne as a whole shares a similar terroir.

To give just one example, as any wine student will tell you, champagne grows on chalk – a critical piece of the terroir puzzle. But in reality, the entire Aube/Côte des Bar region in southern Champagne, which accounts for a whopping 20% of production, is not on chalk at all but rather Kimmeridgian marl, much more similar to Chablis or Sancerre than the vineyards of Epernay. The articulation of such a marked difference, which in other parts of France would surely have merited an entirely separate appellation, is blended away into voluminous cuvées of pre-determined character.

What grower champagnes are providing, and what makes them of great interest to consumers who value nuanced expression and individuality, is a more detailed and diverse reflection of the region and all of its glorious variations. The aim is most often singular character, not homogeneous blend. Drawing from small, isolated holdings in specific sub-regions within Champagne, such wines are almost necessarily idiosyncratic. In short, grower champagnes are bridging the gap between industrial and artisanal, making the region more closely resemble every other great wine region in the world, giving voice to individual terroirs, enriching the landscape. “It’s an industrialized region which could benefit greatly from real artisanal work,” says Olivier Collin of Champagne Ulysses Collin, a young grower producing compelling, if controversial, wines.

There are some more technical reasons to consider grower champagnes, related to quality. For one, grape growers are motivated to pick early, at higher yields and with risk less, harvesting up to the maximum permitted limit. It’s rarely discussed, but if the maximum limit is set at, say, 14,000 kilos/hectare, you may end up growing 18,000kg to hedge your bets. In the end you can only harvest 14,000 kilos, and leave the rest for the birds. Over production goes unrecorded, which of course defeats the purpose of restricting yields in the first place. Since the grower is only concerned with the price he/she receives per kilo, and needn’t worry about selling the wine produced from the grapes, there’s a big disconnect in the production chain. And few growers make their living exclusively from grapes, and thus vineyards are often tended to like a hobby, if and when possible.

Growers who intend to produce and then sell their wines necessarily approach the vineyard with a completely different philosophy, with an eye on the end, not just the means. As Jean-Hervé Chiquet from Jacquesson points out, “we couldn’t be the largest, nor could we be the cheapest. Our only option was to aim to be the best.” It’s a philosophy that prevails amongst all of the best RMs, or rather a sine qua non in the hyper-competitive champagne market. Lacking the seemingly limitless promotional budgets of the big houses, these wines have to fight on quality. You can be sure that a far greater percentage of the dollars you spend on a bottle of grower champagne goes toward production cost – riper grapes at reduced yields, smaller press fractions, small batch fermentations, etc. Value is one of the RMs’ strongest selling points.

Yet RM on a label is no more a guarantee of quality than any other independent vigneron’s name. There are distinct disadvantages to being an exclusive grower operation in a marginal climate like Champagne’s. Should your vineyards fail to produce quality grapes in a given vintage, there’s no recourse to purchase grapes from elsewhere. Small growers often lack the resources to obtain top equipment, or hold on to reserves of old wines for blending in non-vintage cuvées to add layers of complexity, for example. And if it isn’t obvious by now, good grape growers are not necessarily good winemakers. There are plenty of quirky, idiosyncratic or downright poor bottles of grower champagne on the market.

But the success rate is climbing. “20 years ago, the grandes marques were pretty much the only ones making top wines”, says Chiquet. “But that is changing very quickly.” Chiquet is quick to point out that there aren’t necessarily more growers bottling their own champagne today – some 4,500 growers out of 16,000, or just over a quarter, also produce wine, albeit very often in tiny quantities for family use or local distribution. “But there are many more who are making better wine”, he continues. “20 years ago there were maybe 5 or 6 good growers, now there are at least ten times that.”

The bottom line for consumers is that Champagne’s landscape is now far richer and more varied, with quality and diversity growing apace. There will always be a place for the celebrated prestige cuvées from household names to be sure, for the comfort of a consistent and reliable product. But there is a growing pool of more personal expressions of champagne from which to choose, if you can filter out all the bling and concentrate on the wine. 

