In the wine industry there is a lot of talk about grower champagnes… you might be seeing wine mags, bloggers and champagne buffs talk about a ‘grower revolution’ or the ‘rise of the grower champagne’. But what exactly is a grower champagne? Or maybe you’re thinking, is this just another bunch of arty-farty wine wankers marketing themselves as the hot new thing?
Before I answer that, I do need to sound the wine nerd alarm! Some of the words in this post totally sound wine-wanky. I really try not to use the wine snob vocab BUT words like terroir and expression come up a lot in this post … but stick with me, I am full of analogies that will actually mean something!
Really simply, grower champagnes are champagnes produced by the people who actually grow the grapes. That sounds simple enough and you might be wondering – well, who else would make the champagne?
Traditionally, the business of champagne saw champagne houses make champagne from the grapes they bought from growers. This approach supports the style of champagne as a blended wine… houses would buy grapes from all over the region and blend the grapes, years, crus, vineyards, reserve wines etc to make champagnes in their ‘house style’. (Read about the different regions and the different grapes used in champagne and the flavours they impart to the champs and get an intro to terroir here).
Over time (starting as long ago as 1905), there’s been an interest in more site-specific champagnes. Or champagne made from the grapes in just one kick-ass village or vineyard or plot. This interest initially created an opportunity for growers who only owned single or small vineyards (and previously thought to not be enough to blend a decent champagne) to produce their own champagnes.
Three main types of champagne makers
Let’s back it up a bit and set some definitions. Fundamentally, the champagne we all drink will most likely be produced by one of these three types of producers.
- Houses (or Grandes Marques or Great Brands) – defined as purchasing the majority of the grapes, grape must or wine to make their champagne.
- Growers – required to make champagne exclusively from their own grapes
- Cooperatives – who sells wines made from its members’ grapes.
See the end of this post for how to recognise each from looking at the label.
Houses have had the upper hand for the last few centuries.
They’ve had the advantage of access to higher quantities and diversity of grapes from more diverse terroir because they aren’t restricted to using just their own grapes.
And the larger champagne houses produce enough wine every year to enable them to hold back reserve wines to use in blending their NVs to achieve the consistent taste and house style. Growers usually don’t have access to the same quantity of grapes to produce their champagnes, making it a much harder decision (or totally impossible) for them to hold back reserve wines for blending. They often have to use all their wine every year to meet the year’s production needs. This has meant their champagnes have always been less consistent or if you look at it another way, more like a vintage champagne that is different every year based on the prevailing conditions that season.
Speaking of conditions, houses also have a bit more insurance in years when specific areas are hit with really bad weather. If a grower’s vineyards are hit with bad weather and crops are wiped out, it can have a devastating impact on production but houses can just source grapes from an area not affected or not as badly affected.
And of course, consumers have come to expect the blended/house style which has been the benchmark for so long.
So why all the fuss about grower champagnes?
So here’s that wine wanker word… Terroir. Terroir basically means how a wine region’s climate, dirt/soil and terrain (valleys, mountains, rivers etc) affect the taste of the wine.
Precisely because growers are restricted to using their own grapes, from their smaller vineyards, which has a really specific terroir, it has created an opportunity for growers to work their angle.
Looking at terroir is not new in wine and it’s not new to champagne – and some of the old houses have been making single vineyard wines for a long time and these are some of the most sought-after champagnes on the planet! Like the Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay and the Philipponnat Clos des Goisses.
Because these wines are insanely awesome and a lot of the wines from growers have been from very specific vineyards or areas and they are also freakin’ awesome, it has created a lot more interest in this style of champagne and this way of looking at champagne. And so growers have become the champions of terroir and ‘terroir expressive champagnes’. Which really means champagnes that aren’t blended and taste more distinct because of it. And the characteristics of the grapes from that area come through more prominently in the wine.
There is an incredible book by Peter Liem, called Champagne, in which he writes in great detail about Champagne and terroir. Liem actually spends 320 fascinating pages talking about terroir.
Peter Liem describes it like this… the difference between blended champagnes and grower champagnes is like the difference between listening to a symphony orchestra (blends/houses) and a soloist (grower/terroir-specific). I would say it makes the champagne more honest and pure. It’s like having a cocktail or vodka on the rocks. A single malt or blended whiskey.
So, it’s not really new… it’s a concept we actually see every day.
And with more emphasis on terroir (aka climate, dirt/soil and terrain), it’s not surprising we are seeing more sustainable and organic viticulture and low and zero dosage champagnes from growers – all elements that allow you to taste the terroir (or in wine vocab, the terroir to be ‘expressed’).
And the champagnes they are producing are amazing. I have ‘grown up’ on the house styles and have fallen in love with champagne studying their wines… and I am fully embracing and enjoying grower champagnes too. And seriously… if I can smell and taste how they are different, anyone can!
