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'Grower' champagnes impress crowd at tasting

By Chuck Furuya

LAST UPDATED: 01:15 p.m. HST, Sep 01, 2010

Master sommelier Roberto Viernes recently conducted a champagne tasting for Oahu's wine professionals at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas. Champagnes in August? The answer is a definite yes -- many people would love to sip on this French bubbly all year long.

On this day, Viernes specifically featured a portfolio of unique "grower" champagnes that wowed the crowd. Grower champagne is one of two main categories of champagne (with a RM designation on the bottle), the other being negociant (NM designation).

Negociant champagne producers aren't necessarily farmers, nor are their grapes necessarily from one vineyard. They are allowed to buy "outside sourced" grapes and/or juice to supplement their needs.

NM houses are dominated by large houses, such as Veuve Clicquot and Moet et Chandon, and therefore produce the bulk of champagne.

Grower champagne producers, in contrast, must own their own vineyards, grow their own grapes and make their own wine.

The finest grower champagnes are usually produced on a smaller scale; they are therefore more artisanal.

One grower champagne that stood out in Viernes' tasting was the Brut Rose from Henri Billiot.

Billiot owns but five hectares of vineyards -- only 300 to 350 cases arrive every year in the United States. With such small production, we are lucky some of them make their way to Hawaii.

All five hectares are rated Grand Cru, the highest quality rating, and because of Billiot's masterful winemaking, descriptors for his acclaimed Brut Rose include "billowing fruit, lacy length, sheer loveliness, superb grip and solidity, tiny bubbles." In short, it's a wine worth checking out.

Grower champagnes can also have a portfolio of different wines, just as the large houses do. This means they can be designated as Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rose or Tete de Cuvee.

Besides the Billiot Brut Rose "Grand Cru" (about $65), other outstanding champagnes from the tasting include the striking, wonderfully pure and uplifting Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs "Grand Cru" (about $55) and a delicious, sumptuous, firm and savory Pehu Simonet Brut "Grand Cru" (about $55).

I spotlight these wines because the restaurant and retail wine buyers who attended Viernes' tasting will likely be featuring them sometime around October. It would be a fun opportunity to check them out, especially since they received so many raves.

In the meantime, visit your favorite stores or restaurants to see if some are already available.

Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the D.K. Restaurant group.

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