A Sparkling Countdown to New Year’s Eve (Part 1)
Over the next three weeks WineAlign will explore the fabulous world of fizz. Today Treve Ring goes to the heart of the matter with a look at ‘growers Champagne’. Next week John Szabo goes top drawer to illuminate the glittering world of luxe Champagnes. And just before New Year’s WineAlign critics combine to recommend affordable sparklers for those making a mad dash before the midnight hour.
by Treve Ring
Farmer Fizz. Champagne of Terroir. Artisanal Champagne. Récoltants-Manipulants. Authentically Vintage Champagne. All terms I’ve come across to describe Grower Champagne. So – what is it? Well, in the simplest of forms, it’s Champagne made from growers. Easy, right? But let me break it down a bit further. I travelled extensively through Champagne this fall, tasting with a mix of growers, producers, grand houses and major négociants. I tasted exemplary Champagne, across all levels and sources. While it’s not true that Grower Champagnes are intrinsically better, they are inherently characterful, singular and relevant. This is especially timely in this wine age when consumers are asking questions, searching for a sense of place and talking terroir like never before. Champagne made on a much smaller scale, by the people who work the soils and tend the vines is a welcome contrast to the large mass-market houses with seemingly unlimited marketing budgets and unbalanced priorities.
When I visited growers, the sense of family was paramount. I was welcomed into homes, sat on couches and surrounded by family photos. At Gimonnet & Fils, in the village of Cuis, I spent an afternoon with Didier Gimonnet in the “living room” of the winery, the house where he and his brother Olivier grew up. The house is now utilized for business and holds the tasting room, but the warm and welcoming environment perfectly reflected the tone of the afternoon and the gracious nature of my host. Wine and life organically, naturally intertwined.
It can’t be stated enough – Champagne comes ONLY from the delineated Champagne region in France. Not all sparkling wine is Champagne – far from it. Other places around the world, including Canadian soils, craft fine sparkling wines (we share the 49th Parallel with the Champagne region). Producers can follow the same painstaking and lengthy process and use the same grapes – mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – just like Champagne. But unless you’re one of the 300,000 or so specific vineyard plots in northeast France where it is legal to plant Champagne grapes on over 34,000 specifically delineated hectares, and then follow to the letter the AOC rules for aging and release, you’re simply not Champagne. So, don’t use the term, sil vous plait.
Growers Champagne by Numbers
Today 90% of all of the vineyards in Champagne are owned by independent growers – about 19,000 of them – and nearly 2000 of these growers make and sell their own wine, “Grower’s Champagne”, accounting for approximately 22% of the sales. The vast majority of exports however are controlled by the large négociants. The big houses own just 10% of the vineyard area of Champagne, but control a mind-boggling 97% of exports. Since these global powers own only a small fraction of the vineyard acreage collectively, sourcing grapes and wine is a major priority. The 10 largest houses account for over 50% of the region’s sales, which are considerable. In 2012, Champagne revenue was 4.4 billion Euros. Bubbles are big business, to be sure.
To keep on top, large houses have no choice but to send out ample consistent product to consumers on every corner of the globe. For NV champagne, the flagship product of the house, the consistency of that bottle (the ‘house style’) is of the utmost importance. From year to year, country to country and restaurant to restaurant, that bottle is meant to taste the same. One very large négociants I visited this fall boasted that the cork was popped on their NV champagne every 1.7 seconds somewhere around the world. I can see why Jancis Robinson was prompted to wonder “Is champagne a wine or a brand?”
The large houses, with millions of bottles lining kilometers of cellars, drive the lion’s share of that revenue, and have the budgets and backing for marketing their luxury product – one that has become somewhat of a standardized commodity. Grower Champagne, by contrast, is the opposite. Small growers, usually family owned and operated, are opting to produce their own Champagne rather than sell to the négociants. These small-scale wines are made and bottled from the grower’s own grapes, with an allowance of 5% of purchased grapes if required. While blending (of vintage, vineyards, grapes) is still very much part of the production, vintage variation is a given, and among many wine professionals, a bonus.
Since individual vineyard holdings are small, Grower Champagnes, by nature and default, focus on a certain region. Vineyards may be clustered around a single village, thus the Champagne reflects that village’s terroir. In contrast, for the large brands’ consistent house style, grapes may be blended from vineyard plots across the entire Champagne region.
Grower Champagnes are often released younger than their large house counterparts due in part to the greater financial resources that would be needed for long-term aging and storage. Since production is small, many growers can try new things and push the envelope a bit. Lower dosage wines are common, with zero dosage (brut nature, brut zéro or non-dosé) on trend. I tasted biodynamic champagne and single plot champagne – something that you wouldn’t see on a large-scale.
Differing aim, differing targets. One is looking for site (and vintage) expression, and the other consistency, no matter the year. Both producers are telling a story, but through entirely diverse plotlines, with vastly opposite budgets and completely divergent endings.
