A Decadent Proposal

Feeling romantic? Small-producer Champagnes offer more than you'll get from a Veuve Clicquot.

Tasting all of the champagne on the market ranks as the greatest perk of being a wine buyer. Before a big holiday like Valentine's Day, sales reps trot out the bling, hoping you'll single out their bubbles for special placement. However, when I'm sampling that many champagnes in that short of time, the "wow, I'm drinking champagne!" factor wears off and the job takes over. What I soon find is that some of the big names just don't measure up to the word, the glamour, and the distinction that champagne is supposed to be. I am aware of the absurd luxury of this complaint, but still, where's the special? Brand envy and price aren't the only things that set proper champagne (from the also-named region of France) above the world's other sparkling wines. Nuanced and cultivated, a great champagne shows virtuosity in all details, like a piece of fine lingerie. So if I'm going to spend $40—or more—on a big-event sparkler, I don't want to see its ass stacked at Cost Plus. Instead, I want to taste a $40 difference from my everyday prosecco. I want to taste complexity and labor-intensive craftsmanship. I want a story—something made by an 80-year-old French guy named Jean-Claude who thinks of his grapes as fat, purple children and nurtures them with an almost alchemical certainty of what they will be when they grow up and get plucked. That kind of special. To share a little inside baseball, I'd like to advocate for the little guys, what's known in the wine biz as RM, or grower-produced, champagne. "RM" means récoltant-manipulants—basically, they who grew it made it. These bubbles come from small, family-owned properties and have a high human-touch-per-bottle ratio. The big-name bubbles you see in magazines are "NM" champagnes, meaning négociant-manipulants. NM labels are huge properties (Veuve Clicquot, Moët et Chandon), often owned by a fashion conglomerate, that buy grapes and wines from a large number of growers and blend them, making mass quantities of champagne. How do you know who's little and who's big? Somewhere on the front label you'll see a code such as NM-02131961 or RM-02131961. Ignore the numbers and just look at the letters. Buying grower champagnes is like going to the farmers market. Each bottle is like an heirloom tomato. It's not about the brand as much as it is about the intensity and uniqueness of flavor, about the best tomato experience you can find for the money. You buy heirlooms because each is special. I would rather go without champagne than buy a mass-marketed label. Because half of it isn't worth the money when you've had the little guys from importers such as Terry Theise, Becky Wasserman's Champagne et Villages, or Michael Skurnik. Strong words, I know. Though they are harder to toss into a rap song, a good grower champagne can rival the Doms and Cristals as a capital "E" experience, often at less than half the cash (many cost less than $50). So think of the little guys this amorous season, in all things. Walk past the obligatory red roses and go for the orchids. Say no to satin and go for the silk. Buy the RM champagnes from the im-porters listed above and know you're getting the best for your money and your honey. food@seattleweekly.com

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