Grower Champagnes: Look closely - and get more fizz for your bucks
- Thursday 2 April 2009
The combination of the punishing economic climate and sky-high Champagne prices has surpassed the pain threshold of many consumers.
The good news?
There is a way you can trade down in price without compromising on quality.
How? Grower Champagne.
Essentially, grower Champagnes are handcrafted wines with genuine goût de terroir. Whereas the big, well-known brands (or grandes marques) buy in most of their grapes, grower Champagnes are made by the growers themselves.
Add to that an alluring price, and we have an unpolished diamond on our hands. From an outsider’s perspective, grower Champagnes seem like a well guarded treasure, reserved for French domestic consumption only.
Taking into account Champagne’s global presence and brand, it is astonishing the French still manage to drink more than 55% of it – 2.8 bottles per capita. Although the majority of this is made up by the grandes marques, small grower Champagnes account for a hefty 40% of consumption.
Families each have their own regular supplier and most sales are done at the cellar door.
Overseas, by contrast, grower Champagnes are under-represented, with only 8% exported. Scandinavia and the US are rare examples of markets where grower production has positive
connotations and significant distribution.
There, the sector is promoted by the press and by sommeliers as an authentic, exiting, value-for-money option. In most other countries, however – notably the UK – they are seen not as an attractive choice, but merely as a less expensive one.
If this has been your perspective, it is time for a reassessment.
The rise of terroir
Champagne has not generally been regarded as a terroir wine for the simple reason that it is multi-sourced and highly processed, with its essence in blending.
Due to this blended, branded nature, Champagne is often considered more a luxury product than a wine. But true wine lovers are becoming increasingly educated, and Champagne is turning from a mere aperitif and celebratory drink into a ‘serious’ wine.
Many terroirists, such as Jean-Hervé Chiquet of Jacquesson, think Champagne’s vinous
revolution is only just beginning. And it is on the vinous side that growers have a unique competitive edge: wines with a true sense of place, a high degree of authenticity and genuine scarcity.
Taking this into account, grower production – which commonly averages around 100,000-200,000 bottles a year – should be much more attractive than a grande marque prestige cuvée produced in millions. Go back a few decades and compare Burgundy and Champagne.
Burgundy, too, used to be dominated by large négociants.
Today, the most reputed and highly priced wines are those of the small growers, as appreciation of identifiable origins is commonplace.
The magic is in the land, whether your wine of choice be Romanée-Conti, Quinta do Noval
Nacional or L’Ermita. Due to the blended nature of Champagne, even educated professionals
often do not understand the sub-regions of the area as they do Burgundy or Bordeaux.
Yet the versatility or terroirs and grape varieties are the key to its understanding. So, even while I admire the seeming simplicity of Champagne, this is where I disagree with the grandes marques who do not wish to discuss the product in detail, be it winemaking, varietal composition or disgorgement date.
Passionate connoisseurs should be given a chance to understand the product and its origins.
Consumer interest in understanding Champagne has led to the emergence of terroir styles – single village (mono-cru) or single vineyard (mono-parcelle) wines – by both Champagne houses and small producers.
It is here the growers have much to offer, since they commonly source all their grapes from their own vineyards, maybe only in one village or in one vineyard. What might be lost in the
harmony of a multi-region blend is gained in the personality and versatility of regional characteristics.
Taste the difference
As in any other top-quality wine region, there are identifiable differences between each commune’s production. In the Chardonnay heaven of Côte des Blancs, for instance, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger produces the steeliest and finest Chardonnays, exemplified by the purist style of Guy Charlemagne.
The commune of Cramant produces more subtle and feminine, sensuous wines, such as those of Diebolt-Vallois. Avize delivers a stylish balance of power and charm, Agrapart serving as a textbook example. In short, there is a whole new world to discover.
Not all grower Champagne is good, but there are sound reasons why it can be.
Usually growers supplying the bigger Champagne houses are paid by the quantity of grapes, not the quality. This can lead some producers to prefer young, productive vines.
But a quality-oriented grower works his land and cares for it. Yields are kept low and old vines are considered essential. Pascal Agrapart, for example, aims to make a vintage wine
every year – a rarity in Champagne – through careful work on land and vines.
