Champagne’s Artisan Growers
Savvy wine consumers, keen for every esoteric small production bit of viticultural exclusivity they can get their grubby hands on, always seem to lose that newly evangelized enthusiasm the minute they set foot in the Champagne aisle. It’s as if they’ve gone into some sort of grapey vapor-lock (every Volkswagen owner knows what this is) and they reach for the nearest orange label. Lost in the glossy cachet of the nearest Wine Spectator advert, they’ve been assimilated. Resistance is futile after all, and they forget that behind each Champagne bottle there is a thoughtful farmer dedicated to bringing the essence of his vineyard to life. I want you to think about this next time you stalk the Champagne aisle. Rant over.
The complexities of Champagne are legion. There are more than 19,000 individual grape growers in what is among the smallest of appellations in France—5,000 of them with the ability to manufacture their own wine. That math is in the drinkers favor; it means 5,000 new “grower” Champagnes to explore. These growers own more than 88 percent of the total landmass of the appellation, which means that your favorite Champagne has to establish a network of these growers to ensure steady consistent supplies of the very best fruit. The big Champagne houses typically own very little in the way of their own vineyards.
This patchwork of tiny Champagne vineyards is graded like other French wine regions according to their quality: There are Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Appellation Controllee ratings. Naturally, these premium ratings mean a premium price, though this is relative to whose name is on the label, and this is where it pays to look a little harder at your Champagne bottle.
Look closely around the border of the Champagne bottle’s label: There is a tax ID number that indicates the producer category. The Recoltant Manipulant (RM) prefix refers to Grower/Producers—those who farm and make their own wine. Negociant Manipulant (NM) refers to those Champagne houses who own some land (Roederer, for example) and buy a significant portion of their fruit and also produce Champagne. Co-operative Manipulant (CM) refers to groups of smaller producers who blend their fruit together and produce wine for various labels.
So, with big-name Champagne, Grower A with Grand Cru vineyards sells a portion of his fruit to Giant Negociant B, who will then blend it into Glossy Magazine Champagne and charge $300 a bottle (those shiny magazine ads won’t pay for themselves). Grower A will then bottle the remainder of his own Grand Cru fruit, label it thusly and sell the “grower” Champagne for $75-$100. Yes, you read that correctly. Stop paying for marketing costs. Support the little guy.
Grower Champagnes are clustered around specific villages and carry their provenance right on the label. Grand Cru fruit isn’t blended away in a chorus of lesser voices as with the Big Boys. Grand Cru and Premier Cru designations appear on the labels, whereas they don’t with those larger house brands. They are reflections of a specific place (terroir) and vintage much more than their larger brethren.
Since you make the effort to buy Julie Clifford’s Clifford Farm eggs from Provo;
why not apply that same “little guy” thinking to the wine on your table?