Grower Champagne has creeped into popularity for at least a decade. That little RM (récoltant manipulant) on the label provided wine geeks another means to stand out from the seething masses. It allowed shops and restaurants to charge more to customers unfamiliar with it. We have all seen and bought the likes of Mumm, Veuve, Moët, Nicolas Feuillatte, et cetera, and known when we are getting hosed. But today’s grower, Marc Hebrart, probably is not on your grocery store shelf.
Now, I love the endless variety that single source terroir can create. Grower Champagne can vary from the terrible to the fantastic and reflect the best and worst of each vintage. However, clear your head that a “grower” just tends to their adorable plot with a horse-pulled plow. Equally, forget that the big houses are glamorous, bubbly, pleasure palaces: they are modern, often massive, multi-million case, industrial complexes (with some cool caves).
Growers own Champagne. The big houses pay them. There are 19,000 independent growers in Champagne. They own nearly 88% of all vineyard land. 5,000 make their own wine. The relationship is symbiotic, competitive, and complicated. But everyone’s goals are to make great wine and get rich. For more detail, let us look at grower Marc Hebrart.
Son Jean-Paul Hebrart farms 15 hectares of vines, but they are spread out into 65 different sites in five other villages, including, Avenay, Val d’Or and Bisseuil and the grand crus villages of Aÿ, Chouilly, and Oiry in the Côte des Blancs. Yes, each parcel is vinified separately, but most Champagne houses and growers do this. Like the big boys and girls, he also uses cool, glass-lined stainless steel and ceramic tanks. Yes, he might hand sort much of the fruit, but most do too.
The end difference, only 60 cases of Hebrart get imported stateside. He makes 6,000. That creates a sense of exclusivity.
Jean-Paul Hebrart’s Blanc de Blancs comes from his 1er cru vineyards of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Hebrart uses roughly a quarter of the last vintage to calm and balance the present. Big houses can blend back 20 years. Too compensate further for his lack of reserve wine, Hebrart allows malolactic fermentation and ages three years on lees in the bottle. This gives his Blanc de Blancs, like most growers, a distinctly nutty, orchard fruit quality. But let’s try it. Luckily, an account gifted me a bottle:
Marc Hebrart, Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Champagne NV $45-$60 (Nov 2015 disgorgement).
Its APPEARANCE looks a clear, straw gold color, cut through with a rapid, medium-sized bubbles. AROMAS waft with controlled intensity of golden delicious apple, lemon, poached pear, cut hazelnut, spices, and fresh-churned butter. The PALATE feels dry yet silken, with pinging, zesty, citric acid, mild alcohol (12% abv), and a mid-weight body. FLAVORS follow aromas and the citric yet nutty profile with chamomile honey rounding it out for a medium plus length.
Hebrart’s Blanc de Blancs is very, very good (4 of 5). You can feel it comes from one place. You can taste Hebrart’s methods to make it drinkable. He has to show all his cards. Meanwhile, negociant house Champagne can blend away these “defects”, providing reliable, consistent quality fizz. Past reviews of Hebrart’s BdBs range widely from year to year, from salty to nutty, fruity to citric. Either way, expect something interesting, complex, and honest: human, changing, warts and all.
Without big Champagne, little Champagne would not matter as much as it does today. We cannot define good without evil. Santa cannot exist if you don’t believe in him. Wait… Anywhichway, growers like Hebrart, just as big houses like Veuve, provide us, the thirsty masses, with an endless supply of variety. I say, drink it all and ignore when a hipster, wine geek gets all dogmatic about bubbly. Our goal should not search out better or best, rare or ubiquitous, but instead we should live for the journey, respecting and learning about each in their own right. If only we could treat people this way.