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Bona fide bubbles

Grower Champagne out-drinks the big houses

Glasses of Lasalle sparkle in The Tulsa Voice studio

Michelle Pollard

Grower Champagne first arrived in the U.S. in 1976 when legendary wine importer Kermit Lynch introduced the country to J. Lassalle, a family-owned Champagne house. Acceptance was slow; the big Champagne houses, many of them household names, have far larger marketing budgets—exponentially larger.

Chris Putnam, owner of Putnam Wine Merchants, brought J. Lassalle and another Grower, Paul Bara, to Oklahoma about 10 years ago, and he did it because he believed something was puzzling about how Champagne is marketed.

“Champagne is the only appellation in France where the perceived best wines come from the biggest producers,” Putnam said.

That sort of thinking is counterintuitive in French wine production. It’s axiomatic that a house that produces more than one million cases—as many of the large houses do—cannot do it with the same quality as a boutique, family-owned winery. France has bet on that axiom for more than a thousand years, and their wine is widely believed to be the best in the world.

“I brought Grower Champagnes to Oklahoma because they are unique, delicious, hand-crafted, and made by the same people who grew the grapes,” Putnam said.

Mass-produced Champagne has three distinct flavors that are prominent on first taste: sulfur, toast, and yeast. Matt Sanders, owner of Vintage Wine Bar at 324 E. 1st St., said that ought not to be the case.

“Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, or some combination of those grapes,” he said. “Wines made with Chardonnay should taste like Chardonnay. Grower Champagnes actually taste like the grapes they’re made with, not sulfur.”

Vintage has a large selection of Grower Champagnes on the list. Sanders said he doesn’t carry the big houses at all. It’s the only place in Tulsa to find Billecart-Salmon available by the glass. In fact, it’s a bit of a rarity, because most Champagne is non-vintage, but Sanders is pouring the 2007 vintage of Billecart-Salmon. He was an early supporter of Growers in Tulsa, and his list is one of the most extensive.

“The big houses focus on a house style that is consistent every year, and they spend a lot of money on branding and marketing,” Sanders said. “The Growers focus on place, and the wines express the grapes and the terroir of a place. I think of it like farm-to-table wine, with the added incentive of supporting a family winery that produces 250 cases, so the family is dependent on the product, versus a big house with millions of cases.”

The most surprising thing about Grower Champagne, besides the extraordinary freshness and vitality of the wine, is the price point. The wines are typically priced at or below similar big house Champagnes.

“They’re priced competitively, and you’ll often get a better wine for half the price of a big name,” Sanders said. “We tasted the Growers against the big names in a blind taste when the Growers first started expanding in the state. It was amazing, because the big names taste flawed when tasted alongside Growers.”

Still, Sanders insists the point isn’t to make people feel bad about liking what they like. Rather, the idea is to expose customers to more options at lower prices that support the ideals of local farming, showcasing terroir, and producing wine sustainably, a common practice in the organic-biodynamic ethos of French, boutique winemaking.

As the New Year approaches, people start thinking about wine for their celebration, and Grower Champagne offers a delicious, sophisticated, high-quality option at a great price. In addition to the Billecart-Salmon at Vintage, Hodges Bend is pouring J. Lassalle by the glass, so you can taste the original before you invest in a whole bottle. Most restaurants and bars can’t afford the risk of opening Champagne for by-the-glass pours, but bottle lists all over Tulsa are peppered with Grower options, including good selections at Bull in the Alley, Juniper, Mahogany, Polo Grill, and Prhyme, the latter of which also has Billecart-Salmon.

Ranch Acres and Parkhill’s both have outstanding selections of Grower Champagne on the shelf. The best price points are likely to be on Aubry, Marc Hebrart and Gaston Chiquet. All three houses produce zippy, fruit-forward sparklers with excellent balance and enough toasty notes to know you’re drinking Champagne. Prices typically start about $45, and at every tier, the wines drink better than more expensive big names. If money isn’t an object, look for Dhondt-Grellet, Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Special Club, and Larmandier-Bernier.

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