Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Time is Now for Grower Champagne!

Six years ago, I started an unposted blog with this paragraph:

Why is it that so many fine wine shops insist on carrying only estate-bottled Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, California Cabernet Sauvignon, etc., yet when it comes to the Champagne department, the shelves are dominated by negociants? Before Terry Theise put a stable of Champagne estate-bottlers together wine merchants, and restaurants, could argue that they were too difficult to find. No more.

It's time to finish this post. Estate-bottled Champagne still represents a small fraction (about 6% now) of overall Champagne sales, but that's about triple the percentage it was six years ago, and more labels become available all the time. There is plenty of room for growth, however, since at least a couple of thousand grower Champagnes remain unknown outside of the region. The reality is that selling estate-bottle Champagne is still a struggle. It doesn't help that negociant Champagne houses produce a lot of delicious bubbles, or that they have a couple centuries of experience selling the idea of better quality, consistency and reliability through blending, not just across vintage, but across region and grape varieties. Add to that the fact that Champagne houses are terrific entertainers and hosts (with lots of impressive swag like ice buckets and stoppers), and you can understand how grower Champagne labels are still difficult to find in most wine shops and restaurants.

Estate-bottlers have, however, had an impact on the Champagne market beyond their grabbing 6% of total sales. Consumers are beginning to ask questions they'd never asked before, such as how could they tell when a specific bottle was actually disgorged; or what percentage of a particular negociant house's production came from estate-grown grapes. Champagne drinkers are paying more attention to place, noting differences between wines made from grapes grown in the Montagne de Reims as opposed to wine made from grapes grown in the Côte des Blancs, or the Vallée de la Marne. Many Champagne consumers are undoubtedly more discerning because of the presence of grower Champagne.

It was around the time that I started writing this entry, in 2011, that I decided to kick out the Grande Marques and sell only grower Champagne. I figured that as long as I had big name Champagne labels on the shelf, most consumers would opt for the safe choice and ignore the grower labels. Selling only grower Champagne would force most customers to ask for help, which would give me the opportunity to explain why we didn't have their favorite label and to sell them something so good they'd return for more. A few folks refused to consider an alternative, and headed to the next store - some of them expressed their frustration. Most, however, took my recommendations, and many came back for more grower Champagne.

Something else has happened. Instead of considering Champagne - and other bubbles - as something separate from red or white or pink wine, people are embracing the fact that Champagne, along with its relatives, is wine, with bubbles. This has happened in part because of the presence of grower Champagne, but also because a few wine merchants and sommeliers have embraced the fact that Champagne is a terrific and versatile match for so many foods. Sure, it's great to celebrate with bubbles - it's also great to drink good bubbles with take-out Chinese food, or potato chips, or pizza.

Raise a glass of grower Champagne to Terry Theise - and Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, among other great importers - for bringing us the distinctive, delicious wines of estate-bottlers. I've had personal experience with the growers listed below, though I'm sure I've missed a few.

Paul Bara
H. Billiot
Cedric Bouchard (Roses de Jeanne)
Roger Coulon
Rene Geoffroy
Pierre Gimmonet
Lancelot Goussard
Guy Larmandier
Jacques Lassaigne
J. Lassalle
Jean Milan
Pierre Paillard
Pierre Peters

As in Burgundy, there are houses that do both, produce wine from their own grapes as well as making some cuves from purchased grapes or a combination thereof. Veuve Fourny deserves special mention here. Small, quality driven, legally designated NMs (negociant-manipulant), have softened my stand on a RM (recoltant-maniopulant)-only Champagne section. Hey, it's wine - for every rule there is an exception.


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