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CHAMPAGNE is lot of things. It’s luxury...

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Special to The Times

CHAMPAGNE is lot of things. It’s luxury in a bottle. It’s New Year’s Eve, a 10-year anniversary -- or really any celebration. It’s the best way to drink bubbles. It’s the apogee of brand-name cachet.

One thing that’s easy to forget is that Champagne is also a wine.

Lately, however, a handful of small grower-producers have been producing Champagnes so expressive it’s almost disconcerting. What have we been missing all this time?

Throughout France, thousands of regional wine appellations proudly articulate the vicissitudes of one patch of land over another. Burgundy, for example, enjoys a reputation as one of the country’s greatest wine regions for its long history of distinguishing tiny changes in soil, aspect and climate, vineyard by vineyard, site by site. Such attention has led to the establishment of more than 200 appellations.

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Champagne, on the other hand, has one. There are well-established subregions, including the Cote des Blancs, the Cote des Bars, the Vallee de la Marne and the Montagne de Reims, but it is relatively rare to see the name of a village, let alone the name of a vineyard, on a label. And yet in terms of soil and climate, Champagne is every bit as complex as the rest of France.

The Champagne region sits on a chalk escarpment about 90 miles east of Paris, upon the skeletal remains of trillions of tiny sea creatures in the form of a special limestone chalk, which is porous and yet retains water. It is the northernmost grape-growing region on Earth; only short-season varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier will grow there. Even then, grapes strain to ripen, and some years they simply refuse. Consequently the best vineyards in Champagne are those situated on sunny slopes, in soils rich in chalk. These deposits are taken up by the vines and give the wine its characteristic minerality, thrown into high relief by cool-climate acidity and, of course, by bubbles.

Since 1919, the best vineyards in Champagne have been classified according to a complicated cru system; they’re usually named for their adjacent village, like Cramant or Verzenay. For reasons that no one can fully explain (terroir expression is always several parts mystery), the vineyards from these villages produce grapes with inimitable aromas, flavors and textures, unique in every way from other sites. Of the hundreds of small villages in Champagne, only a handful -- less than 20% -- are given cru classification.

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Territorial outlook

IN Burgundy this is the sort of thing people obsess over. Some Burgundy vineyards -- Corton Charlemagne, for example -- have even greater cachet than the domains themselves. In Champagne the opposite is true: House trumps vineyard in nearly every case. There, the so-called grandes marques (great houses) market a house “style” they claim is unique, flawless, consistent and unchanging, blended from the fruit of hundreds of growers and vineyards, from different slopes, different soils, with different grapes, and even different vintages.

Grower-producers, by contrast, are limited by what they own and what they grow. They also blend (in Champagne, blending has long been an economic necessity to hedge bets against the weather), but because their production and their resources are limited, they do so from smaller, more geographically precise areas.

The grower Champagnes getting the most critical attention draw mainly from grand cru and premier cru villages. They show a remarkable level of character, and often sell at a lower price than their counterparts in the big houses.

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Take the wines of Pierre Larmandier, of Larmandier-Bernier from Vertus in the Cote des Blancs. His blanc de blancs “Terre de Vertus,” from biodynamically farmed vineyards, tastes the way a cold splash of water feels to your face; nothing prepares you for its bracing minerality, the high trill of its acid. As if to drive home the point, Larmandier does not add any sugar for his second fermentation, which keeps it powerfully dry and sharp as a blade.

Just to the north in Cuis, Didier Gimonnet makes wines that are relatively polished, with nutty, caramel aromas and much deeper tarte Tatin flavors. Cuis’ terroir is said to impart an ethereal lemony scent upon more classic Chardonnay flavors, so Gimonnet prefers to use older vintage base wines (his current Premier Cru blanc de blancs has vintages going back to 1996) to give the wines richness and opulence.

North of the Cote des Blancs lies the Vallee de la Marne. There, in a village called Cumieres, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy’s family has lived and grown grapes for several generations. On the heels of the second World War, the fortunes of the great houses of Champagne were devastated (there was indeed little to celebrate), grape prices had plummeted and Geoffroy’s grandfather was faced with a dire decision. He could give up farming, or he could throw everything he had into starting a winery of his own. He chose the latter, and out of extreme hardship, Champagne Rene Geoffroy was founded. For the last 60 years, the Geoffroy family has been making cuvees from the fruit of Cumieres and nearby villages. With their pale red fruit flavors and almost tender delicacy, they’re about as geographically specific as any in Champagne.

