Thursday, May 12, 2016

Grower Champagne is highly overrated

Big tanks of Champagne at Nicolas Feuillatte. Big tanks might not sound sexy, but often they're better
Grower Champagne might be, as a category, the most overrated wine in the world today.

This was one of several observations from three days of judging at this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition.

More than 8000 wines were submitted this year and each panel tastes only 150, so for any individual judge it's an ant's view of the forest. The competition was held in Bulgaria, but my panel got no Bulgarian wines. Mexican wines did well at the Concours this year, but we got none.

At this competition, you know the vintage of each wine you taste, but nothing else, so when you get a group of red wines, you don't know if they're from France, Greece, Chile or wherever. Often we guess based on the flavor profile, but we don't know until the end of the day's judging, long after we have turned in our scores, if we were right.

On our first day, we got a flight of 12 sparkling wines. Many were frothy and a little sweet and I was sure they were Prosecco or some imitation. Our panel chairman suggested that they might be Champagne, but we didn't believe him: Champagne has more body than this, more texture, more complexity. It doesn't taste this cheap. And considering what Champagne vintners charge, it shouldn't taste cheap.

How weak was this flight? I have defended Prosecco in past competitions because I don't think people are looking for complexity from it. But I gave no medal-equivalent scores to these bubblies, and neither did my panel. I've never had a flight of Proseccos that got no medals.

You know where this is going: these were 12 grower Champagnes.

"Don't buy them, Bulgarian Colossus. They're bad wines."
All were obscure. Only one could I find in the U.S. on Wine Searcher. This means U.S. importers are doing a good job of weeding out some of the dreck in grower Champagnes. But make no mistake: there is plenty of dreck.

There's a reason that big Champagne houses exist, and this competition showed it. If a producer is limited to a small patch of land, he doesn't have any other grapes to blend with for more complexity. He probably doesn't have the financial wherewithal to withhold some wines every year as reserve wines to use in blending multiple vintages together. Champagne from the big houses might not be as unique as grower Champagnes, but it's more consistent and reliable, and more likely to be delicious.

Tasting these grower Champagnes -- all of which would set you back $25 or more -- wasn't like tasting finished wines. It was like tasting components of a wine, all of which were lacking in some way. Of 14 different types of wine that my panel tasted over three days, the grower Champagnes were the worst. (The best: Rioja Gran Reservas.)

Now, before you get your culottes in a twist, let me add that I have had some very good grower Champagnes in restaurants, where they have been vetted first by an importer and then by a restaurant wine director. One reason that wineries submit their wines to competitions is in hope that winning a medal will get them attention from importers and consumers. We did not try the top of the line in grower Champagnes.

Just don't believe that the words "grower Champagne" by themselves mean quality. I cannot imagine tasting a dozen of any other wines that expensive and awarding no medals at all. Can you? If there's a more overrated category of wine, name it.

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Tim Tromley said...

Not nice to tease a Rioja lover like this! I'm sure I'll see those notes in the near future. Thanks, I enjoy your information and viewpoints.

jason Carey said...

I'm not sure this has any real traction to me out in the larger context of wine because you can take any "specialty" or "artisinal" category and find that if its is not well curated, 80% of it is crap. Just drive around the south of France or the Loire valley and taste all sorts of small producer's wines. Most of them are crummy. Go to Paris and go to a random cafe and drink some wine, it is crap and often comes from a small producer who the owner might buy directly from.
The reason that the good wines from any region or small specialty producers in the USA seem to be of high quality is that it is very heavily curated, like you mentioned. I have spent years in France driving around small wineries and so many are not that good.
Here in the USA, drive around Sononma or any other region, just take say, Olivet Road, you stop in some family wineries and the wines are not good at all. They are on great terroir, they just can't make special wine.
There is plenty of good terroir in Champagne, and a lot of the grapes in these bad wines you tasted may have made it previously into large NM wines of high quality. I frankly think yes some NM houses are great, but as in Burgundy, I prefer to take the risk of something unique and know that someting might suck, than have products that are techinally good but not that interesting.. don't get me wrong, I love some big houses, but when I shop, I almost always buy growwer fizz. Not because it's hip or cool, but I LIKE them.

Bob Rossi said...

"Grower Champagne might be, as a category, the most overrated wine in the world today." I thought that's "natural wine."
I liked Jason's comments, although I think he went a little too far with this: " Just drive around the south of France or the Loire valley and taste all sorts of small producer's wines. Most of them are crummy." I think "most" is an exaggeration; I'd say many, although in parts of Provence maybe it is "most." I just spent a couple of weeks in Southwest France and the Loire, and visited many producers; most, if not all of them small, family-run operations. While there was occasionally a disappointing wine, most were very good to outstanding.

jason Carey said...

P.S. I understand that it is an over-exposed category, and the point you are making, but I don't think that people blindly worship Grower Fizz than any other hip category.

The Etruscan said...

This article is rather embarrassing. There is tons of great grower champagne, like nearly every category of wine. There is lots of dreck (overpriced, undistinguished, well intentioned, half-assed, whatever), like nearly every category of wine.

Coming to such a unjustifiably strong conclusion after such a small sample size, especially when that contrasts with your earlier expose, is kind of sad. I have enjoyed insightful and thoughtful pieces here in the past and hope there's a return to form.

Joel said...

COrrecting one of your initial comments, Bruxelles is NOT the largest wine competition in the world by a long-shot. That moniker belongs to either the INt'l Wine Challenge or Decanter World Wine Awards competitions, both of which these days regularly get over 13,000 entries.

As for grower champagnes, competitions generally don't get top wines submitted as you know, often because top producers feel they have more to lose than gain. Granted, the two I cited get more of their fair share of top producers (given their prestige and the high competency of the judges), but when you take a look at entries in many US judgings (which we both have done), one is typically not finding producers of the level of say, Heitz, Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg etc). THe only competition that I know of that actually will spend money to buy and include key brands they feel should be in a category (e.g. top CA Cabernets) is the ORange County Wine Competition (only winemakers for judges). Not sure that this is still true, however.

Anyway, good comments on grower champagne. I have also had, in champagne several that were less than exciting. Oh well, off in 2 weeks to judge the Int'l Wine Competition in Romania! Should be intriguing to say the least! Joel

DC said...

I think you're woefully misinformed when you say that the 2 competitions you name have a "high competency of judges".

The IWC for certain relies upon legions of wine shop owners, enthusiasts, and anyone who's got the time on their hands to judge, in no small part because of the thousands of wines submitted.

It long ago lost any sense of being "top", or prestigious. This year again, so many own-label supermarket bottlings got a medal (even if only a "commended"; which you can take as being "thanks for the cash and turning up").

Surely Blake's comment that he, and fellow judges, though these wines were Prosecco to start with is enough of a worry to take the concern seriously? There is a definite grower Champagne bandwagon, but if that means everyone's jumping on without any consideration as to what the "names" have been doing for so long, that's worth alerting people about.

Decline and Fall said...

Calling an entire category of wine "overrated" because you tasted a bunch of poorly-distributed wines that , quelle surprise, weren't that good is like saying there's no good music these days because you attended a Battle of the Bands. Maybe you should go to Coachella or SXSW before making such a broad judgment.

W. Blake Gray said...

Decline and Fall: "No good music" is a statement quite a bit broader than anything I made in this post. And it's not like I didn't have comparison groups of poorly distributed wines to taste blind. I've judged at this competition 8 times so I've had a LOT of comparison groups of poorly distributed wines, almost all of which were better AND didn't cost $25 a bottle. Thanks for reading, though. I like your Blogspot nickname.