What is grower champagne and why is it different?
At Sally Hillman we consider there are two broad categories of champagne; one is produced on a large scale by the well-known Grandes Marques, the other category consists of the grower champagnes, also known as récoltant manipulant champagnes.
The Grandes Marques create their product with grapes from a wide variety of suppliers which are blended to a precise and consistent formula. These wines are reliably uniform from year to year, but the expression of their terroir is not as evident as it is in the grower champagnes. Every aspect of a grower champagne is a reflection of its terroir, a hard-to-translate term that incorporates its micro-climate, soil type, topography and production technique. Grower champagne is produced by innovative artisans who make and market under their own label using grapes exclusively sourced from their own vineyards and processed on their own premises. All these factors contribute to the individuality of every vintage. Grown on small parcels of land by fiercely independent and passionate producers committed to organic and biodynamic growing practices, they are not mass produced and each wine is a snapshot of how that season’s harvest unfolded.
A sip of a grower champagne will transport you to the sunny hillside or chalky plain where its creation began. For example, Aurélien Gerbais of Champagne Pierre Gerbais is well regarded by wine consumers who value terroir-expressive, conscientiously farmed champagne. To create their unique, generous wines they put good grapes onto good soil and respect the natural balance of their ecosystems through cultivation of biodiversity, “better grapes mean better wine, which means less chemicals are required” says Aurélien. The House of Pierre Gerbais was the first to produce champagne from 100% Pinot blanc, one of Champagne’s heirloom varieties, with the cuvée named L’Originale for its heritage. Making up nearly 25% of the House’s total plantings, Pierre Gerbais is the most influential producer in Champagne in regards to Pinot blanc. The grapes come from vines planted in 1904 in a single parcel of land, or lieu-dit known as “Les Proies” and the parcel is vinified separately to maintain the individuality of the grapes.
Industry behemoth Moet & Chandon annually turns out more than 2 million cases produced mostly from grapes purchased from independently owned vineyards throughout the huge Champagne appellation, along with a mix of their own grapes whereas a grower champagne like Pierre Gerbais may only produce a few thousand bottles of each cuvée per year. As consumer awareness and appreciation of the grower movement and its commitment to organic, sustainable production has increased, the demand for the champagne of these smaller, artisanal producers frequently outstrips supply.
Every Grande Marque champagne has its own market-tested blend which produces the same taste year after year. Some find this predictability comforting – it’s a bit like knowing that you can buy a Big Mac anywhere in the world and it will taste exactly the same. That probably sounds harsh, and there is no doubt the Grandes Marques have done a great job raising the profile of champagne but nothing beats the connection a grower champagne creates between its terroir and the drinker.
Not only do the grower champagnes express terroir more than the Grand Marque champagnes, it is usually terroir specific to the village level. Pierre Gerbais consists of 15 hectares of vines in Celles-sur-Ource, a village in the Côte des Bar growing region of Champagne. By contrast, Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut champagne is a blend of 80 different wines from 80 different terroirs across the 34,000 hectares of Champagne A.O.C.
Grower champagne, is perhaps France’s best-kept secret, making up just under 5% of the champagne market and representing 356 individual growers. These are the champagnes which the French drink to celebrate, commiserate or just because la vie est belle! Wines that are fresh, natural and full of character, grower champagnes bring elegance to any occasion.
If you really want to experience the magic of champagne, try grower champagne for the joy of experiencing these individualistic expressions of a diverse band of artisans and because grower champagnes are calling out to be paired and celebrated with delicious seasonal food – “one of life’s simplest and greatest pleasures”.
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