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Not just any old bubbly, grower Champagne is something special

Farmer's Fizz

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It's New Year's Eve. How are you going to toast 2012, the potential year the world will end? Buy a bottle of cheap Cook's and hold your nose? Or perhaps splurge on a magnum of Dom Pérignon and really do it up.

But why do that when you could actually enjoy drinking good wine at a good value? Grower Champagne is the sexy little secret of the Champagne world. This class of sparkling wines is unique and fun to drink. If you're looking for something special to ring in 2012 (did I mention it's the potential end of all things?), skip the Moët and the Veuve Clicquot and search out a bottle of farmer's fizz, Champagne that's produced by the growers themselves.

In the Champagne region of France (if it's from somewhere else, it's not Champagne), most growers sell grapes to the big houses, who then press and mix up their tried-and-true formulas, resulting in a predictable bottle of Champagne. Kind of like how McDonald's can churn out the same exact burger at their restaurants across the country — it's mass-produced factory work vs. artisanal craftsmanship. But growers who handcraft and bottle their own Champagne end up with wine that is inherently unique to the village and even the parcel of land on which the grape was grown. This expression of place is called terroir, and it's why you might want to seek out the farmer's fizz.

Kevin Pike, regarded by many as one of the foremost experts on grower Champagne, was in Charleston recently and held a seminar for buyers, merchants, and sommeliers. He says Charleston has been a training ground for the idea that grower Champagne is simply better than big house Champagne. In 2004, he held his first seminar here and led a blind tasting in which the big houses overwhelmingly lost out to the small producers.

"Unique Champagne should be celebrated," says Pike. "The big house Champagne has no terroir, no expression."

Clint Sloan, McCrady's sommelier who is leaving to work with Pike representing the Terry Theise portfolio of wines at Michael Skurnik, says it's an education process. When he started at the restaurant back in the '90s, White Zinfandel still had a spot on the wine list, because people drank it and thought it was just fine. Weaning people off the dastardly blush wine took some coaxing. Same thing with Champagne. People order Veuve Clicquot because they see the seductive ads of a luxury brand. Drinking it is like making love to a beautiful woman. It's like telling time on a Rolex. It's like being a high-rolling hip-hop star. Or it's like spending too much for something that's not all that special.

We asked Harry Root of Grassroots Wine, who represents Terry Theise's portfolio in Charleston, to recommend some grower Champagnes and tell us where to find them around town. Ask for it at your favorite restaurant. Chances are, if they're serious about food, they're serious about their wine list and will have a selection of grower Champagnes. You can also shop for them at stores like Avondale Wine and Cheese in West Ashley and Crushed in Mt. Pleasant. Here are three to keep an eye out for.

Marc Hébrart — 'Cuvee de Reserve' Brut N.V.
From Vallee de la Marne

In his catalog, Terry Theise describes this one as a "balls-to-the-wall superb version of this wine ... Swollen flavors, overripe fruits, wonderfully arranged and organized, shimmery brilliant high tones and a lemony finish ... crammed with fruit." I don't know about you, but reading descriptions like that makes me want to run out and get a glass to try and detect what it is they're describing. This Champagne is a mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape, a perfectly charming bottle to take along for a midnight toast. Bottles in Mt. Pleasant has been carrying this one for $37. You can also find it on the wine list at The Grocery, Kevin Johnson's new restaurant on Cannon Street.

L. Aubry Fils —Brut N.V.
From Montagne de Reims

If you're looking for something to perfectly pair with a dozen oysters on the half shell, this just might be your bottle. Buzzy and crisp, it's produced by L. Aubry Fils, an estate considered to be one of the most original in France. The Brut N.V. is their most accessible, but you could also seek out their rosés, since Aubry makes some of the best pink fizz out there. Debbie Marlowe sells Aubry for around $38 at The Wine Shop on Lockwood Boulevard in the City Marina. Indeed, she has quite a large selection of bubbles and says she looks for super premium wines at a fair price. "We like the Aubry the best," she says. "It's a premier cru and it has a disgorgement date on the back of the bottle so you know it hasn't been sitting around in storage."

Pehu-Simonet — "Selection" Brut - NV
From Montagne de Reims

The logo design on this bottle might dissuade you from trying this interesting wine. The overlapping PS looks like something a tech school dropout would've designed for a logo class. Bad. But the stuff inside is quite complex and seductive with spicy and alluring flavors, a good choice if you'll be hanging out with a bunch of wine geeks who you'd like to impress. You can find this by the glass at Peninsula Grill and on the list at FIG where owner and resident wine expert Adam Nemirow says it's his favorite grower Champagne by far.

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