You would love to celebrate a special event with a nice French champagne, but are intimidated by the nosebleed prices of the most popular brands. Relief may be on its way, thanks to the efforts of Champagne de Vignerons, a syndicate of about 5,000 small, mostly family-owned wineries authorized to label their Methode Champenoise wines, “Champagne”.
Just what are “Grower Champagnes”? The major brands like Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon are typically “negociants”, which buy grapes from dozens of small growers from across the Champagne region and produce hundreds of thousands of cases of sparkling wines per year—wines that are typically blended to have consistent taste year after year.
Grower Champagnes, by contrast, are those produced by the growers themselves. These grower/producers differ from negociants in a number of important ways. They, for example, are much smaller, typically producing only hundreds or a few thousand cases per year. They also produce wines only with their own grapes. They are, in other words, artisanal producers, rather than mass merchants. While they account for about one-quarter of the region’s 20,000 growers, they produce only about 10 percent of all champagne.
What does this mean for their wines? Since the grapes typically come from only a single or a couple nearby vineyards from the same village, they are more dependent on the nuances of the specific terroir. They, therefore, typically have more distinct tastes and, since they are so dependent on the weather of a particular growing season, are more likely to differ from year to year. And, since there wines are more likely produced for domestic tastes, they typically use less “dosage (the reserve wine and pure cane sugar added to compensate for the wine lost in the disgorging process) and are typically drier (Brut, Extra Brut or even Brut Nature) than negociant wines.
Moreover, since these small producers have much less capital than the negociants, they typically can’t afford to cellar their wines for as long. Therefore, wines are aged for less time—typically about 1 year in oak plus another five or fewer in the bottle.
The good news is that since these vintners own their own grapes and spend so little on marketing, their wines tend to be much less expensive than those of their larger counterparts. The bad news is that they are more likely to be consumed locally and few reach U.S. retail stores. Another complication: since Champagne is such a large wine growing region, with so many soil types and micro-climates, there can be significant differences among wines grown in each of Champagne’s four regions:
- Cote Des Bar, which is the warmer, southern-most region (just above Burgundy), tends to blend wines with larger percentages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes and have fuller, rounder, more complex tastes;
- Marne Valley, the next further north region, has more diversity among individual vineyards, tends to rely more heavily on Pinot Meunier grapes and produces fragrant, fruit-based wines;
- Cote des Blanc, which is further north, has a climate and chalky soil that is better suited to Chardonnay and tends to produce lighter, more delicate wines;
- Montagne de Reims, the northern-most region of Champagne, produces more structured, deeply flavored Pinot Noir-based wines.
But, as we discovered at a recent Champagne de Vignerons workshop and tasting in San Francisco (intended to introduce wine stores and sommeliers to Grower Champagnes), the rewards offered by these wines can greatly outweigh the difficulties in finding and selecting those that are best suited to your tastes. So, when you are looking for your next bottle of champagne, consider the road less taken—a wonderful, distinctive Grower Champagne (identified by the initials “RM”, for Récoltant-Manipulant) on the label. Your palate and your budget will thank you.
And if your retailer does not yet offer Grower Champagnes—strongly request that they do so.