Special Buyer’s Guide Feature: Grower Champagne

Gatinois NV Champagne Grand Cru de Aÿ Réserve Brut ($74.52, 6/case)

Jacquesson Cuvée 738 Extra Brut Champagne 2010 Fleury Blanc De Noirs Brut Champagne Gatinois Nv Champagne Grand Cru De Aÿ Réserve BrutGatinois is a small, seven-hectare family operation now into the 12th generation, centered on the grand cru village of Aÿ in the Montagne de Reims. Bottles are still hand-riddled and hand-disgorged. The Reserve Brut (85% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay) includes 30% of reserve wines, the oldest in the house, and is given 36 months on the lees, followed by a year in bottle before release. The current bottling, based on the 2010 vintage and the first for the young Louis Cheval, is the best I’ve tasted yet from Gatinois, powerful, balanced, and complex, on the drier side of brut, with superb length. Availability: consignment via Le Sommelier.

Fleury NV Champagne Blanc de Noirs Brut ($54.95)

Fleury was established in 1895, and became Champagne’s first fully biodynamic producer in1989. This pure pinot noir cuvée from the estate’s vineyards in the Côte des Bar Champagne (Fleury also purchases a small quantity of biodynamically grown grapes from various partners) is crafted in a powerful, mature style, gently oxidative, fully toasty. Dosage comes in at a modest eight grams, putting this on the drier side of the balance. Excellent length. Availability: consignment via The Living Vine.

Jacquesson NV Cuvée 738 Extra Brut Champagne, France ($88.00)

Jacquesson is technically an “NM”, though since taking over from their father in 1988, Jean-Hervé and his brother Laurent have increased family holdings and eliminated all but the best vineyards under contract, all in their home village of Dizy where they can closely monitor quality. And quality across the range is impeccable. Cuvée 738 is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier based on the 2010 harvest, with about 1/3 reserve wines included in the blend. It’s not a vintage champagne, but the house policy at Jacquesson is to create the best possible wine each year, so there’s considerable difference from year to year, hence the cuvée number to allow consumers to distinguish different bottlings. “Equalizing works both ways, sometimes you have to lower the quality to equalize”, says Chiquet, criticizing he standard NV policy. 2010 was a tough year in champagne, especially for the pinots, hence the high percentage of chardonnay here – just over 60 %. The quality nonetheless is remarkable: pure and driving, finessed and immensely elegant and fresh, virtually bone dry but genuinely ripe. I love the pure white chocolate and hazelnut, and citrus and floral notes. Lees autolysis is subtle but rounds out the texture nicely; dosage is low. Top class champagne. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Agrapart NV Champagne Complantée Extra Brut ($98.00)

Ulysse Collin Champagne Blanc De Blancs Les Perrièrs Extra Brut Gimonnet Champagne Special Club Terre De Chardonnay 2006 Agrapart Champagne Complantee Extra Brut4th generation growers Pascal and Fabrice Agrapart are among the leading figures in the realm of grower champagnes, with family production stretching back to the late 19th century. 12 hectares in the Côte des Blancs (in the grand crus villages of Avize, Oger, Cramant, and Oiry) are divided into 50 parcels with an average age of 40 years, some over 65 years old. The complantée is a fascinating wine composed of all seven permitted grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, pinot blanc, arbane and petite meslier, from 2010 and 2011, grown in a tiny 0.2ha parcel in Avize. The base wine is wild-fermented in 600l cask, given full malolactic and long lees ageing in barrel, followed by 4 year on lees in the bottle. Dosage is kept to 5 grams. This drinks as much like a Blanc de Blancs as any, with superb freshness and delicacy, racy acids and brilliant complexity. A wine of grand finesse and class, which seems to confirm Agrapart’s assumption that terroir trumps variety. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Gimonnet 2006 Champagne Special Club Terre de Chardonnay ($100)

Olivier & Didier Gimonnet have an impressive 28 hectares of Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs, in the premiers crus villages of Cuis et Vertus, and grand crus Cramant, Chouilly and Oger. Of note here is the high average vine age, with some vines planted in 1911 and 1913 still producing; only massale selection is used to replace individual vines. The vintage Special Club is the top offering, a pure chardonnay from mostly the old vines of Cramant, and the 2006 shows archetypal Blanc de Blancs freshness and tension, pitched perfectly between the fresh brioche flavours from lees contact and subtle, succulent lemon curd and, hazelnut and white chocolate complexity. A wine of tremendous length and elegance; drink or hold a decade without concern. Availability: consignment via Trialto.

