A STAGGERING 96 PERCENT of Champagnes sold in the United States are known as Grandes Marques—literally, “big brands.” Those special occasion Dom Perignons are blends, made of grapes from vineyards across France’s Champagne region. The other 4 percent are grower Champagnes, made by the growers themselves, from a single vineyard. They’re often described as artisanal, small batch, and farm to table, terms more commonly applied to a goat cheese at the Ballard farmers market. One major U.S. importer dubbed it “farmer fizz.”
While single-vineyard sourcing is customary for other varietals, it’s practically revolutionary in the rigidly traditional world of Champagne. One Seattle couple, Bryan and Abby Maletis, is bringing the revolution stateside. Their year-old company Fat Cork is the only U.S. outlet for more than 50 vintages from a dozen producers, most of them adventurous young scions of longtime Champagne families. Fat Cork sells directly to drinkers online or at its small garden-level space in Lower Queen Anne. There the Maletises conduct tastings at a high wooden table, contrasting a crisp blanc de blanc from Champagne’s Le Mesnil-sur-Oger commune with a richer version from the northern Montagne de Reims.
Bryan Maletis grew up in a major Portland-based family of beer distributors, but developed his ardor for Champagne working with the Laurent-Perrier brand in New York. It’s a love that’s charmingly geeky: When Abby challenges him to summarize grower Champagne in five minutes or less, he talks for about 15. But he’s an effective salesman. When Bryan met Abby, he converted her into a Champagne devotee, then sold her on the idea of marrying him and starting this business.
Here in Seattle you’d never know grower Champagne was a relative rarity. Seattle was an early adopter when the influx picked up in 2007, according to wine seller Michael Teer, who mostly eschews Big Champagne at his Soul Wine and Pike and Western wine shops. Many local sommeliers and shop owners (heck, even Whole Foods) stock these niche bottles. The downtown wine restaurant RN74 offers nearly 50 Champagnes; all but six are grower vintages. Lead sommelier Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen likens grower vintages to a detailed drawing of a specific place, while mainstream bottles “use large brushstrokes to give you an idea of what Champagne tastes like.”
The easiest way to identify a grower Champagne is to ask a sommelier or shopkeeper. Bottles bear the initials R.M., meaning “Récoltant-Manipulant,” or “grower-maker.” Small-batch bubbles start at about $38, though many sell for less than $50. Sure, sparklers come cheaper, but Bryan Maletis says cost reflects what’s inside the bottle: “You’re not paying for ad space at the Golden Globes.”
Much to his regret, “A lot of people will only have Champagne as an appetizer or aperitif.” But he’s determined to transform a beverage associated with marriage proposals and New Year’s Eve into a common accompaniment for a steak dinner or a night on the couch with popcorn.
111 W John St Ste 136A, Lower Queen Anne, 206-257-1730; fatcork.com