The delights of Grower Champagne

By / Magazine / July 5th, 2016 / 10

Champagne is indeed a household word, even if the real McCoy is rarely found in the average household. In fact, Champagne is so well known that many use the word in a generic sense to refer to all sparkling wine. But even those that know the difference between Asti and Champagne will generally be familiar with only a dozen or so iconic brands from big producers.

Less known is a group of smaller production bottlings known as Grower Champagnes, or, by their official term, Récoltant Manipulant. These can deliver some of the best quality, most exciting and value-driven Champagnes in this premium sparkling wine category. Sadly, for most wine drinkers, this group of producers is not even on their radar.

What are Grower Champagnes you may ask, and what am I missing? In short, they are made in small quantities by producers who grow their own grapes and make sparkling wine exclusively from their own vineyards. They represent the “third tier” in the gradually narrowing scope of Champagne styles.

Any sparkling wine marked as Champagne has to come from the demarcated area in northern France. Legally, Champagne is a single appellation that produces (almost) exclusively sparkling wine. However, in reality, the region is both large and diverse in terms of growing area, structure and production.

The Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC), the region’s official trade organization, is (not surprisingly) a reputable source of information. According to the CIVC, the region spans over 33,700 hectares. And in 2014, the Champagne appellation harvested enough grapes to produce over 337 million bottles!

Given its relatively large size, it is easy to see why the single appellation status does not do it justice. In truth, it’s not a single wine region, but rather a series of sub-regions, different villages, and even different vineyard plots, which together can result in a myriad of styles. However, and generally speaking, there are three categories producers ship to market: Champagne Houses, also known as Maisons or officially as the Négociant Manipulants (NM); Cooperatives as Récoltant-Coopérateurs or Coopératives de Manipulation (RC or CM), depending on how the co-op is structured; and Grower Champagnes, aka Récoltant Manipulants (RM).

Officially, the CIVC states that the region boasts about 15,800 growers who own roughly 90 per cent of the vineyards. These growers work the vines and harvest their own grapes. What they do with these grapes is up to them. Most choose to sell their fruit to Champagne houses and co-ops — but some use the grapes for their own wine; hence Grower Champagne.

The CIVC also reports there are about 300 Négociant Manipulants of varying sizes in the region that own the remaining 10 per cent of the vineyards. These houses usually buy grapes to supplement their own yields. The larger, more famous houses are often referred to as Grandes Marques. These are the familiar Champagne brands that you are most likely to encounter on our shelves (Bollinger, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier Jouet, Veuve Clicquot etc.).

Yet when it comes to overall sales in big export markets, the numbers are reversed. The Grandes Marques and larger Négociant Manipulants make up almost 90 per cent of the Champagne global exports sales, while the co-ops and Récoltant Manipulants combined account for only 10 per cent.

The NM brands trade on their reputation, dependability and consistency in style. Their strength is that the consumer knows what to expect in terms of price for their bottle of bubbly. The large houses have the resources to buy and blend many different constituents to create a consistently good sparkler.

Narrowing the scope, a co-operative Champagne producer is exactly what it sounds like. Typically, it is a group of grape growers from an area that band together to form a production co-op. The Nicolas Feuillatte label is probably Champagne’s largest cooperative and one that you are most likely to see.

This brings us to the the Récoltant Manipulants; the “grower/producers.” They own (usually small) parcels of vineyards in very specific sites within the Champagne region. Many aficionados consider this to be the most exciting and best value category of all the Champagnes in the region.

To find out a more about the latter category, I interviewed Champagne expert and specialist Carl Edmund Sherman. This Swedish-American has lived in France for over 10 years — most of that time in Champagne. Today he spends his time working on education, local tourism and most importantly, helping Champagne growers and domains export their products.

As one of the few non-native independent professionals living and working in Champagne, he is a great resource. In his own words, “this allows me the luxury of having both one foot in the daily workings of the Champagne business, as well as an ‘outside view,’ for an overall global perspective.”