Ulysse Collin NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Les Perrieres ($95)

Olivier Collin may be a relative newcomer – 2004 was his first vintage after successfully wining back family vineyards under contract to a large house – but in that short period he has catapulted into the top echelon. His wines are certainly memorable, like this single vineyard Les Perrieres of 1.2ha planted to 40 year-old chardonnay in the little-known Sézanne sub-region southwest of the Côte des Blancs. There are no Grand or 1er Crus in this part of Champagne, a fact which only underscores the imperfections of the village classification system. This bottling is made exclusively from 2009 fruit (not declared as a vintage), harvested at unusually high ripeness, and base wine is fermented and aged in at least one year in old barriques before secondary fermentation. Like respected contemporary Cédric Bouchard, Collin’s aim is to make great still wine first and foremost; the bubbles are incorporated merely for lift and liveliness, and his wines are bottled without fining or filtration at lower pressure than the champagne mean. Les Perrieres tastes like Meursault with bubbles, an utterly individual expression of champagne. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

R.H. Coutier NV Champagne Rose Brut ($65.00)

Cédric Bouchard Nv Roses De Jeanne Cote De Bechalin (2007) Blanc De Noirs Brut Nature Legras & Haas Champagne Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs 2008 R.H. Coutier Champagne Rose BrutThe Coutier family has been in the village of Ambonnay on the Montagne de Reims since 1619, and, unusually for this pinot country, have 1/3 of vineyards planted to chardonnay –René Coutier’s father was the first vigneron in Ambonnay to plant the variety in 1946 on a prime south-facing site. Also uncommon is that generally only half of the base wines are put through malolactic to maintain a fresh, steely edge. This rosé, is composed of over half pinot noir with the balance from old vine chardonnay, resulting in a rosé that exceeds expectations on both complexity and depth in the oft-overpriced rosé category, and delivers more toasty autolysis character than the mean alongside delicate red berry fruit. At 6 grams dosage, it comes across as crisp and dry. Also exceptional is the Brut Grand Vintages currently on offer, based on the excellent 2008 vintage and drinking beautifully now. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Legras et Haas 2008 Champagne Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ($91.95)

The Legras at Haas family owns vineyards in the Aube district, as well as the Côte des Blancs, where this fine Blancs de Blancs originates. It’s sinewy, lithe and extremely elegant, resting on a seam of acids and replete with the arch-classic citrus, brioche hazelnut and white chocolate flavours of chardonnay-based champagne. Availability: consignment via Mellecey Wine Group.

Cédric Bouchard NV Roses de Jeanne Cote de Bechalin Blanc de Noirs ($135.00)

One of the most sought after grower-producers, Cedric Bouchard established his Champagne House, Roses de Jeanne, in 2000 in the Aube district of southern Champagne (aka Côtes des Bars) on predominantly Kimmeridgian marls. In the counter-culture RM spirit, Bouchard bottles only single vineyard, single variety, single vintage champagnes, from parcels farmed according to biodynamic principles. Only first pressings are used (the cuvée), and all is fermented with wild yeasts, and secondary fermentations are uncommonly long, slow and cool resulting in finer bubbles. Wines are bottled without dosage at lower pressure than the mean. This wine is pure pinot noir from the 1.5 hectare lieu-dit of Côte de Bachelin and the 2007 vintage, and spends three years on the lees, the longest aging of all his cuvées, and is bottled unfined, unfiltered. It’s a wine of exceptional density and richness, with the vinosity and complexity of top red Burgundy and superb length. It would fit in happily at the table with game birds or even well aged rib-eye, though I’d like to watch this unravel in meditative fashion all on its own. 150 cases produced. Availability: consignment via Groupe Soleil.

