I love its fruit and its toast; its flowers and its rocks; its acidity and its effervescence. There’s this surging pressure, a pop and fumes as you uncork. It’s a permission to take pleasure. Above all, it’s a scent that takes me to my grandmother’s living room in France, where petites bulles (little bubbles, as she calls them) are always served up with delight. For a second, I am with her.
I want to share the most exciting secret in the wine world right now: grower champagne.
The artisans of Champagne
Grower champagnes are artisanal products offering the taste of provenance (that of a specific place or winemaker) that branded champagne typically won’t. That’s because grower champagnes are made by the people who grow the actual grapes. Your Moëts, in contrast, are made by companies that buy grapes from all over the Champagne region and mix them up into a standardised blend. Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are delicious. But as a result, we’re missing out on all the tremendous variety that Champagne offers.
Anselme Selosse (who took over from his illustrious father Jacques Selosse) is to Champagne what Randall Grahm and Luc Morlet are to Napa: an inspiring thinker who just happens to make Great wines as a side-note. Total dude. (If you have cash to splash on extreme quality, you can try his super-terroir collection of single-parcel champagnes.) In explaining what leads a man to ditch selling grapes to the big brands and start making his own champagne, Selosse nonchalantly explains:
I just prefer to roll the dice – since then occasionally the sublime occurs.
Having just quit our careers in law for a life of impoverished idealism, Selosse is kind of our guy.
But grower champagnes offer more than just personality. They’re more fairly priced – you’re paying for the winemaker’s talent only, and you’re not subsidising a big brand’s marketing. Some of the best are listed below. These offer a broad spectrum of flavours, phenomenal quality and an opportunity to reward the craftsmanship of talented individuals going it alone. It’s time to start discovering the guys and girls that are working their asses off to give you something unique, authentic and Great.
To get you in the mood, check out this pleasing selection of the funniest looking and most stereotypical of growers:
Champagne and terroir
Anyone with a Nutribullet knows that blending too many things together means missing out on the flavour of the best. If I have Sicilian oranges or Charentais melons, I want their unique flavour to take centre stage, not get lost in a 6-fruit blend. That’s what terroir is all about. It’s a flavour that reflects the climate and the soil of a certain place. It’s the authentic taste of provenance. We believe terroir is key to enjoying all kinds of experiences, beyond wine and food.
A sip of a Great grower champagne, with its focus on terroir, will take you on a journey to its home. That traceability is what a Veuve Cliquot is missing.
Acclaimed grower Isabelle Diebolt summarises:
These wines are for people looking for something different, something determined by terroir. We look for it in cheese, in coffee, in chocolate. Why not in champagne?
Why don’t we hear more about grower champagne, if it’s everything we say?
The champagne market is decidedly uncool right now.
It’s dominated by big brands aspiring to recreate the same house style every year. They churn out this consistent (sometimes consistently boring) product by blending grapes from all over the place. Because 75% of champagne is produced his way, French wine law never had reason to acknowledge the different terroirs of Champagne.
But this runs counter to what we consider ‘quality’ to mean in the rest of the market, where wines are celebrated for coming from one special place or winemaker.
Take Bordeaux, which promotes 57 official terroirs (it has 57 appellations). By contrast, Big Champagne’s grape-blending shenanigans have led to the French wine market just grouping everything under the one moniker “champagne”. Kinda like deconstructing New York into 57 ethnic groups, but then grouping all of Los Angeles as just ‘white’.
It’s a system that does little to help those with the audacity to create something unique, so you don’t find their champagnes as easily. These little guys focus on making wine with passion, not advertising.
In the documentary A Year in Champagne (from which the video above was taken) jovial grape grower Xavier Gollet gets to the heart of why grower champagnes are more authentic than your average Moët, Lanson or Veuve Cliquot:
You have to understand that [real] winemakers think of their wines like children. They’ve seen their birth. They’ve raised them. They’ve shaped and disciplined them to maturity. When we present our wine, it’s like we’re presenting a part of ourselves. Our wine reflects our personality, everything we know [. . .]. In the life of a winemaker, there’s a moment when you taste a bottle and you say: this is what I must create. This is the top. It happens two or three times in a lifetime. It happened to me when I drank some of the wines made by my parents and grandparents. I told myself: this is what I must do – to make a wine, just once in my life, that after 50 or 60 years… shines.
How good are grower champagnes?
Smart marketing and social conditioning have made us believe the good stuff is Big Champagne. We’re too scared to offer anything else as a gift. We’ve all fallen for it.
Some of the grower champagnes recommended below are priced around £20/$30. They totally dismantle 80% of the branded champagne selling for quite a bit more. Other grower champagnes below are priced like the premium wines they are and they’ll soon make you forget many of their big-brand counterparts.
Frenchies know this. Grower champagne represents almost half of champagne consumption there, despite making up just 25% of overall production. It’s a common gift among people who know their bubbles. So I guess the question is, how well do you want to know your petites bulles?
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What are the best grower champagnes and where can I buy them?
Look on labels for the tiny “R.M.” initials (for récoltant-manipulant) that distinguish a grower champagne from a big-brand (N.M.) or cooperative champagne (C.M.).
My top growers to look out for are Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier, Egly-Ouriet, Gimonnet, Jacquesson, Diebolt-Vallois, Xavier Gollet, Pierre-Morlet; Chartogne-Taillet; Laherte Freres; Benoit Lahaye; Bereche & Fils; Agrapart & Fils; Stephane Coquillette; Paul Lorent; Tarlant; Pierre Moncuit; Moutardier; Jose Dhondt; Pierre Peters; Leclapart; Pascal Doquet, Bruno Paillard; Bouchard; Vilmart, Henri Giraud; Forget-Brimont; Alexandre Filaine; Coutier; Eric Rodez; Lancelot-Royer Chevaliers; Olivier Horiot; Piollot; Varnier-Fanniere; Morgane Fleury; Janisson Baradon; Bonnaire; Jennifer Fluteau; Vilmart; Serge Mathieu; Gaston Chiquet, Guy Charlemagne, Emmanuel Brochet, Paul Bara and my personal go-to, Collard-Picard.
We’ll put together quick overviews of every one of these producers very soon so we can help you find those that really match your taste and offer you the best experience.
You can complement these with the recommendations of Terry Theise (Skurnik Wines) in the US and Nick Brookes (Vine Trail) in the UK, both big figures in the grower champagne world. In the UK, Champagne Warehouse (email me for recommendations from there) and French Bubbles specialise in grower champagne and offer interesting online selections. Among the bigger wine merchants in London, I’d prioritise Justerini & Brookes and The Sampler at the time of writing. French Bubbles also has a walk-in London deli for sampling.
If you’re in Paris and fancy some experimentation, you can try a visit to: Dilettantes, Ici-Meme, Le Dokhans Hotel, or Les 110 de Taillevent. Ask for a champagne de vigneron. Better still, take the 45-75 minute train ride to Reims or Epernay, the hearts of the Champagne region.