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10.24.2006

Tasting The Terry Theise Champagne Portfolio

theise_champagne_06.jpgThe average wine consumer can name the number of champagne brands they know on the fingers of one hand. Many might not be able to blurt out more than "Cristal" or "Dom Perignon." Like in many industries, the world of Champagne (and at this point I'm not talking about sparkling wine in general, but literally the stuff from the Champagne region of France) is represented in the minds of many and the world media by a few mega-brands. By some estimates, however, there are more than 3500 producers within the bounds of the (relatively small) Champagne appellation. For those willing to explore beyond the predictability of the yellow label of Veuve-Clicquot or the red stripe of Mumm, there is a rewarding, if a bit daunting, range of fabulous wines to be had.

Luckily, there are folks like importer Terry Theise (known for his portfolio of Austrian and German wines, which is second to none, but also an importer of Champagne for decades) who are out there who are making it easier to get a hold of smaller production Champagnes. Sometimes called "grower" Champagnes because they are made by the same folks who grow the grapes (not true at many of the big Champagne houses who buy grapes from many growers).

Focusing on what he calls Farmer Fizz or Family Fizz, Theise eschews the "Frito-Lays" of Champagne and seeks out the small producers all over the region who make wines in quantities as small as several hundred cases. For anyone with a strong interest in Champagne, or if you're just looking for a fun and inspiring read you might check out his Champagne catalog (PDF), which, like all his other catalogs, is full of interesting essays, witticisms, and miscellany in addition to the wine listings.

I recently had the opportunity to taste through his portfolio, and it is mighty impressive.


WINES WITH A SCORE OF 9.5

99 Pierre Peters "Cuvee Speciale" Brut, Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs, Le Mesnil. $73.50. Where to Buy?.
N.V. Rene Geoffroy Cuvee Empreinte, Brut. $51.50.
N.V. Billiot Cuvee Julie. $85.00. Where to Buy?.
98 Fleury Cuvee Robert Fleury. $66.50.
99 Vilmart Grand Cellier Rubis. $100.00. Where to Buy?.


WINES SCORING BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

N.V. Varnier-Fanniere Brut, Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs. $50.00. Where to Buy?.
N.V. Varnier-Fanniere Cuvee Saint-Denis, Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs. $57.00. Where to Buy?.
02 Pierre Gimonnet Cuvee Gastronome, Brut, 1er Cru. $49.50.
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Blanc De Blancs D'ay, Grand Cru. $44.00. Where to Buy?.
99 Pierre Gimonnet Special Club, Blanc De Blancs. $62.00. Where to Buy?.
96 Margaine Special Club, Blanc De Blancs. $65.00. Where to Buy?.
N.V Rene Geoffroy Cuvee De Reserve, Brut, 1er Cru. $43.50. Where to Buy?.
NV Hebrart Selection, Brut. $43.00. Where to Buy?.
02 Pierre Gimonnet "Paradoxe," Brut. $47.00.
N.V. Billiot Brut Reserve, Grand Cru. $48.00. Where to Buy?.
00 Chartogne-Taillet "Cuvee Fiacre", Brut. $66.50. Where to Buy?.
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Cuvee De Reserve. $55.00. Where to Buy?.
99 Gaston Chiquet Vintage Brut. $52.00.
00 Aubry "Aubry De Humbert", Brut 1er Cru. $58.50.
99 Billiot Brut Grand Cru. $59.50.
N.V. Lallement Reserve, Grand Cru, Brut. $57.00. . Where to Buy?.
N.V. Billiot "Cuvee Laetitia", Brut. $88.00. Where to Buy?.
N.V. Vilmart Cuvee Grand Cellier, Brut. $60.00. Where to Buy?.
97 Vilmart Cuvee Creation. $100.00. Where to Buy?.
N.V. Billiot Brut Rose. $54.00.

WINES WITH A SCORE OF 9

N.V Pierre Gimonnet Cuis, 1er Cru, Brut. $42.50
N.V. Jean Milan Brut Speciale, Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs. $44.00
98 Pierre Gimonnet Cuvee Oenophile, Extra Brut, 1er Cru. $55.00
N.V. Chartogne-Taillet Brut, Blanc De Blancs. $51.00
97 Gaston Chiquet Blanc De Blancs D'ay, Grand Cru (Magnum). $128.00
02 Aubry "Le Nombre D'or, Sablet", Brut Blanc De Blancs (Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Chardonnay). $81.00
N.V. Rene Geoffroy Cuvee Expression, Brut. $45.00
N.V. Chartogne-Taillet "Cuvee Ste. Anne", Brut. $40.00
N.V. Fleury "Fleur De L'europe", Brut. $45.00
N.V. Rene Geoffroy Cuvee Volupte, Brut. $66.00
98 Gaston Chiquet Carte D'or, Brut. $51.50
98 Gaston Chiquet Special Club, Brut. $60.00
99 Vilmart Grand Cellier D'or, Brut. $67.00
98 Vilmart Coeur De Cuvee, Brut. $104.00
02 Aubry 00 Aubry Sable Rose. $77.00
N.V. Milan Rose, "Charles De La Milaniere". $62.00
N.V. Jean Milan Cuvee Tendresse, Sec, Grand Cru. $48.00


WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

N.V. Jean Milan Brut "Carte Blanche", Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs. $43.00
00 Jean Milan Cuvee Symphorine. $58.50
N.V. Margaine Cuvee Traditionelle, Brut. $39.50
N.V. Gaston Chiquet "Carte Verte", Brut. $41.00
N.V. Aubry Brut, 1er Cru. $39.00
00 Aubry Le Nombre D'or, Campanae Veteres Vites. $65.00
99 Chartogne-Taillet Brut. $56.50
N.V. Milan Cuvee De Reserve. $52.50
N.V. Margaine Demi-Sec. $41.00

WINES WITH A SCORE OF 8.5

N.V. Pierre Peters "Cuvee Reservee", Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs. $45.50
00 Pierre Gimonnet Fleuron, Brut, Blanc De Blancs. $55.00
00 Jean Milan "Terres De Noel", Grand Cru Brut, Blanc De Blancs. $72.50
98 Pierre Peters Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs,. $65.00
NV Hebrart Cuvee De Reserve, Brut. $39.00
N.V. Lallement Brut Grand Cru. $45.50
00 Hebrart Special Club. $64.00
N.V. Margaine Brut Rose. $46.00
N.V. Aubry Aubry Brut Rose. $48.00

Comments (5)

robert bertel wrote:
10.25.06 at 9:56 AM

Last year I helped picked some grapes during the harvest in Champagne. Depending on the year, some 'house' champagnes can be a blend of over 20 vintages. Let's face it, champagne is a blended wine, end of story. Theisse is extreme in his rhetoric of 'Frito Lay' champagnes. He is shrewdly trying to capture the wine-snob market's inherent yearning to be ahead of the curve in wine knowledge/fashion, just as, when I used to backpack in 3rd world countries in my 20s, there were backpacking snobs who always claimed to have just returned from the next new, but currently still-unknown (and un-touristed(!)) hot-spot. The difference between the two examples being, however, that backpacking snobbery was usually correlated with travel-budget penury, while wine-snobbery is usually correlated with big wallets. So, I can see *why* Theisse adopts the rhetoric he does. But, to get a sense of the absurdity of Theisse's rhetoric, reverse it. Instead of trying to impose a burgundy 'terroirist' model on champagne, how about we impose a champaigne 'blending' model on burgundy? Sacrilege? Between the differently evolved styles of making burgs and champers, I say, vive le difference (and pass me some more Krug . . . . ).

Alder wrote:
10.25.06 at 10:26 AM

Robert,

Thanks for the comments. I'm no expert on Champagne, but it does seem like there is a difference between blending 20 vintages (as some Non Vintage champagnes might be -- though 20 seems high) from a single vineyard worked by the owner/winemaker, than the same wine blended from fifteen different vineyards none of which are grown by the same person.

In my opinion vintage blending does not by definition erase the potential for expression of place or of an individual's winemaking style.

I'm a big Krug fan myself, and have enjoyed many large producer's champagnes as well.

mikeyrad wrote:
10.25.06 at 2:05 PM

For the most part, the "grower" Champagnes are better and less expensive than the large houses. It seems that consumers are paying a lot extra for marketing campaigns and brand name recognition. I went to a blind Champagne tasting in New York where Cristal and Dom Perignon were described as "vile" and "like piss". The grower Champagnes were the most praised. You can ascertain the type of producer by a two letter designation on the label. NM designates a large Champagne house (buys grapes), whereas RM and SR denote grower/producers. There are also designations for cooperatives (CM and RC).

Steve wrote:
10.27.06 at 8:42 AM

Hi Alder,

Good article and defense! Champagne is of course a blended wine so the most important thing is what you're blending. There's virually no varietal character after all's said and done but vintages matter and vineyards matter. Without great fruit a great wine simply can't be produced. Top champagne is made by the best grapes whether bought by the big houses to make wines like Krug or grown by the artisinal producers for their own wines. "Grower" Champagne is not a bunch of marketing hype (yet!)

Mike wrote:
01.09.07 at 4:47 AM

Nice discussion.

I would say "grower Champagne" is close to hype status, and certainly the pricing gap has largely eroded, with the exception of "cult" Champagnes like Dom, Cristal, Krug, etc. In fact, I would say the typical "grower" NV/MV bottling is more expensive than comparable "large house" counterparts.

Terry has done a good job promoting his portfolio, but I think he goes too far in his outright bashing of larger houses and Frito Lay comparisons. After all, estate grown grapes do not guarantee better wine, nor do growers automatically make better winemakers.

I wonder if Terry and those who take his extreme position also avoid any still wine made from grapes grown by others - virtually all of Burgundy, for instance - and avoid any still wine made in large volume - for instance, first growth Bordeaux.

The point is that grower vs. non-grower is not, in itself, a meaningful indication of quality in Champagne or anywhere else. Terry carries some excellent Champagne, and I love that he is making them available to us and helping raise their profile. I believe he could do so just as well taking the "high road" as he does with his style of salesmanship.

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