I admire, drink and promote many so-called ‘grower’ champagnes. But there is often a slim grasp of the facts and concept out there. Some say ‘grower’ is the bees knees of ‘terroir’ and authenticity and dismiss the famous ‘grandes marques’ houses. Others reject ‘grower’ as rustic and overrated and follow only the big name houses. It can be a dialogue of the deaf which divides champagne into a deadly dualism with one of these worlds often banished to the outer darkness. It’s time there was less crass simplicity and more clarity.
1 Most ‘grower’ champagne is not made by the growers and not with their own grapes.
Some 58% (2013 figures), the majority of ‘grower’ champagne, is coop members’ identical blended ‘soup’ on which they put their own brand label. The coop growers RCs (or Récoltant Coopérateurs’) have grown the grapes but the wine is made for them at the local coop and their grapes are pooled into a coop blend. They are usually selling the same wines as their neighbours, but with different labels or branding. This ‘coop clone’ champagne can be decent but is rarely high quality and often mediocre. But if other wine regions sold the same wine like this, but with different producer labels, there would be an international outcry. Champagne does it but few abroad seem to know or realise how the RC system works, even within the wine trade. This is no shock revelation, yet an eerie silence reigns.
2 The term ‘grower’ romanticises small champagne producers
It presents them as artisanal horny-handed sons and daughters of toil, one American critic even calling it ‘farmer fizz.’ This is hopeless urban condescension in many cases. This imagery may please hipsters and help turn some grower champagnes into cult wines with inflated prices. But champagne with straw in its mouth is no more near the mark than the sometimes overdone glitz and glamour imagery of the global brand champagne ‘houses’. The best grower champagnes depend more on originality in vitculture, winemaking and technical expertise than the hands-on traditional graft of the artisan farmer. Even growing top grapes these days is a matter of science and technique. To stereotype and glorify peasant-farmer trappings leaves the field of sophisticated imagery to the big ‘houses’.
3 Only a fraction of so-called ‘grower champagne’ is high quality
In the same way, but a fraction of the wines of the big global brands is truly outstanding fine wine. Basic to being a candidate for ‘grower’ quality, but just the starting point, is that the domaine is totally self-sufficient: its own land, only its own grapes, and makes everything itself. But of these RMs (Récoltants Manipulants’, (42% or 1,951 of growers in 2013), probably only roughly 150 are making truly high quality wine at present. Often, to be noticed, domaine champagne needs to overachieve.
4 ‘Domaine’ or ‘Single Estate’ champagne is the best term for the true ‘grower’ champagnes.
Only RMs should qualify. ’Domaine’ is the term used for a proper wine estate universally by critics, producers and wine lovers worldwide and should be adopted in Champagne. It expresses the integrity of using only one’s own grapes from one’s own land and making all the wine yourself under your own control. Already many top champagne ‘growers’, use the name ‘domaine’.
5 We should stop using the term ‘house’ and ‘grower’ interchangably.
Critics, marketeers and sales people often conflate these terms and obscure a vital distinction. No matter how much of champagne’s vines the houses own (only 10%) they are not self-sufficient and nearly all purchase grapes they have not grown themselves. This is the true definition of a house or ‘negociant’. (NM): a producer who can buy in the raw material to make the wine and usually does.
6 Grower champagnes do not automatically taste of ‘terroir’.
The concept of ‘terroir’ in wine is fragile and poorly established. Wines do not have ‘terroir’ just because the grapes come from a limited and identifiable vineyard area. Terroir is not conferred automatically by origin or intent before the wine is made; it must show tangibly in the taste of the wine. The wines must have a taste unique, characteristic, specific to that vineyard or district. But many commentators merely assert this in vague metaphors.
Certain villages or districts in Champagne do seem to have a taste profile but winemaking creates taste variables too. Many domaines do not make only ‘local brews’, but blend as well from quite widespread origins and these cuvées are often excellent and can show other aspects of ‘terroir’. Champagne has always shown great savoir-faire and excellence by blending across vintages, districts and varieties. This does not invalidate high quality. A champagne can still be poor quality, poorly made, even if its grapes come from a limited place. Mediocre winemaking obscures terroir. Great wine making is as much a condition of expressing terroir as the terroir itself.
7 Domaine or single estate (old term ‘grower’) champagne should not be virtuously counterposed to the big branded champagne houses’ wines.
