“I think the rosé Champagnes are wonderful,” Putnam said, “but people see the color and it triggers something else in their heads. These are some of the best wines made anywhere in the world, but people see sweet or cheap instead of quality and delicious.”
Putnam is talking about two Grower Champagnes in his portfolio: J. Lassalle brut rosé and Paul Bara brut rosé. Not only are these two of the best bottles of bubbles in the metro, they are priced competitively with the Champagne names everyone already knows: Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte and Moët & Chandon.
What you may not know about those names with which you are familiar is that they represent the exception to the rule in French wine-making. They are mass-production houses, and France has always specialized in small- to medium-production houses that focus on terroir, the particular region where the grapes are grown. The business of Champagne has been dominated by a few houses using négociants, agents who buy grapes from multiple sources and sell them to the houses.
Grower Champagne is a relatively new trend, but according to Putnam, it represents a return to traditional French winemaking: boutique, hands-on, organic and terroir-driven.
“Champagne worked in reverse to all other appellations in France, until Grower Champagne,” he said. “The well-known houses and the most sought after wines were small production, hard to find and artisanally made.”
Terry Theise, importer and wine evaluator extraordinaire, began the Grower movement in the late 1990s, a natural extension of his commitment to family houses in Germany and Austria. According to Theise, Grower Champagne accounted for less than 1 percent of the U.S. market in 1997. By 2008, it had grown to 3 percent. The number of wines available is still only about 200 labels, contrasted with nearly 4,000 available in France, but the numbers are encouraging to Theise.
“I have no complaint whatsoever about my Grower Champagne business or the willingness of people to embrace the idea,” Theise told wine journalist Tyler Colman. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has been shooting fish in a barrel, but it has been the easiest sale I’ve ever made.”
Putnam represents Kermit Lynch wines, not Theise’s portfolio (which is represented by Alex Kroblin and Thirst Wine Merchants), but the Champagne in both portfolios is outstanding. Oklahoma City metro restaurateurs committed quickly to Grower Champagne last year, thanks in large part to blind taste tests.
The Grower Champagnes were consistently and easily identifiable against large house Champagnes because of more noticeable fruit flavors, better balance and a discernible lack of sulfur, which is often used as a preservative by the big houses.
Putnam currently has four Grower Champagnes available and said he’s working on bringing in a fifth, one that will be at a lower price point (more good news). Paul Bara and J. Lassalle are both available in brut or brut rosé.
Kroblin has more than a dozen in his portfolio, including Pehu Simonet, Paul Laurent, Marc Hebrart and Pierre Gimonnet. Pehu Simonet and Paul Laurent also have a rosé available.
They are widely available in the metro at both restaurants and retail stores. The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro, 6418 N. Western; Ludivine, 805 N. Hudson; and La Baguette Bistro, 7408 N. May, have J. Lassalle and Paul Bara. They are also available at Edmond Wine Shop, 1520 S. Boulevard in Edmond; Spirit Shop, 1117 Garver in Norman; Oklahoma City Wine Gallery, 12000 S. Western; Coffee Creek Wine Shop, 775 W. Covell in Edmond; and Bacchus Wine & Spirits, 17216 N. May in Edmond.
The Theise wines are available at Edmond Wine Shop, The Metro, Spirit Shop and La Baguette Bistro. They are also available at Broadway Wine Merchants, 824 N. Broadway; Byron’s Liquor Warehouse, 2322 N. Broadway; The Coach House, 6437 Avondale Drive; Boulevard Steakhouse, 505 S. Boulevard in Edmond; and Ranch Steakhouse, 3000 W. Britton.
Photo by Mark Hancock