Champagne houses come in all sizes, from those with well-known brands whose bubbly splashes out of millions of bottles each year to small producers whose quality far outpaces their quantity. A special group of these small producers is known as Independents, and this is why: Unlike large houses that buy all or most of their grapes, Independents must own or lease at least 90 percent of their vineyards; they make wines that reflect the individual character of those vineyards; they count their production in thousands, not millions, of bottles; and they often do much of their winery work by hand.
One of the finest Independents is José Dhondt. His Blanc de Blancs Brut Non-Vintage ($56) is a wine of tiny, intense bubbles, minerally, crisp and nicely nuanced. His vintaged Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Mes Vielles Vignes ($82), the product of 65-year-old vines, is a magnificent Champagne, a mélange of melon and apples in aroma, a blend of satin and lace in texture.
Bernard Girardin made Champagne for about 50 years before asking his daughter Sandrine to take over. Today, she and her husband are Girardin’s only full-time employees, doing every winery task through to the final steps, three years after a harvest when the Champagne is released. Among their Champagnes are Bernard Girardin Brut Cuvée 2002 ($75), smooth yet feisty, delicate yet round and full; and Brut BG Cru Non-Vintage ($53), a particularly lively wine with miniscule bubbles that seem to go on forever.
Laherte Frères, founded in 1889, offers its Brut Tradition Non-Vintage ($44), piquant, delicate and lemony with a hint of green apple. Its Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($53) from a single vineyard, La Pierre de la Justice, is rich, aromatic, elegant and complex.
And there are the Laherte Frères’ two Rosés. Rosé Non-Vintage ($50) is a bright, fruity wine with an aroma that reminds me of fresh, ripe raspberries and with mouth-filling texture. Its Rosé de Saignée-Les Beaudiers Non-Vintage ($88) is a rarity, a Rosé Champagne made entirely from the Pinot Meunier grape. It is a refreshing, golden pale pink, full, luscious and firm-bodied Champagne.
Other Independent producers of fine Champagne include Vazart-Coquart, Marcel Moineaux, Bernard Brémont and Jacques Picard — all of them well worth the search.
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