All three grape varieties are grown in the multiple terroirs of this river valley, but Geoffroy excels at Pinot Noir, in a style unique to Cumieres. “You get a fine pure taste of cherries from these vineyards,” he says, “small cherries and raspberries. It is not at all like Bouzy, which is deeper, more intense.”

Grower-producers such as Geoffroy and Larmandier seem less concerned with making a luxury product than they are with making an artisanal one. The wines may not be flawless, but they are unquestionably authentic.

“To express a terroir, you have to accept that you will not produce every year the same wine,” says Larmandier. “The chief is the vine and the grapes, not the winemaker.”

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Contrast this view with Olivier Krug, who represents the sixth generation to head the House of Krug: “You should not be able to perceive one single terroir in Krug Grande Cuvee,” he says. “It should be impossible to detect if the wine comes from Mesnil, Bouzy, Ambonnay or Ay, and it should be impossible to know how much is Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.” You have, in short, only Krug.

And what is Krug? A balance, he says, of richness and intensity with finesse and elegance. Compared with the growers’ approach, those attributes are defiantly platonic; there is no mention of any flavor derived from soil and sun, and that, by and large, is how Krug wants to be perceived (it does bottle a rare single vineyard wine -- Krug’s “fantastic exception,” according to Olivier -- called Clos du Mesnil). No one, not even the growers, would question that Krug is a great Champagne. But they might bristle at the notion that it arrived there at the expense of terroir expression.

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Almost famous

THERE are more than 5,000 grower-producers in Champagne, and even at that number their collective strength is minuscule compared with the output, market strength and reach of the great houses. “Like the fashion industry,” says Tom Stevenson, author of the newly revised “The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia,” “Champagne is dominated by a few famous houses whose products are often purchased on name alone.”

This will always make things difficult for growers who want their share of the spotlight. “It will always be unimaginable for most of those who can afford it to toast an important occasion with anything but the famous names,” says Stevenson.

But if you want to know the where of Champagne, you’ll have to seek out the grower-producers.

“It is not true that growers are better than the grandes marques,” says Gimonnet, “but growers have success because they are good interpreters of good terroirs.”

Perhaps people like Dominique Demarville best represent Champagne at its current crossroads. Demarville has been cellar master at G.H. Mumm since 1998. He arrived having worked in the caves of two small grower-producers and thus moved from productions in the tens of thousands, to 10 million bottles. But he brought with him a clear-eyed and scrupulous focus on vineyard quality, and convinced Mumm that this was something worth pursuing with the same attention of a grower-producer.

It’s conceivable that a house the size of Mumm, with its cavernous tank rooms and riddling chambers the size of football stadiums, might not have otherwise bothered except with a few precious sites. But, says Demarville, the technologies that allow him to produce millions of bottles have freed him up as well. “There are so many advances,” he says, “that now the chef de cave [cellar master] can turn his attention to the vineyard.”

As soon as he arrived, Demarville’s interest in terroir expression started creeping into Mumm’s bigger plans. Recently the house released a fine prestige cuvee called Mumm Grand Cru from five grand cru villages. It manages to combine the vineyard reach of a grande marque with the attention to terroir of a grower. It may not scream “Verzenay” or “Cramant,” but the blend is unquestionably a vin de terroir. “This is how one plus one equals three,” says Demarville.

Didier Gimonnet would love the opportunity to work this kind of arithmetic. “I have a dream,” he says, “to blend the wines from vines of 80 years old.” He goes on to name four of the five villages in Demarville’s Grand Cru bottling. “But,” he adds, “I am sure also that no grower can do that!”

Perhaps not, but this is the sort of dream that can change a region.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A tasting of terroir-driven Champagnes

THE Times tasting panel convened in early December to evaluate grower-produced wines from the four unofficial regions of Champagne.

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The wines, which included non-vintage wines and two from the fine 1996 vintage, were tasted blind. Joining me on the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, food editor Leslie Brenner and wine consultant Dan Fredman.

