In most industries, double-digit growth would be something to celebrate. But in the champagne business, it's cause for quiet unease. Rising wealth, particularly in Russia and China, has led to new markets for a product with an inherently limited supply. (Under French law, all champagne must be made from grapes grown within 84,000 acres of the Champagne region.) While sales of Mot Hennessy were up 13 percent worldwide last year, the figure for Asia was 25 percent.
To address the anticipated shortage, champagne producers have lobbied to expand the growing districts of Champagne. But that could take years, as it requires permission from the notoriously bureaucratic Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the French government agency that protects the identity of wine regions. Another option is to wring more grapes out of the farmers who grow them. Some 20,000 individuals own land in Champagne, in plots that range in size from a single acre to 50.
Many farmers don't want to sell more grapes, though, because they're now producing their own sparkling wines. Known in the business as grower champagnes, these wines are made in tiny quantities—100,000 bottles at most—and are catching on at top U.S. restaurants like Napa Valley's French Laundry, Chicago's Charlie Trotter's, and New York's Gramercy Tavern. Below, some notable grower champagnes (all available in major U.S. wineshops or at Wine-Searcher.com).â€‚
Pierre Larmandier practices "biodynamic" viticulture, an über-organic style of growing that eschews chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The 2002 Cramant ($75) consists entirely of chardonnay grapes from Cramant, a village given grand cru status as one of France's best regions.
The Champagne region is divided into four areas, and Lassaigne's property is in the desirable southern Montgueux section, close to the Burgundy border. The family's Les Vignes de Montgueux ($45) is served at such restaurants as El Bulli, outside Barcelona, Spain.
The Tarlant family has been farming in the Champagne region since 1687 and currently produces about 12,000 cases a year. Brut Zero ($45) is made with both white and black grapes—equal parts chardonnay, pinot meunier, and pinot noir.
To make a blanc de noirs, or white champagne from black grapes like pinot noir, Bedel quickly drains the juice from the skins. Like Larmandier, she works biodynamically. Entre Ciel et Terre ($65) is made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier.
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils
Didier and Olivier Gimonnet, descendants of Pierre, grow mostly chardonnay grapes and produce blanc de blancs, or white wines from white grapes. The Fleuron 2002 Blanc de Blancs ($60) has fresh ginger, orange, and lime flavors.