Recognizing Grower Champagne
Grower Champagnes can be identified by the initials that appear before a number on the wine label. Look for a miniscule RM on the label, denoting Récoltant-Manipulant. This means the producer grows and makes Champagne from their own vines (minimum 95%). The initials NM (Négociant-Manipulant) appear on the labels of champagne producers that bottle and market champagne using grapes purchased from other growers. This is where the large Champagne houses fit in. CM (Coopérative-Manipulant) is a co-operative of growers who blend the product of their collective vineyards to sell under one or more brands. RC (Récoltant-Coopérateur) is a wine sourced from a single grower but made entirely for him by a co-operative winemaking facility. SR (Société de Récoltants) is a registered firm set up by two or more growers who share the same winery which they use to make wine to sell under their own label. This designation differs from a CM in that the growers almost always have significant involvement in the winemaking process. And MA (marque d’acheteur) is a buyer’s own brand, as for a supermarket, for example.
Since production of Grower Champagnes is much smaller, you often have to seek them out in specialty stores or savvy restaurants. Befriend the sommelier and ask questions – your hunt will be rewarded.
Two Producers to Seek Out
The appeal to these artisanal, personal Grower Champagnes lies in their sense of place and the growers who produce them. One such producer is Pierre Gimonnet & Fils. Quiet spoken, quick-witted and genuine in his hospitality, Didier Gimonnet explained how his grandfather, Pierre, began the winery after the Depression in the 1920’s ceased the sale of grapes. The family had been farming vines in the village of Cuis since the 1750’s, selling to négociants. When the market for grapes dried up with the economy, Pierre decided to produce his own wines. Pierre’s scientist son, Michel, oversaw the winery from 1955 to 1996, focusing specifically on vineyard sites and expressions of terroir as the benchmark for the winery.
Today, the house of Gimonnet is run by Pierre’s grandsons – Didier and Olivier. They own 30 hectares in total; 16 hectares are Premier Cru from the village of Cuis. A high percentage of their vineyards are Grand Cru (averaging 40 years in age) and cover 12 hectares in total, spread across the villages of Cramant, Chouilly, Oger and Aÿ. All of their wines go through primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation in stainless steel, and reserve wines are stored in bottle as opposed to tank (the norm in Champagne). This is done to slow down the evolution process and maintain freshness. As Didier explained to me, “We are not winemakers, we are the interpreters of the vineyard.” Lutte raisonnée guides their philosophy, old vines are treasured and vinification is “as simple as humanly possible.” He prefers fining over filtration, to respect the protein of the wine, and doesn’t employ battonage because he wants to produce delicate lees. “The origin of the grapes really determines the house style,” notes Didier, who clearly sees his role in conveying what is in the chalky, limestone mineral-driven Côte des Blancs. That’s not to say Didier wants to vinify a single plot on its own, forsaking quality for site. “In general, I am against a single plot, or single terroir Champagne for Gimonnet. Blends provide balance.” Therefore he sources grapes from across his 30 HA, basing his selections on the vintage and the wine he aims to create. All share the Gimonnet hallmarks – vivacity, crystalline purity, linear precision and stunning finesse of Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blanc.
I also spent an afternoon in the tasting room/storage facility/vine showcase/photo gallery winery with Quentin Paillard, a youthful and confident 8th generation of vine grower. Quentin carries on the family tradition as winemaker, along with this brother Antoine and father Benoît. The Paillard family has been growing vine and making wine in Bouzy since 1768, and making wine under the Pierre Paillard name for four generations. Situated in the heart of the Montagne de Reims, Bouzy is a renowned Grand Cru village for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here they own all Grand Cru vineyards, 11HA in total, composed of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, exclusively cultivated on its own roots, and without clones. Sustainability governs the winemaking, malolactic fermentation is not blocked and natural ferments are encouraged. Quentin eloquently notes, “We think that a great wine is built in the vineyards and that the winemaker is an artist who uses creativity to elaborate the most beautiful cuvées.” The blends are key to the house’s unique style – rare because of their high percentage of Chardonnay in an area known primarily for Pinot Noir. Dozens of stainless steel tanks of all shapes and sizes fill the winery. As Quentin explains, they vinify each small plot separately, and then collectively decide what to blend and when, for each wine.
Chardonnay’s freshness acts as a perfect counterpart to the fuller, fruitier Pinot Noir typical of Bouzy’s deep soils and exposure. Pierre Paillard’s fuller, more powerful style is also due to extended aging on the lees and up to 10 years of bottle aging in the underground cellars prior to release. These wines are broodingly graceful and powerfully elegant, with a subtle underlying fruitiness throughout.
Quentin, rather humbly, typifies this new generation of Grower Champagne. Travelled, studied, inquisitive and inspired, he welcomes new ideas in winemaking while grounding everything he does in tradition, just like seven generations before him. There is a tight, collective culture across the entire Champagne region. When I chatted about whom else I was visiting on my trip, both Didier and Quentin knew every winemaker, every house, every position from the smallest operation up to the largest luxury producer. On some level they all discuss, collaborate and cooperatively share information – amazingly all while existing in a highly competitive market. I left a week in Champagne feeling certain that it is a wine, not a brand, and thankful to the growers for reminding me so.
For more information on Grower Champagne, visit Les Champagnes de Vignerons
For more information on the Champagne region, visit www.champagne.com
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