When I asked Sherman how he defines a Grower Champagne, he stated: “What is understood to be a Grower Champagne [producer] is a person who [makes the] wines on their own premises, with the grapes coming from their own vines. It basically means that the individual is wholly responsible for all of the viticulture and viniculture work, as well as ensuring, for quality purposes, that the grapes used to [craft] their wines are only from their own vines. This offers a genuine traceability from vine to wine for the consumer.”

I pressed Sherman for more, asking for a further breakdown of the categories and of the CIVC’s numbers. Sherman explains: “Of the 15,800 winegrowers, there are fewer than 5,000 who [craft] their own wine. Breaking the 5,000 number down, just over half of these are Récoltant-Coopérateurs.”

Sherman continues: “Of the less than half of the 5,000 Récoltants, those remaining are true Récoltants Manipulants; the only Growers who ensure total control and traceability from vine to wine of their final product. So these are the true Grower Champagnes.”

So how does one identify a Grower Champagne? By law, every bottle of Champagne must indicate on the label the category of producer. The source of the bubbly is designated by a two-letter code which denotes the production source.

There are eight versions of these letter codes and they are usually followed by a series of numbers which correspond to the producer’s name and address. For the purposes of this article, we need only concern ourselves with two codes. Sherman explains: “Récoltant-Manipulant is denoted [by the letters] RM. This code can be found on the front and back labels of the champagne bottle.”

Of course, the bad news is that these two letters are usually quite small and difficult to locate. They are usually found in miniscule print on the bottom of the label.

Given the consistency, dependability and general availability of the Grandes Marques brands, I asked Sherman what’s in it for the consumer if they decide to spend the extra legwork seeking out a relatively unknown — and untried — Grower Champagne.

“Some of the best, lesser-known secrets of Champagne are from growers, who express more than just a consistent style year in and out … any drinker should enjoy a diverse selection of Champagnes, including many from the multitude of different growers.”

According to Sherman, Grower Champagnes offer better value for money, not to mention an authentic expression of a particular growing area and season. The Récoltant-Manipulant is more likely to express personal winemaking philosophies and techniques based on a variety of different villages and individual plots.

What Sherman finds most exciting about Grower Champagnes is their focus on differences in terroir as well as the conditions for any given year. Says Carl, “Consistent high quality remains a clear objective for the Grower, but creating the same taste year in and year out is less important.”

Sherman concedes that the powerful Grand Marques brands have historically been quite useful for opening untapped markets and attracting new consumers to Champagne. The Grower Champagnes, on the other hand, are more likely to excel in more mature Champagne markets, such as the UK, Canada and the US. And indeed, there has been a steady, albeit slow, growing interest in these markets. Names like Champagne Cuperly, Champagne Tristan, Champagne Soutiran and Champagne Veuve J. Lanaud are but a few of the Grower Champagnes making inroads.

Sherman notes that part of the attraction, is that the drinker is more likely to have an emotional connection to a small-scale grower than to a large brand. “I find that there is a direct correlation between liking the Champagnes from Growers and the Growers themselves. Some of my favourite Champagnes are made by Growers who I genuinely like the most as people. I am fortunate in that I can even call some of them friends.”

Grower Champagnes also satisfy the growing trend towards small scale, “craft,” artisanal beverages. You could almost compare the interest in Grower Champagne to Micro-brews. (And perhaps the Grand Marques can be likened to larger international breweries?)

Sherman has another, somewhat more esoteric, reason for seeking these bottles out. “Those who choose the path of becoming a Grower struggle nearly every day in the various aspects of their work.” He draws a parallel between the Growers’ struggle to make a living and to the grapes that must struggle to survive and ultimately make wine. Stressed grapes yield better wines. Maybe stressed producers do, too!

High quality, vintage variations, expressiveness of terroir and the “field to bottle” nature of Grower Champagnes make them well worth the effort to seek out. So the next time you want value or a new experience in terms of diversity in style and flavour in Champagne, it might be worth dragging out a magnifying glass and searching for those all-important letters: RM.

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