What to try?
I have recently tried these growers and found them ALL to be exciting, fresh, and expressive. They were easily recognisable as ‘champagne’ but still very different from anything I have tried before. I think what I have noticed most is the effect or dosage. So many champagnes I think I have been tasting the dosage more than the actual champagne! It’s very liberating to enjoy champs with lower dosage.
What does it all mean and what’s better?
Houses and growers and co-ops can all make lovely, exciting, and brilliant champagne. I have tried and loved champagnes from them all.
Like any wine making region some wine makers produce amazing and high quality wines… and others don’t.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking houses all produce high-volume commercial rubbish wines… that is just not the case.
And don’t fall into a trap of thinking all grower champagnes must be amazing… because they aren’t always.
There is no way to judge a wine based on the status of grower V house and if you apply blanket rules, you’re an idiot because you will miss out on some awesome champs.
But hopefully after taking all this in, you are pumped to try some grower champagnes and more “terroir expressive” house champagnes. Just try new champagnes and see what you like.
Don’t be intimidated if you are asking about them in a wine shop. Just tell the staff you haven’t tried them before but you want to learn and ask for their thoughts on the champs and any other suggestions. If they act like a dick and you feel ANYTHING but comfortable and excited buying from them, walk out! It is their job to help you and if they don’t get excited talking about champagne with you, that is their issue not yours!
- Shop for grower champagnes at specialty wine stores (including online). Specialty stores should always have tried and know the wines they get in so you have a head start knowing that the buyer enjoyed the wine enough to stock it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the staff (or if it is online, read what they say about each wine!). Wine geeks love talking about wine. I love the team at The Wine Emporium (where I buy a lot of my champs) and always ask them for recommendations or inspiration when I want to try something new! (If you are in Brisbane also try Cru Bar or Craft Wine Store).
- Or check out Emperor and Champagne Gallery (champagne gallery has more houses and fewer growers though) for online options… they have good info and reviews to steer you in the right direction and could be a good place to start f you are worried about asking someone directly.
- If you are super-nerd, get a copy of Peter Liem’s Champagne or Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles or as the new release is called Champagne – A Secret History. The aren’t full of b$^@$it over zealous tasting notes about each wine… but are informative (and interesting) references about the producers and their wines that I respect and value as my bibles that sit with me through all my tasting sessions.
But the only way to know for sure if you like something is to buy it and try it!
Houses (look on the label for NM – négociant manipulant)
You can identify if a champagne is produced by a house by looking (very closely because the type is TINY!) at the label. NM (négociant manipulant) will appear beside the producer’s name, indicating the producer purchases the majority of the grapes, grape must or wine to make their champagne. You may need a magnifying glass to find the letters, but it will be there, generally on the front label.
There are 380 houses who dominate sales and account for 2/3s of all champagne shipments but they only own about 10% of all the vineyards in France. You’ll know some names – Mumm, Moet, Veuve – but not all of them because not all of them are exported.
Houses can be corporately owned (for example Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot are owned by LVMH), or family owned and operated (like Taittinger, Billecart-Salmon and Philipponnat). And NM or houses may not all be big producers… Philipponnat only produces about 600,000 bottles a year.
Growers (RM – récoltant manipulant)
You can identify if a champagne is produced by a grower by the label. RM – récoltant manipulant, a grower who makes champagne exclusively from their own grapes.
There are more than 15,000 growers in Champagne and between them they own roughly 90% of the vineyards. About 2,000 of these growers chose to make and market their own champagne.
There will be many names you will never have heard of registered as RM like Agarapart & Fils in this example. Recently, some well known grower champagnes, for example Bereche & Fils and Laherte Freres, have actually registered as NM so they can buy more grapes to increase the diversity of grapes they can use in their wines.
Cooperatives (CM – Coopérative de Manipulation)
You can identify if a champagne is produced by a co-op by the label. CM – Coopérative de Manipulation, a cooperative that sells wines from its members’ grapes.
Cooperatives are smaller in number and represent groups of growers who pool their resources – grapes, production facilities and marketing – to sell under a single label.
Nicolas Feuillatte is the oldest and largest example of a co-op, other examples are Mailly Grand Cru (this example), and Devaux.
Other label codes and what they mean
A variation of the grower and co-op is the designation RC – récoltant co-opérateur, someone who’s a member of a co-op and buys back wine from them to sell under their own label.
SR – Société de Récoltants – represents a group of growers, usually family members, who make champagne from their own vineyards.
ND – Négociant Distributeur – a merchant who buys bottles of champagne and sells them under their own label.
MA – Marque d’Acheteur – for a buyer’s own brand. For example, this could be labels created specifically for another brand like a supermarket or liquor store, like Duperrey (see below) which you can get from BWS and Dan Murphy’s in Australia but is made by GH Martel & Cie.