Champagne is an opulent drink most often saved for special occasions and holidays. But Bryan Maletis, owner of Fat Cork, says any day is a good day for some bubbly, especially the artisan variety.
RM: Can you explain the term “grower champagne”?
BM: Grower champagne is created by the same people who grow the grapes, farm the land and craft every cuvée with care. Grower champagnes are usually small family operations where the land has been passed down for four to six generations.
RM: And how does that affect the product?
BM: Ninety-five percent of all champagne imported in the United States is not grower champagne; it’s mass-produced champagne blended from the grapes of hundreds, or even thousands, of different grape growers and vineyards. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just not artisan. I like eggs great, but then somebody makes you a farm-fresh egg with a super-orange yolk that is so unique and delicious—it’s like that. Once you have grower champagne, you’re spoiled because you know just how great champagne can be when it is produced in small quantities and comes straight from the farm.
RM: In your opinion, is champagne exclusively for special celebrations, or is it appropriate for a nightly glass?
BM: “Celebrate every day” is our mantra at Fat Cork. When your mom comes into town, that’s certainly special enough to open a bottle. When you have a great day at work, open one up. Having a bad day? Toast to whatever makes you happy. Champagne is not just for special occasions, and instead of waiting for an occasion special enough to open a bottle, open a bottle and create the special occasion.
RM: With what part of a meal is champagne best served?
BM: Champagne gets the reputation for being an aperitif only, which is absolutely wrong. It is indeed delicious as an aperitif, but it is also an extremely versatile beverage that pairs well with all sorts of different foods. Especially the small-production grower champagnes; they have a great diversity of flavors. One of my favorite indulgences is opening a great bottle of champagne to start the meal, then also opening a great bottle of red wine and enjoying both as the meal progresses. A sip of champagne after a bite of roast meat or veggies cleans the palate and makes the next bite even more delicious. Then add in a few sips of red wine alongside everything, and it’s a fun dinner indeed.
RM: What do you recommend for the daily glass?
BM: Grower champagne is at the top of the pyramid, and in my biased opinion, it is the best sparkling wine in the world for the money. But it starts at $40 to $50 per bottle, and that’s not realistic for many people. So I recommend drinking other good sparkling wines from around the world made in the champagne method but aged for less time and made from less expensive grapes. When I was starting out, I still fondly remember putting a bottle of great grower champagne in our refrigerator once a month and looking forward to the special treat, while honing my palate on the less expensive stuff during the week. When my wife and I decided to start our Fantastic Champagne Club at Fat Cork, we created the entry-level tier with that idea in mind. We ship you two bottles every other month for a total of 12 bottles per year, or one great grower champagne to enjoy once a month.
RM: What sets your warehouse and tasting room apart from other wine purveyors that simply carry champagne?
BM: All we do is grower champagne. We have 70-plus cuvées that I go over and hand-select every year, and all of our champagnes are exclusive to us in the United States. We don’t buy from importers or distributors; we buy directly from the caves of our producers and ship it directly to our cave in Seattle, where we keep it temperature controlled and ship it direct to customers all over the country. You can’t buy our champagnes anywhere else, and that allows us total control over quality and storage. And for our FC Club members, I actually hand-select cuvées for members based on their preferences. Every member gets a unique shipment. I take their feedback into account every time I select cuvées for them, and also when I go to Champagne to select cuvées from the growers.
RM: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about champagne?
BM: I mentioned it before; the biggest misconception about champagne is that it’s a beverage only for aperitifs, not for the meal. Another misconception is that it’s only for special occasions. Try this next week: your spouse comes home to find an open bottle of champagne and two glasses set out. When they ask you what this is for, simply say, “I love you.” Now you’ve just created a special occasion and a memory that will last a lifetime. This world is crazy, and so is daily life; taking a moment to reflect and celebrate is what makes me most happy.
RM: Do you have any advice for those who are new to the champagne world but would like to learn more?
BM: I would start by hosting a sparkling wine/champagne tasting party. Every couple signs up to bring a different type of bottle, and everyone can taste them together and see the differences. We also post a lot of short, educational videos in our e-mails and on our blog. We love to educate our consumers on the basics of champagne, such as how to open it properly, how to chill it, how to serve it, types of food pairings and even how to saber! Actually, the majority of our FC Club members signed up knowing nothing about champagne, and through their tasting experiences with us, they are now experts.
RM: What are a few bottles you recommend for those once-in-a-lifetime events (wedding, anniversaries, etc.)?
BM: Vintage champagne makes up only 10 to 15 percent of the overall production of champagne, and it’s my personal favorite, as it represents a single great vintage in time. It is crafted to last many years, even decades. We have access to very old vintages that have been aged in the producers’ cellars, not a warehouse. This is critical for old wines to maintain quality.
My personal favorite is the 1996 vintage Blanc de Blancs from our producer Gimonnet-Oger. It’s 100 percent chardonnay from one of the best vintages ever and grown in the finest vineyards for chardonnay in the world. That’s arguable for any wine geek, but I’m happy to argue it anytime. But that bottle is rare (only 300 left in the world), and so it’s also expensive at $159. For under $100, I recommend the Grongnet Special Club 2008. It has a unique story with a specially shaped bottle that highlights it as one of the best grower champagnes. The 2008 vintage is young, but also one of the greatest ever so far, and this cuvée will age for a decade or more. It is $84, and it’s also one I would highly recommend for a once-in-a-lifetime event.
RM: What’s in store for the future of Fat Cork?
BM: In 2015 I will be expanding our portfolio of producers to include still wines as well as champagne. My fingers are still crossed, but I hope to convince a few great producers from the Burgundy region of France to be exclusively represented by Fat Cork.