Talking about a recent dinner at El Bulli, possibly the most famous restaurant on the planet, Eric Asimov, wine writer for New York Times, said, “I would have stuck happily with Champagne throughout the meal. Not ordinary Champagne either, but superb, hard-to-find bottles like Selosse Brut Initiale, which retails for about $US125 but was on the list for $US165, or Jérôme Prévost for $US140, or maybe both.” El Bulli and a Meal for the Ages by Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 21 September 2010.

Too often we don’t think of having Champagne with a meal. The big Champagne houses have done such good job of associating Champagne with celebratory events that we tend to drink it at parties and with hors d’oevres, instead of enjoying it with the main course.

Wednesday evening’s Vintage Celllars Double Bay Champagne tasting at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney certainly had a very festive air. Of course, being in the company of the most famous Champagne Houses in the world happily sharing some of their best bottles created a wonderful sense of occasion – heightened by a pretty elegant and knowledgeable crowd and an excellent array of delicious hors d’oevres!

Almost in hushed tones did we ask each other if we had tasted the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin La Grande Dame 1998 or the Dom Perignon 2002 – my friend Richard’s pick of the evening!

Comparing vintage Champagne to the House style non-vintage cuvee is perhaps the best way to appreciate why spending a couple of hundred dollars more for the vintage is worth it!

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin La Grande Dame 1998 had all the marvelous attributes you associate with fine vintage Champagne: a blend of nearly two thirds pinot noir and one third chardonnay, the wine is crystal clear with very fine bubbles. It was unbelievably fresh on the nose, with delicate floral and mineral aromas that translate into deliciously clean, clear cut fruit flavours on the palate, balanced by a silky smooth finish.

Of course, the NV choices were also pretty impressive. A particular favourite was the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV, which is made entirely of white chardonnay grapes. Blanc de Blancs are the lightest and driest of Champagnes. This Champagne had a lively, crisp clean palette complemented by delicate floral aromas and citrus and mineral flavours.

Eric Asimov mentioned the Selosse Brut Initiale, which unfortunately wasn’t on show at the Vintage Cellars tasting. Selosse is a leading example of a growing number of smaller grower-producers who, according to Asimov, are “intent on restoring the ideas of vineyard, terroir and wine to the perception of Champagne.”

While the most well known and acclaimed Champagnes are made by the big Houses, the grower-producers are making wine under their own name and creating a very distinctive style of Champagne that, as Asimov notes, is “forcing people to rethink their ideas about champagne.” Taking Champagne Back to Its Roots by Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 4 November 2008.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils is another top grower-producer. The Gimonnet family have been cultivating vines in Cui since 1750 and making wine under their own label since 1935. Today the Champagne is made Pierre’s grandsons Olivier and Didier.

Gimonnet’s Cuis Premier Cru NV was on show at the tasting. Cui is the name of the premier cru village where one of Gimonnet’s vineyards are located. Gimonnet also owns old vine (around 35 years) vineyards in Cramant and Chouilly, which are grand cru. Its six different Champagnes are typically blends of the three chardonnay vineyards, which are considered among the finest in the Cote des Blancs. The terroir of the Cui vineyards contributes acidity and structure to the richness, flavour and power of the old-vine grand cru.

Some of the smaller grower-producers have developed a bit of cult following in the States. If you’re looking for a slightly different Champagne experience (perhaps one to have with dinner) for a reasonable price, these lesser known Champagnes are worth seeking out.

Note: The wine links take you the Cellarit Wine Market where most of the Champagnes mentioned are available.