Most wine lovers have a soft spot for Champagne (for this exercise I mean real Champagne) and I’m sure every one of us browses the ‘Prestige Cuvée’ section (Dom Perignon, Cristal, Krug etc) and thinks ‘one day’. But for a lot of wine lovers Champagne is something you have one glass of at the start of the meal (maybe two if it is particularly impressive) but then move onto ‘the wine’. Lets discuss Grower Producer Champagne.
What is Grower Producer Champagne?
‘Grower Producers’. They are guys who own their own vineyards and make the wine themselves. This is quite different to the bigger houses that typically don’t own a lot of vineyard land (the big houses collectively only own about 12% of the vineyards). So they have to buy in fruit and sometimes have the wine made under contract. They blend villages, vintages, grape varieties and focus more on making a wine that is to their house style and is consistent batch after batch, vintage after vintage so their fans always know what they are getting. And they do it really well.
I want to say from the start that this isn’t about disparaging the big houses. I love the Non Vintage wines of Louis Roederer (who own about 90% of their vineyards), I also rate Pol Roger and Lanson. Dom Perignon is my favourite Champagne (although Pol’s Winston Churchill is a very close second).
Spotting a Grower Producer
In Champagne each producer has a classification that is decided by how they source their grapes and make their wine. The codes are found on the label and consist of two letters followed by numbers. The two most common are N-M and R-M.
Negociant Manipulant (N-M) is a producer who buys in grapes in bulk and makes their own wine. They may also own vineyards too. Most of the big & famous houses fall into this category: Moet, Lanson, Pol Roger, Louis Roederer, Veuve Cliquot to name a few. Think of them like Bordeaux Estates: It’s about the brand and house style.
Recoltant Manipulant (R-M) are producers who make wines from grapes they have grown. They tend to be quite small holdings and focussed around one village. The Growers are a lot more Burgundian in their outlook.
Look for these codes to see if the Champagne you are buying is Grower or Negociant. (Click on this pic to make it easier to see).
The best of the Recoltant Manipulants (or Grower Producers) are making some truly remarkable wines. What I love about them is first and foremost they make great wine that happens to have bubbles in it. They have a strong focus on quality, terroir and vintage. They achieve this in the vineyard first through lower cropping, picking riper fruit and often organic or biodynamic practices. In the winery the smaller batches gives them great control over what they do and therefore greater scope to experiment.
Generally the wines are based on one village or vineyard and one vintage with smaller amounts of reserve wine compared to the big houses. Often they use less dosage (which may be a symptom of having better starting material) than the big houses too. This is referring to the best dozen or so producers I have tried. There is plenty of so-so Grower Champagne, just as there is plenty of awesome big house Champagne.
The best part of Grower Champagne is that they are incredibly versatile. I often find that they are better slightly warmer and a bit flat. Oh and I serve all my Grower Champagne in a ‘Chianti Classico’ shaped wine glass, not a flute. WHAT? Yep, I treat this stuff like wine (which it is!). Consequently I could happily drink these wines throughout a meal. Then it just becomes a case of knowing the house styles and what they can handle.
My perfect vessel for Grower Champagne
To understand Grower Champagne the best thing you can do is taste some. Below are the Grower Producers that I feel best show the diversity of style you can get:
Larmandier Bernier Chardonnay specialists from the Cotes de Blancs. They are my go to Grower and are the one I recommend to people first stepping into the world of Grower Producers because they are just delicious.
Agrapart These guys also work with Chardonnay and their entry level ‘Terroirs’ is just about the perfect Blanc de Blancs.
Egly Ouriet Pinot is the focus here, as is longer lees aging. These wines are more muscular and powerful. Amazingly well put together wines.