Most of the houses, at least within their range, can make fabulous wines. They have great experience and expertise, possess great cellars and reserve wines and can source wines for many stunning blends and possess the stocks for good aging. The jibe that houses merely make ‘house styles’ ignores the fact most domaine (‘grower’) champagnes also show the signature of the producer clearly and consistently as at least one aspect of their identity. Predictable, easy-drinking and crowd-pleaser champagne is as much made by many ‘growers’ as it is by many houses.
Just to be clear, on balance, the average quality of the big houses’ champagnes is at present higher than the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagne. A champagne does not score brownie points just because it is ‘grower’. Nor does a wine from a big house. It is the taste profile of the final wine in both cases that is the arbiter of quality. And ‘growers’ benefit enormously from the international prestige of the Champagne appellation; they flourish under its umbrella just as the houses bask in the interest, ‘buzz’ and diversity of domaine champagne.
8 Critics and wine journalists should stop recommending domaine or single estate champagne for its ‘good value’ pricing.
We are often advised to buy domaine champagne because it is cheaper than the big brands. But very good champagne deserves a good price whether made by a house or domaine. The top domaine champagnes in fact have prices higher than many of the houses’ wines, and why not? The reason so much mainstream ‘supermarket’ wine is mediocre is because the public have been educated by many wine critics to race to the bottom on price. If critics do not oppose buying the promo ‘deal’ instead of buying good champagne then all wine, all champagne, will be mainstream and mediocre. Sometimes a great wine can be found at a modest price. But this is not the same as recommending plonk just because it is cheap.
9 Domaine or single estate champagne can be and is becoming ineffably ‘cool’.
This is because it dares to be different, at least amongst its greatest exponents. It needs to tell a story which highlights and connects the consumer with the people who make it, because it cannot yet compete with the huge brand resonance of the big brand champagne houses. It can show a range of flavours – including ‘terroir’ – hooray! – and stylistic moves that are original, unusual, exciting and astonishing. This diversity challenges the dogmatism that champagne should taste one way, the samey mainstream champagne style. Domaine champagne is as great a glory to Champagne as the big houses, and the best show classicism as well as innovation. But waving the heritage flag of tradition down generations, rather than claiming outstanding quality, proven in taste, is a mistake for domaine champagne.
It is a good thing domaine champagne can sometimes scare the horses. This is what makes it cool. It changes the imaginative boundaries of champagne winemaking, creates a healthy ‘culture clash’, call it a shake-up if you will, within Champagne. Domaine champagne should strive to change and develop its wine to ever higher quality and take its customers with it. There is a sense that the big houses sometimes work hard to get better at making the same thing. Domaine champagne is not frightened to develop its flavours and styles if it means more finesse, greater precision and balance, complexity with longevity: better and more interesting champagne.
Domaine champagne is about the science, art and soul of its makers. It should refuse to be tied down by staid imagery of history, aspirational lifestyles , and ‘bling’. In London right now, the best restaurant wine list of single estate top quality domaine champagnes in the whole country, and by some way, is at ‘Bubbledogs’ which serves more or less only one item with them: hot dogs.
10 Quality selection rules. In the UK right now, domaine or single estate champagne needs to reconnect with marketing top quality and not finding ‘growers’ to import at all costs at modest prices.
Too many, not all, importers of these wines seem to have selected their portfolio with less regard for quality, perhaps without enough wine-tasting experience or expertise being applied. Exclusivities are sought for quick direct import when more careful selection of quality is crucial. Proper selection demands repeated long-term visiting of producers, discussion with them, study of their viticulture and winemaking over an extended period, maybe several years, and exhaustive tasting in Champagne .
A number of web-based marketeers for ‘grower’ champagne adopt the easy lowest common-denominator ‘farmer fizz and ‘artisan’ imagery, and some say they sell only ‘grower’ but lob in some houses or coop wines too. The marketing by growers’ representatives in Champagne treats coop clones as generically equal to proper domaines and little quality sifting goes into the export effort. A useful promotional body in the proper sense of single estates is www.vigneron-independant.com, although this is not just for indie champagne producers, but all France.
This quality problem does not of course apply to the 25 or so elite domaines already internationally established as the stars of single estate champagne. But the real work of exploring and finding the next top single domaines has barely begun. Probably, many of them have yet to be found. Which is exciting and very cool.
The established stars of domaine champagne:
I have included Jacquesson (NM) because they behave like a domaine in so many ways. In my view, Jacquesson may well be the best quality producer currently, in all Champagne.Agrapart Paul Bara
Bérèche et Fils
Vouette et Sorbée (Bertrand Gautherot)
*Picture is the Terroir & Talents domaine group poster: 2013 tasting in Epernay