Should grower Champagne matter to you? If you’re a trend chaser, then yes. If you care about hands-on production and that chain of agricultural accountability (think farm-to-table), also yes. If you like Champagne, again, yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. (We just wanted to say that.)
But yeah, what matters before you get that “Farmer Fizz or Bust” tattoo on your upper thigh is what on earth is grower Champagne? All Champagne, so far as we know, is grown (yes, in the chalky, transcendent soils of the Champagne region). So what makes this different?
To understand the cachet of grower Champagne (affectionately dubbed “Farmer Fizz” by wine importer/guru Terry Thiese), you’ve got to know how most Champagne is made. We don’t mean second fermentation or dosage. We mean the production process, from soil and grapes to fermentation, bottling, and yes, branding.
Believe it or not, branding has a place in the world of Champagne. Think about it: you probably associate “Champagne” with a handful of the major labels, or grandes marques (“big brands”). And that’s apt. The big Champagne houses (Maisons de Champagne) that dominate the market and capture our bubbly imaginations. Per the Comité Champagne, a Champagne trade organization, “Their special talent lies in the crafting of cuvées with a timeless style that is unique to the House in question.”
We know and love those timeless styles, but the truth is, those “houses” don’t grow most (if any) of their grapes themselves. Says the Comité, “the bulk of this production is made from bought-in grapes that are supplied under long-term contracts with independent growers.” For instance, Moët & Chandon might buy grapes for Dom Pérignon from any of the 19,000 or so vineyards in the Champagne region. Some houses buy grapes from as many as 1,000 different vineyards to achieve their “unique” character. And altogether, this style and process dominates the Champagne export market to the tune of over 90%.
Grower Champagne—which isn’t quite a new phenomenon, but catching on, and you’ll see why—is more like The Sopranos of French Champagne: they keep it all in the family. If the beauty (and there is beauty) of the big Champagne houses is the precision with which they blend their cuvées from such a dizzying patchwork of vineyards, the beauty of grower Champagne is that it comes from one vineyard, and thus carries with it one of the most marketable intangibles in all of wine: terroir.
Not that classic Champagnes don’t have terroir, it’s just the larger, regional terroir of the Champagne region. Grower Champagne has the kind of singularity of character that, say, a single barrel bourbon does. If it all comes from a handful of acres on the same vineyard, there’s a sense of micro terroir, “authenticity of place” that, yes, a bunch of us crave (and/or angrily demand) in our food and beverage these days.
Some growers are more hyper-specific than others, with Champagnes produced from single grapes in a single vintage year from a single plot of land. Not all operate this way, but the basic distinction is grower Champagne expresses idiosyncrasy of place vs. the expression of brand-consistent character of big Champagne houses.
The hiccup for grower Champagne, beyond rising popularity and possibly limited demand/rising prices, is that idiosyncrasy itself. Champagne houses will put excruciating effort into creating consistency—though that consistency only tends to get really sublime at slightly higher prices. Grower Champagnes express terroir, the character of a particular vintage, and that—again, like a single barrel bourbon—can vary for better or worse. One bottle might be sublime and the next, well, not.
But where identity and place still have so much marketability (not to mention soul), grower Champagne will keep its little share of the market enthralled. Like Burgundy vs. Bordeaux, where you land in the debate doesn’t matter, as long as you like what you’re drinking.