The panel was struck by the general very high quality of the wines -- the only one of the lot that impressed no one was a ringer, a non-vintage Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut (not listed below because it’s not a grower Champagne). “Not as distinctive” was the way one taster described it. “Fizzy, in a cheap kind of way,” said another. The others had character galore, and were generally so likable that it was difficult to rank them. Prices are very reasonable for the quality. Grower-produced Champagnes are easy to spot but hard to find. Any Champagne whose name you don’t recognize is probably from a grower. Wine Expo in Santa Monica, (310) 828-4428, has by far the best selection in the area.

Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Premier Cru, N.V., “Terre de Vertus.” 100% Chardonnay from chalk slopes in Vertus in the Cote des Blancs. With zero dosage (no sugar added) for the second fermentation, this “extra” brut is extra dry. Pale yellow color, fine bubbles; you can smell the chalk in the aroma, along with grapefruit, lemon curd and lees. Tart and lemony flavors, with an intense impression of chalk and minerals in the finish, giving the wine bracing textural precision. At Wine Expo, about $55.

1996 Fleury Pere et Fils Brut. 100% Pinot Noir, from Courteron in the Cote des Bars. Fleury has been Demeter-certified biodynamic since 1992. Complex alluring aromas, creamy and toasty, yet one taster detected white pepper and a pronounced minerality. Powerful and rich on the palate, it tastes young and full of potential, with hints of wild herbs, woodland berries. Seductive and elegant. At Wine Expo, about $53.

Jean Lallement et Fils Brut N.V. Grand Cru. A blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay from Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims. Uncommonly powerful for Champagne, probably the most complex of the non-vintage wines. Aromas of golden apple, hops and dusty minerals. Firm and very focused on the palate, with golden apple flavors and a hint of raspberries. A clean, deep, long finish that suggests some oak aging on the still wine. At Wine Expo, about $44.

Camille Saves Brut N.V. A blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, from Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims; earthy, slightly oxidized, with a pronounced scent of mushrooms that one taster nailed as chanterelles. Round and rich on the palate with flavors of pears and cherries, and a texture like rose petals, with fine minerality. A food wine; veal with wild mushrooms would be a great choice. At Wine Expo; Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024; about $46.

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G.H. Mumm Brut N.V. Grand Cru. A blend of 58% Pinot Noir (from Bouzy, Verzenay and Ay) and 42% Chardonnay (from Avize and Cramant). Pale yellow, with a fine stream of bubbles and appealing aromas of lees, toasted nuts, toffee. Rich pear and cherry flavors as well as an elegant yeastiness. At the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills, (310) 278-7322, about $60.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Blanc de Blancs N.V. Premier Cru. 100% Chardonnay from chalk soils in Cuis, in the Cote des Blancs. A lemony orange scent is grounded by aromas of earth and mushrooms. Rich, deep flavors, toasty and caramelized with an aftertaste of brandied pears or as one taster said, “Calvados with bubbles.” Complex and grand, but precise on the finish. At Wine Expo, about $43.

Rene Geoffroy Brut N.V. Premier Cru Cuvee Selectionnee. A blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay from Cumieres in the Vallee de la Marne. Leads with aromas of cider and a nutty, almost whiskey-like scent, with hints of orange peel. Expressive and deep on the palate, with hints of wild strawberry and bright red cherry flavors. Long and elegant finish. At Wine Expo, about $38.

1996 Guy de Chassey Brut Grand Cru. Half Pinot Noir and half Chardonnay, from Louvois in the Montagne de Reims. Perhaps the wildest, most terroir-driven of all the wines tasted, with aromas of smoked meat, pears, white pepper and earth. Full and quite rich on the palate; roasted pear, mushroom and demi-glace flavors. Definitely a food wine. At Wine Expo and Silverlake Wine, about $59.

Paul Bara Brut Reserve N.V. Grand Cru 100%. From Bouzy, a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Lees-y aromas of butter, yeast, apples cooked in butter. Quite rich and a little sweet, with a good earthiness. Had an interesting herbal taste, which one taster described as “vinous”; another thought it was more like herbal bitters. At Wine Expo, about $48.

-- Patrick Comiskey

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