Buyer’s Guide: Sparkling Wine 

Showcase 5 Blanc de Noirs 2009, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($55.00)

The first release of the Trius “Showcase 5” is a pale pink-grey-colour and the nose is highly yeasty-autolytic, as you would expect from a wine left for five years on the lees before disgorging, highly complex to be sure. The palate is full and toasty, with plenty of barley, cracked wheat, dried citrus and red berry fruit flavours, and the finish has excellent length. Not a wine for sipping, mind you, this should be a centerpiece at the table. Very classy, and fine value in the context.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine ‘Carte Blanche’ Estate Blanc de Blanc 2010, VQA Short Hills Bench, Ontario, Canada ($44.95)

Henry of Pelham’s premium bottling of sparkling wine, a pure chardonnay, is a clear step up from the already excellent Cuvée Catherine “regular”, sitting comfortably in the top class of Canadian sparkling and making many champagne producers uneasy. In the 2010 vintage it finds a very elegant expression, building layers of citrus and green apple fruit, delicate brioche and puff pastry-yeasty notes, on a firm acid frame. Concentration is evident, though this is all about finesse, delicacy and refinement. Although infinitely enjoyable now, I’d love to see it in 2-3 years when additional toasty complexity will have developed.

Josef Chromy Pepik Sekt, Tasmania, Australia ($26.95)

A fine, fresh and appley, nicely perfumed and balanced bubbly here from Joseph Chromy, with real class and poise for the category. Citrus-green apple fruit dominates and lingers, with just a touch of toasty-biscuity character to add interest. This would make a fine Sunday morning Brunch wine, not overly complex but refreshing and enlivening.

Showcase 5 Blanc De Noirs 2009 Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine, Carte Blanche Josef Chromy Pepik Sekt Adami Dei Casel Extra Dry Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene Superiore Fidora Tenuta Civranetta Juvé Y Camps Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava 2011

Adami Dei Casel Extra Dry Prosecco di Valddobbiadene Superiore, Italy ($24.95)

A superior extra dry (read: off-dry) prosecco here from regional leader Adami in the steep hills of Valddobbiadene, with genuine depth, length and complexity, attributes infrequently associated with prosecco. The acid-sweetness balance is near perfect, and this has real presence on the palate. A classy option when more fresh fruit rather than biscuit flavours is the order of the day.

Fidora Tenuta Civranetta, Prosecco Extra Dry, Veneto, Italy ($18.95)

A very fine and flavourful prosecco from Fidora, a producer with over 40 years of organic production in vineyards in Valddobbiadene. This has all of the hallmark pear and apple aromatics of the variety, with an appealing cinnamon twist, in a just off-dry style. I like the succulent, saliva inducing acids. A superior example. Availability: consignment via The Living Vine.

Juvé Y Camps 2011 Cinta Purpura Reserva Brut Cava, Catalunya, Spain ($18.95)

A pleasantly mature and appley, dried pear and apricot-scented bubbly, on the richer side of the cava scale in terms of weight, with a long, barley sugar finish. A substantial wine for the table, more than aperitif-sipping, of fine length and complexity overall.

Buyer’s Guide: Other Champagne 

Pol Roger 2006 Vintage Extra Cuvée de Reserve Brut Rosé Champagne, France ($105.95)

A fine and biscuity, balanced and highly flavourful rosé from Pol Roger. This 2006 shows very fine depth and complexity, not to mention length. Very classy and refined all around. Fine wine, still youthful and with at least another decade of life ahead.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne, Ac, France ($69.95)

This bottle, disgorged in 2014, follows in the house style of wonderfully mature and toasty, heavily autolytic, with great depth and length. As usual this is a forceful and masculine wine, yet not without balance, and its own measure of finesse. A very consistent champagne, and one of the best NVs on the market.

Pol Roger Vintage Extra Cuvee De Reserve Brut Rosé Champagne 2006 Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne Duval Leroy Reserve Brut Champagne Perrier Jouët Grand Brut Champagne

Duval Leroy Reserve Brut Champagne, Ac, France ($55.95)

Mostly Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, this is classically toasty and biscuity, in a fine stage of evolution while still holding on to significant fruit. The palate pierces the taste buds with laser sharp acids, finessed and elegant, really harmonious and long. Lovely champagne.

Perrier Jouët Grand Brut Champagne, France ($68.95)

Quality here is on par with previous releases of P-J’s Grand Brut, a wine of finesse and balance, elegance and complexity in the classic champagne register. I appreciate the crisp acids buffered by smoky-creamy yeast autolysis flavours (brioche, croissant), and the excellent length. Notable dosage gives this a vague sweet edge, though balance remains intact. (Lot#3091429264)

That’s all for this report. See you over the next (fizzy) bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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