There is a new buzzword floating around in the world of wine lovers: “grower Champagne.” In order to explain what this refers to, let’s take a trip through the usual Champagne-making process. The majority of the Champagne you see on a wine shelf near you is made by what are called houses. A Champagne house is a facility that often does not have its own land under vine, but rather secures contracts with grape growers across the region. In so doing, Champagne houses are focusing on consistency of style over grape vintage — which changes based on where they get the grapes from.
In this way, Champagne is very different from other wines. Non-Champagne wines place a high importance on vintage because it reflects what’s known as terroir – the soil and climate in which the grapes develop every year. Now, because climates are inconsistent – think of rainy years, dry years, heat waves – the terroir of any vineyard changes year to year, affecting the grapes and changing them in subtle ways. That’s why single-vineyard wines differ from year to year, and why vintage – the year the grapes were harvested – is so important.
Not so with Champagne, which tends to place its focus on consistency. Champagne has historically been the only fine wine that thrives on consistency because Champagne comes from a very harsh climate. You just don’t get a good harvest every year. Up until the 1800s, Champagne never had a vintage.
But even Champagne is on a spectrum regarding vintage and terroir. On one extreme end, you have Moet & Chandon, the house that produces the famous Dom Perignon bubbs, which has been around since the 18th century and holds a royal warrant to supply Champagne to Queen Elizabeth II. Moet & Chandon pumps out an annual load of 28 million bottles. They blend and then barrel the grapes acquired from other vineyards. Then they store these big barrels for up to two decades, using this barreled wine to maintain consistency.
The majority of Champagne houses rely on holdings from growers, or vignerons in French. It’s been that way for a long time. Charles Heidsieck, otherwise known as Champagne Charlie, came on the scene in New York just before our Civil War, catering to high society and causing us to fall in love with the bubbles in a bottle. Since then, that all-important consistency has ruled the day.
But then, every once in a while, you’d get a Champagne vintage that was just wonderful, and the growers wouldn’t want to blend it out with other grapes. You started to get Champagne houses that owned their own vineyards and grew their own grapes. Today, we call that grower Champagne.
Grower Champagne is wine made by the growers themselves. The idea behind it is that grower Champagne is more in tune with the notion of terroir. The wines are a direct reflection of the soil and climate within their village.
This is a fairly new trend in our market. Coming on the wave of the “natural” wine movement, which celebrated wines for being made in the most organic and biodynamic means possible and shunned the establishment of “conventional” wines, grower Champagne has grown legs and made it onto our geekiest of wine lists. Unlike the Champagne houses of the region, these wines are more about inconsistency, like most of the wine we drink.
The grower champagne trend is great. Its inconsistency and terroir can give us some fun and unique styles of Champagne that you may not get in the bigger houses. But not all grower Champagne is awesome, for the very reason the big houses tend to rely on blending for consistency: because vintage can get dicey up here.
The price point of these grower Champagnes is mostly in the higher range, although some are affordable. Also, not as much is made, so the market presence can be scarce. With their limited resources, you may not see a lot of non-vintage from them because they do not have the means of storing reserves from previous vintages. So as awesome as the idea of grower Champagne is, it may not be easily accessible.
Here’s a trick if you want to see what all the grower Champagne fuss is about but can’t seem to find any: I would go back to house Champagne, but not the big houses. Buying a reasonably priced house Champers from a moderately sized house can still give you those passionate vibes people are waxing on and on about with the grower trend. Although they are still all about that consistency, medium-sized houses are more in tune with the terroir of their land, with a fraction of the production of the larger houses. Because of the lower yield, there’s going to be more connection to the earth, but the payoff is that they will also be more compromised by vintage.
I reached out to my Champagne authority, Blaine Ashley of City Sip and creator of New York Champagne Week, to pick her brain about some of her favorite medium-sized houses. Below are her three top recommendations that are big enough to be found in most shops but don’t pump out millions of bottles a year. Enjoy the grower vibe house bubbs!
Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Non-Vintage ($25-$40)
René Geoffroy Expression Brut Non-Vintage ($35-$40)
Lanson Black Label Non-Vintage Brut ($35-$40)
Louis Roederer Brut Premier Non-Vintage