A SPARKLING EXAMPLE OF A GROWER CHAMPAGNE
“For the past decade or so Negociants has been the importer of Gimonnet champagne, one of the larger of the grower champagnes with just over 20,000 cases a year production, and with a history that extends back to 1750 when the Gimonnet family began as farmers and grape growers around the village of Cuis, south of Epernay.”
WITH the Australian wine lovers’ increasing love affair with smaller, boutique winemakers it’s perhaps surprising that they haven’t paid more attention to grower wines from Champagne.
The difference between these and those from the great houses of Champagne is that grower champagnes are those produced by the estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown. While Champagne has some 20,000 grape growers only 4000 of them produce their own champagne, and then in mostly very small quantities, totalling around 20 per cent of Champagne’s production by volume.
And much of that never leaves Champagne, accounting for around five per cent of champagne sales in the US and less than two per cent of champagne sales in the UK.
And according to the imported wines manager for Negociants Australia, Tim Evans, grower champagne sales in Australia are also probably still less than two per cent. But, he adds, that’s starting to change: “Consumers are starting to show a lot more interest.”
For the past decade or so Negociants has been the importer of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils champagne, one of the larger of the grower champagnes with just over 20,000 cases a year production, and with a history that extends back to 1750 when the Gimonnet family began as farmers and grape growers around the village of Cuis, south of Epernay. Like most growers, they sold their grapes into the champagne trade.
It wasn’t until 1935 that Pierre Gimonnet – current owner Didier Gimonnet’s grandfather – set up the winery that allowed him to become a grower-producer, specialising in Blanc de Blancs using chardonnay grapes drawn from 40 separate parcels across 28 hectares – 16ha of Premier Cru and 12ha of Grand Cru – all in the Côte des Blancs.
The high percentage of old vines at this estate sets it apart in a region suffering from a plethora of very young vineyards: “The oldest parcels were planted in 1911 and 1913 in the heart of the Grand Cru de Cramant,” says Didier Gimonnet. “Fifty per cent of our vineyard is more than 35 years old, while 80 per cent of our Grand Cru parcels were planted more than 45 years ago.
“For decades, we observed and cultivated with passion and respect our land,” he says. “In doing so, we have enriched our knowledge and understanding of the great chardonnays of Champagne. This expertise leads us to becoming one of the most important, and recognised, producers of Blanc de Blancs champagnes.
“Now, Gimonnet is synonymous with the great chardonnays of the Cote des Blancs and Blanc de Blancs is the true signature of the house.”
In true grower champagne style, Gimonnet insists that his family are still farmers at heart: “As growers we know all our parcels – even every vine – alongside their ability to produce a specific style of wine. Our ability to predict what wine we can produce is the secret to our decades-long consistency, with nothing left to chance. We seek to express an almost Burgundian understanding of the terroirs of the Cote-de-Blancs, an endless palette of different terroirs, crus and lieu-dits.”
As farmers, they also have a strong tradition of practicing sustainable agriculture with minimal use of herbicides and fertiliser, encouraging biodiversity to maintain a balanced ecosystem and “create sexual confusion” to avoid the use of insecticides.
Grapes are handpicked, traditionally pressed and then vinified in small batches, parcel by parcel in 25 to 125 hectalitre tanks. Today they produce 250,000 bottles, of which 30-40 per cent are vintage wines, with a total of around 80,000 bottles reserved for the French market.
Negociants Tim Evans says, a little regretfully, that the allocation to Australia is “just a handful of cases.”
As with all champagne, it’s the art of the blending, the assemblage, that’s all important for Gimonnet where, every spring, around 40 different “clear wines” are assessed according to flavour, personality and potential for ageing. First to be assembled is the entry level Cuis 1er Cru, which accounts for around 80 per cent of Gimonnet’s production.
“This is the wine that we give priority to by choosing all the components we need, as this is the Gimonnet most widely enjoyed in the world,” says Didier Gimonnet. “It’s like our business card and the standard-bearer of the house style. The creation of Cuis 1er Cru involves blending more than 50 wines, always from at least five vintages, from some of the most revered sites of Cuis.”
Gimonnet’s vintage cuvees are made in very limited quantities and include two that were each awarded five stars by Winestate’s judging team – Cuvée Fleuron Brut 1er Cru France Blanc de Blancs Brut 2015 (noted for complexity and “spirit of the year” according to Gimonnet), and the Special Club ‘Grand Terroirs De Chardonnay’ 2014 (elegance and ageing potential).
The high percentage of reserve wines has always been a distinctive aspect of Gimonnet. Unusually, all the 1.2 million reserve wines are kept under low pressure in 750ml bottles, an extremely rare technique in Champagne, rather than stainless steel tanks. Non-vintage wines get at least three years on lees, with vintage wines up to five years.
And Gimonnet leaves nothing to hide – it’s all there on the label: vineyard details, percentage of reserve wines, disgorgement date, total disclosure. A label designed by farmers.