Champagne has always been one the most readily recognized and sometimes misunderstood wine categories for many American consumers. Almost universally known as a wine of celebration and luxury, it is also misunderstood and frankly a bit intimidating for many wine drinkers. While sparkling wine (and particularly Champagne) continues to grow both in visibility and consumption, the vast array of options seems to be ever growing and, for some consumers, daunting.
One of the terms more and more consumers have heard over the past few years is that of ‘grower Champagne’. Sommeliers and retailers regularly extol the virtues of smaller ‘grower’ producers that the average consumer might never have heard of, while mentioning the small scale of production, family history, character of the wine, or simply that the wine is not as well known among the general populace and a phenomenal value due to the producers lesser understood pedigree.
What is ‘grower Champagne’ and how can you recognize it?
At the core of it, the concept is very simple; for a Champagne to be truly considered ‘grower’ it must carry the designation Récoltant Manipulant, frequently abbreviated to RM. This notation on the label indicates that at minimum 95% of the fruit used to produce the wine was grown in vineyards owned and cared for by the producer affixing their name to the Champagne. While they may also grow grapes that are sold to other producers (known as Houses) or to groups of vineyard owners who pool their harvests in order to make wine that they then sell off to others (co-operatives), at least 95% of their grapes must come from their own vineyards.
How does that differ from other Champagnes?
Almost 90% of total Champagne is produced and sold by Champagne Houses using the ‘Négociant Manipulant’ or NM designation. Simply put, an NM Champagne House has less than 95% wine in its composition that was made solely from the Houses own vineyard holdings. These houses buy fruit, and sometimes finished ‘base’ wine from a number of other sources including co-operatives, other houses, and vineyard owners who grow grapes but make no wine of their own. There are also several categories including Coopérative Manipulant (CM) and Société de Récoltants (SR) that essentially delineate between different types of co-operatively produced Champagnes, and others for finished Champagnes that are sold to be labeled as ‘store brands’, etc.
Well then, what’s all the fuss about?
At its core, many aficionados of grower Champagne feel that the wines show more individual character and sense of terroir than their NM counterparts. RM producers are almost always much smaller in scale of production than their NM counterparts, and a sense of the specific vineyards, villages and vintages can really shine through in the finished wines. The wines are somewhat more likely to carry a vintage designation (the bulk of Champagne is non-vintage due to the blending of base wines made from multiple years harvests), and may also be more likely to carry a ‘Cru’ designation since the Cru Classe system in Champagne is based upon the specific villages in which the vineyards are located.
Why isn’t all Champagne estate produced?
Since grower Champagne producers are limited to using almost exclusively the fruit that they produce themselves, they must live and die by the quality of the grapes (and resulting base wines) that they themselves produce. When compared to the frequently much larger NM houses, this is quite a gamble. Bigger houses can choose not to buy fruit, or make wines, from specific vineyards that have suffered from a difficult vintage much more readily than can a grower estate. Since much Champagne is non-vintage, made from a blend of reserve still wines (a blog post in its own right), the larger NM houses will be much more likely to have a large reserve of base wines available to them for the production of their non-vintage offerings. RM producers may be more subject to the whims of the vintage and harvest, and typically you will see more variation from one release (be it vintage or not) than the next.
So, which is better?
The answer to that question, like almost all in the wonderful world of wine, is ‘what do you like?’ Négociant houses have the resources, connections and facilities to produce amazing wines that have a house style that will delight their fans release after release. If you taste a wine from one of these producers and fall in love with it, it’s quite likely that you will find it stylistically consistent for many years to come. The producer you enjoy the night of your wedding will probably, delight you in a similar fashion on your tenth anniversary, and twentieth, and so on…
Grower Champagnes on the other hand, are amazing reflections of the place, time and people that produced them. If you listen to them carefully, they will tell you things about their history. They will speak of that particular vineyard or estate, of the challenges and successes of the year they were produced, of the hand and palate of the vigneron who produced that bottling, or oversaw the assemblage of its base wines.
If you are anything like myself, you will revel in the charm of the great Négociants, while delighting in surprising yourself with the nuances and quirks of their smaller and lesser known compatriots. I can think of few experiments more enjoyable than exploring the wines of Champagne in all their expressions and glory!