In accordance with today’s values, many growers are selecting non-interventionist winemaking and organic, or even biodynamic, viticulture as the route to quality.
Vertus-based Larmandier-Bernier is a great example of a wholly biodynamic grower whose philosophy is to reflect the terroir at its purest in the glass.
Agrapart goes even further. He has trialled for a number of years a totally natural method of making Champagne without any additions. The grapes are grown biodynamically, chaptalisation is not an option and the wine is fermented with natural yeasts.
What is revolutionary is the second fermentation, which is initialised by adding sweet grape must from the following vintage. No sugar is added at any stage. This method had been illegal but, last year, Agrapart got the green light from the regulatory body to start production officially.
In addition to identifiable origins and natural methods, authenticity also comes from the people involved. With grower Champagne, you know that the grapes have been grown and the wine made by those who have their name on the label – a rarity in Champagne.
Visiting the growers is a very different experience from the luxurious but sometimes overly staged, impersonal tours provided by the grandes marques. The growers – artisans and farmers – need to be pulled out of their vineyards to talk.
But once you have managed to make an appointment, they are proud to show you their production. Compared to the price levels we are used to, grower Champagnes are
In France, you can get a good grower Champagne for €15. Even the most prestigious rarely exceed €40. With the grandes marques, €30 is the entry point. So why are the small-volume grower Champagnes cheaper?
For the answer we must look at the market structure. There are inherent instabilities of supply and demand in the region. The 15,000 growers own 88% of vineyards but sell only 20% of Champagne.
Most of them sell grapes, not wine. Consequently, an ongoing battle of supply and demand has taken place since time immemorial.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was massive dissatisfaction on the growers’ part – the Champagne houses flourished, yet little of the profit went their way. Then, in 1929, when the houses were unable to buy grapes due to economic strife, the grower Champagne
movement was started.
Nowadays, rising bottle unit prices, increased demand and higher grape prices have encouraged and empowered the growers.
Shift in power
As demand for grapes has been exceeding supply, the prices of vineyards and grapes have risen to record highs, strengthening the position of growers. In the old days it was the négociants who drove the Mercedes; today it is the growers.
Owning land in the region has become increasingly profitable, with a hectare of grand cru vineyard trading at around €1.2 million. Land prices are the highest in the wine world, except for perhaps a few plots in Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Owning your vineyard land, as opposed to having to buy the grapes at €6 a kilo, enables growers to price their wines well below the grandes marques. But own-production is not an easy route.
The power and prestige is in the hands of a small number of brands. The grandes marques are fabulous marketeers whereas many growers remain modest in their marketing skills and resources. Many do not even go beyond their cellar door to sell.
Thus prices have remained modest and margins below the grandes marques.
Things are moving on again: there are now a number of successful ‘deluxe growers’ – internationally reputed highquality producers.
Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse has given an international face to the deluxe grower movement. His charisma, pioneering spirit and out-ofthe- ordinary wines have paved the way for many others.
Sadly, numerous growers don’t export at all, but the few who have managed to make a name for themselves or find appropriate distribution abroad sometimes export more than 50% of their production.
Most deluxe growers are able to maintain slightly higher than standard prices, but these wines can still represent fantastic value for money. Only Selosse and a handful of others can charge prices above those of the grandes marques.
The Special Club
Despite a few success stories, individual growers can get lost on the global market, and wider cooperation, such as the wonderful Club Trésors de Champagne (Special Club Champagnes), is needed.
This club is a grouping of a handful of individual, quality-oriented growers, who brand their prestige cuvées as ‘Special Club’. There is a Special Club bottle and label and all the wines are approved by a tasting panel of members.
Time and again I find these to be outstanding, surpassing many grandes marques’ prestige cuvées in quality and personality. It is a shame they remain so scarcely known.
Until now, the grower Champagnes have played in a different sand-pit from the grandes marques. But these sympathetic underdogs are now being offered an opportunity to show their value and worth and to establish themselves on international markets.
It is time to look beyond the ostentatious side of Champagne, and to see the wine.