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If you love ‘Grower Champagnes’, we’re going to have to Burst Your Bubble

The Wine Geek was in one of his FAVORITE Michigan restaurants recently and during a casual conversation with the owner/manager/wine buyer, the owner stated “we are going to start offering ONLY grower Champagne on our list going forward; no more ‘Grand Marques’.” At the time, we thought nothing of it—this is a small, high-quality restaurant with a cool, eclectic wine list focusing on small estates and hard to get wines–and proceeded to drink the grower Champagne he recommended. But the more we thought about it over the next few days, the more we thought it was a bad idea. Please read on and see if you agree.

Wine Geek Speaks - Grower WinesFirst, let’s clarify what ‘Grower Champagne is. Officially—as in legally in Champagne, France— such wines are known as Récoltant-Manipulant Champagnes. This means that no more than 5% of the grapes in the bottle can have come from other growers (if any at all). It is essentially estate bottled wine. The vast majority of Champagne produced (as in around 95%) is categorized as Négociant- Manipulant, meaning any or all of the wine in the bottle can have been sourced from anybody, anywhere in Champagne. All Champagnes will have the RM or NM designation in very small print somewhere on the label. But to some degree, Grower Champagne is a philosophy as much as it is a legal definition. Indeed, in a handful of cases, some of the biggest, earliest proponents of the ‘grower movement’ have been so successful they are now buying fruit from neighboring growers— though keeping within the same village and using the same philosophies and production values, technically they can’t use the RM designation. So are they or aren’t they? Then there are wines like Krug ‘Clos du Mesnil’ and Bollinger ‘Vieilles Vignes Françaises’—both single vineyard wines from company- owned vines and inarguably at the top of the quality hierarchy in all of Champagne—but since they are produced by houses that operate primarily as ‘NM’s’, they are labeled thusly. It should also be stated that ‘Grower Champagne’ status does not guarantee a higher level of quality; indeed, we had had several examples of Farmer Fizz that were less than exciting.

Even though it is fairly common for middleclass families in Champagne to own a row or a hectare of vines (due mostly to France’s goofy inheritance laws), for a long time the only outlet for those grapes was to sell them to one of the Champagne houses. You see it used to be that in order to turn grapes into Champagne, one needed to have lots of investment to turn the grapes into wine, then to turn that wine into the sparkling wine we know and love—space to age the wine, specialized equipment to do remuage and disgorgement. However, technology is such now that many or all of the processes to turn grapes into Champagne can be handled by cooperatives or community wineries, as well as by private companies that do all these procedures on a contract basis (they can pick up your grapes, and return it as Champagne). So in theory, if you are an auto mechanic and happen to own an acre of vines, it’s not impossible to have your own, completely singular wine. Of course most of the best known and successful grower Champagnes are not ‘hobby’ wines such as just described; they are legitimate vineyard operations of 10 or 20 (or more) hectares that are serious and dedicated to growing the best grapes to make the best Champagnes. The best of these make fabulous, distinct wines with unique personalities and a true sense of place. Anyone who is serious about wine should beg, borrow or steal to get your hands on a bottle of anything from Jacques Selosse (we hear Michigan’s allocation is two six-packs) or anything made by Cedric Bouchard to name a couple. Wines like these dispute the specious notion that some large houses assert that blending wines from across the Champagne region is the only way to assure consistent, high-quality wines year in and year out. Though indeed, Champagne is on ‘the edge’ on viable vineyard lands and does have a dismal vintage a couple of times a decade, vastly improved grape-growing and winemaking over the past couple of decades have made disasters mostly a thing of the past.

The bigger houses do have some advantages however. Because of their scope and resources, there IS a consistency of quality and style that someone limited to just one vineyard or village cannot always achieve. Rarely have we heard anyone declare that Veuve Clicquot ‘Yellow Label’ is ‘the greatest Champagnes I’ve ever had’; but NEVER have we heard anyone say that same wine is not delicious and correct. And don’t forget that the same house—Veuve Clicquot—produces a vintage Champagne which varies in style and quality as the vintage dictates, as well as the legendary ‘La Grande Dame’, Clicquot’s ‘Tête de Cuvée’ which too changes slightly in personality from vintage to vintage, but never in quality or style. And we’ve never seen any Farmer Fizz acolytes turn down a glass of La Grande Dame by the way. There is also the ‘comfort’ offered to some guests—especially those that, alas, only order Champagne occasionally— in ordering a wine with a name they recognize. A restaurateur has much less ‘splainin to do if someone can order a bottle of Krug ‘Grand Cuvée’ as opposed to the only option being Jacques Le Foofoo or Domaine Didier du Merde.

So… to that favorite restaurant of ours, if your client base warrants it, absolutely offer farmer fizz, but we think it’s a mistake not to offer the complete range. After all, there are really only two kinds of Champagne—good and really good!

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