When we think Champagne houses we tend to think of opulent baroque styled salons where music is played soft, kilometres of underground tunnels where bottles sleep and the production of impeccably blended wines that enjoy prominent representation in bottle shops and wine lists.
However, there is another world of Champagne. This world is perhaps not so well known. One where there are no large classically designed mansions with golden gates but humble farmyard dwellings and country houses where the people that serve you at the cellar door are also the ones working in the vineyards just behind it.
This is the world of the Champagne growers who form the engine room of the Champagne production. They are responsible for the supply to the larger houses and the many cooperatives, but sometimes they will also bottle their own wines. And some will go to extremes to produce the best possible expression that can result from their patch of dirt.
We call them ‘Recoltant Manipulant’ they can be identified with the letters ‘RM’ on the bottom of the label rather than NM (Negociant Manipulant) of the larger houses.
Are they better than the rest? Not always, but the more quality-driven growers tend to use their plots in a different manner to the fruit going into large Champagne houses. They usually work with lower crop or yields and sometime push maturity further then the norm, producing wines that are often compared to great Burgundies with bubbles rather than Champagne. The word terroir is also often mentioned in a grower’s philosophy and this sense of place will take different a dynamic then larger houses that blend the result of different parcels from different regions.
What is interesting to note is that the trend of the growers is increasing but they still only account for about 3% of annual global Champagne sales while owning, however, 80% of the total vineyards in Champagne.
Their stories are not as well known as the well documented history of the larger houses, and most would struggle to produce quality level to the standards of the best houses. However, some of the better growers such as Larmandier–Bernier, Egly Ouriet, Clouet or Vouette et Sorbée will often outshine them. These growers explore different stylistic approaches and are worth seeking out as they will reveal a different and very rewarding facet of Champagne. So as we get into spring racing and the celebratory season, look for some of these different growers – cheers!
RACV Club sommelier Christian Maier