Champagne’s Grower Whoppers

Most of Champagne’s best producers are unknown to most champagne enthusiasts. What other wine is like that? I often meet people who drink quite a bit of champagne maybe several times a week. They are happy to say they are champagne lovers. Heavy users. And they can reel off the names of ten producers at least; usually all big house brands. They drink some high class boutique houses too. Gosset and Ruinart are on their lips; Salon, no probs.  Wow, even AR Lenoble. They have good taste.

And of course, these can be lovely wines. But they have never heard of Selosse, Agrapart, Bérêche, Egly-Ouriet, Péters or Chartogne-Taillet. If I gave them these wines blind they would love them too.  OK, perhaps not the nose of some Selosse. I love the ‘houses’ above and these names too. It’s my job to know about them. The ‘unknowns’ are ‘grower’champagnes of course.

But in contrast there are bunches of champagne fan fashionistas in leading international champagne markets who know lots about ‘grower’ champagne. The names of Agrapart et al roll easily off their tongues, their lifestyle stock in trade. They are very coterie in the USA, Japan, Italy, France (of course), the Benelux and Germany.  Question to world: why is ‘grower’champagne such a slow burn in the UK? But the on trend, and hip and hot, when it comes to champagne, drink almost only ‘grower’, even if, particularly in the UK, they seem for now to be only a fringe. And these complete worshippers of ‘grower’ may even feel drinking the big houses is a bit infra dig.

So, it’s not just that the big house serious champagne drinkers do not know much or anything about ‘grower’. The ‘grower’ people, like a mirror, often give the big houses a wide berth. and may not know that much about them, beyond the big names in lights. We have a curious, polite stand-off, a tension between house and grower, with one side neglecting or even ignoring the other. There’s nothing new in this. I’ve sat and listened to some (a minority I think) leading grande marque house executives and owners who dismiss most ‘grower’ champagnes as rustic, very small production and smelly. Or another, now retired, who raved at how the growers held the houses to ransom with high grape prices, and kept grapes for themselves to make their own champagne. Not good form he thought.

Then, among trade and consumers there are those with a prejudice for big houses because they are well-known, easily bought and marketed in our faces. They are traditional with (in the UK at least) a very conservative fine wine public and if you sell champagne, that’s what has always sold.

Grower fans on their side, point to the largely chemical management of what vineyards they have, by many houses . Not nice. And then there’s the easy finger to point at the marketing budget spent by the big houses. There’s something about branded wine some people don’t like.  The same people who adorn their lives with Nike, Apple, Agas and Audi, feel uncomfortable if wine estates spend a polo mint on marketing. Smoke, mirrors and wine should stay away from each other is a view I meet.  Of course, there’s a grain of truth in this position too. With the exception of some champagnes, most heavily-branded wines around the world are distinctly mediocre, simple and aimed at the mass market. Branding is hard to stomach for products seen as ‘natural’.

In the end, us champions of ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ champagnes (see here why I prefer this term to ‘grower’) need a reality check on how to market these up and coming champagnes.  Surely the goal is to help them out of the shadows so they can stand side by side in proud comparison with the wines of the grande marques. The disastrous idea that ‘big house’ and ‘single estate’ belong to two different champagne realities and should not really compare or compete, seems to me the wrong route to take. It is divisive for big Champagne to shun the quality of single estates. It is equally divisive for fans of single estates to regard big Champagne as the untermenschen of mass production and glossy marketing, if only because a huge number of truly high quality champagnes will then be ruled out of court. Remember vintage champagne is only 3% of all champagne made.

But I think too, the wine trade, journalists and consumers who sell, write about and consume ‘grower’ champagne, need to up their information game about ‘grower’ champagne. Here are some of the whoppers that are not true about ‘grower’ champagne.  I wish bloggers and wine pundits would stop telling such fibs.

1  There are 5000 growers who make their own champagne. Not so. The true figure they refer to (2015) is 4461. But only 42% of them, some 1891 producers, actually make their own champagne. The rest, 58%, a big majority and 2570 in toto, do not make champagne, they have it made for them by the local coop winery they belong to. Not only that, but their grapes are mixed in with everyone else’s. They get pro rata bottles of champagne back from the coop and they sell it. But just to make it clear, what’s in the bottles is a soup of all the local grapes and they did not make the wine. The ‘true’ growers, called récoltants-manipulants (RMs) are the only ‘grower’ champagnes we should pay any attention.  My top 30 is at the end of my last article here. But there is another hundred-odd worth looking at too if you are keen.

2 Grower champagne is ‘good value.’ By which pundits mean significantly cheaper than the big house bottles. At the top end, see my Top 30, no it’s not. The prices are the same and often higher than Moët-Clicquot-Mumm. And why not? You hear some critics say it should be cheaper because their marketing costs are low. Are they?  Per bottle? And in any case, sheer scaling means costs per bottle of a small estate producer are going to be higher per unit than Big Champagne.  And if the wine is good enough, why should you pay less?

3 Grower champagne is ‘terroir champagne’. There are two issues here. The first implies that grower champagne is usually the product of single cru villages or even single parcels and vineyards, rather than made by far flung blending on the Big Champagne model. It is true the growers will have, near the top of their range, very small-scale wines from a precise vineyard. But their entry level wines will often be blends from quite widespread origins as is the way in all Champagne. And the grower estates are much more dotted over quite big distances than many commentators realise.  The idea growers express a single village is simply not often true. Laherte Frères have 80 parcels, spread over 10 villages. Selosse is in Avize, Cramant, Oger, Le Mesnil, Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Ambonnay. Bérêche in Ludes, Ormes, Mareuil-le-Port, Trépail and Mailly – about a 90 kilometre round trip. I could go on.

The other issue I have is with the way some commentators attribute ‘terroir’ to a grower’s wines simply because the grower takes enormous care with viticulture and working the soil, along with variations of being organic or bio-dynamic. An admirable concern for the terroir elides neatly into implying the wines therefore taste of the terroir.  What is going on here is mixing two different meanings of terroir and I simply ask people to be more precise with what is already a bar of soap. On the other hand, I do absolutely agree that villages and districts of Champagne do make wines often which taste consistently individual. But these tend to be very specific bottles in most growers’ range of cuvées.

That’s enough for now. Do send your views in ‘comment’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m head over heels in love with many champagne single estates. But I worry if a cultish mythology about it means we need to clean up our act a bit when we fashion the identity and quality of ‘grower’ champagne in the media and wine education.  See you in the bar of soap.

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