A Growing Thirst for Grower’s Champagne
For as long as we can all probably remember, Champagne has always been about luxury, style and big brands. Who doesn’t readily recognize names such as Moet & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Krug and Veuve Clicquot, right?
Apart from these big names and the shiny, beautiful people and events they are associated with (i.e. Hollywood siren Scarlett Johansson, the U.S. Open, etc.), Champagne has also always been about consistency and dependability of quality, year in and year out. Years of experience and hard labor are spent trying to perfect a specific house style by blending different wines from various grapes from different parcels of land. Champagne, at least until recently, has never been about having a sense of place or “terroir” as their neighbors from Burgundy or Bordeaux.
Enter the Grower Champagne. Grower Champagne is actually the antithesis of the luxury Champagne brands that we have all come to know and love. These are sparkling wines made by the families who own the vineyards and grow the grapes themselves. The production is very small and hard to come by. But if you ever get a chance to get your hands on a bottle or two, consider yourself lucky.
Grower Champagne has really taken the world by storm in the past decade. Fine wine stockists in the US and the UK can’t get enough of them and sommeliers can’t stop buying them. It is highly likely that this demand is brought on by the fact that less than 10% of the producers export their wines abroad. And once the growers have sold their champagne, there is no buying of juice from their next door neighbors to meet excess demand.
The modern world’s growing obsession with being “closer” to the source and knowing where its food and drink comes from can also be another reason why sales of Grower Champagne is on the rise.
So how do you know that what you’re getting is actually Grower Champagne? It is quite easy to spot. On the label, you will see the initials “RM.” In French, this means Recoltant Manipulant. Simply put, “grower.” In the Champagne business, you will most likely come across several other initials on the bottle such as NM- Negouciant Manipulant (one of the big houses) or CM- Cooperative Manipulant (a cooperative of growers who blend the juices from their vineyards to sell under one or more brands).
Once you see RM on the bottle, then you know you’re about to get your hands on some “farmer fizz” as US wine importer Terry Theise affectionately calls it. These letters seem to be a sign of pride. It is like the grower is telling the buyer, “I am a small player but I know these grapes and I am making the wine myself to give you a taste of what MY product is really like.”
Of course, as with any wine, there will be good ones and there will be bad.
One criticism that Grower Champagne has been constantly given is its potential to have wide disparities in quality from year to year. This is due to the fact that growers are not able to source grapes from all over the Champagne region. They have to depend on their own vineyards. So if a vintage is bad, then the quality of Champagne they produce for that year is likely to suffer.
Jancis Robinson, at a Champagne tasting in 2010, observed that “grower Champagne is not necessarily superior” than the big houses. In fact, she had noted that there were some grower Champagne that were poorly made and rather coarse. Of course, there were also some that blew her away. To these she gave the highest scores: Lallier Grande Réserve Grand Cru, Jean Laurent Blanc de Blancs 1997, Tarlant Brut Prestige 1998.
So, what sets these grower champagnes apart and why should you be trying them?
First of all there is the price. A non-vintage RM bottle could go from between USD40 to USD50. That is around USD10 less than a big house label. Of course, the price can go up from there as with the major brands but since the growers have no huge marketing budgets to sustain and fancy offices to pay for, they are able to price their wines competitively year in and year out.
Second is the style. Grower Champagnes are often drier than the better known brands because they have lower dosage (added sugar). They also tend to show where they are from. In other words, you can actually have Champagne that has a “sense of place.” For example, the Pinot Meunier wines from Vallée de la Marne can be very ripe and fruity while the Chardonnay ones from Côte des Blancs are leaner and crisper. There is a certain character that is associated with every bottle. With Grower Champagne, nothing has been blended into oblivion to achieve a consistent house style. It may not be what people would expect, especially after years of drinking traditional Champagne, but it is a welcome change.
So here are some Grower Champagne that are worth trying (if we can get hold of them) this holiday season:
- Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Côte des Blancs- Chardonnay
- Pehu-Simonet Montagne de Reims- Pinot Noir Dominant
- Pascal Agrapart – Chardonnay
- Rene Geoffroy Vallee dela Marne- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier Blend
- Chiquet Montagne de Reims- Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir