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IWINETC 2015: Grower Champagnes- Les Champagnes de Vignerons

Posted: Wednesday, 05 August 2015 17:20


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IWINETC 2015: Grower Champagnes- Les Champagnes de Vignerons

Aug 05: Most champagnes are made by big houses who buy grapes from growers and produce in their winery, using blending as the technique to make them consistent irrespective of the vintage but there is an increasing breed of growers who make own champagne from their grapes showcasing terroir and vintage, with a personality and character appreciated by connoisseurs, writes Subhash Arora who interacted with a few during his recent visit to Champagne for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) in Reims

Click For Large ViewWhen I was a novice learning about wines I was made to believe that the beauty of wine was the difference in terroir and different personality in each vintage in the bottle. I could not comprehend why Champagne had been the exception and marketed as a consistent ‘house style’ every year. But in ‘exceptional’ years they would make a Vintage Champagne-generally 3 times in a decade. I noticed that most Champagne houses recently started having vintage champagnes almost every other year, if not during the consecutive years. Again, I was told that the climate had improved where the consistency enabled them to make Vintage champagnes more often. Incidentally, vintage champagne sells for much higher prices.

It is interesting to note that there are still about 5-10% of grape growers who make their own champagne from the grapes grown by them and thus offering a product that is unique in every vintage. Whether delicious or not as much, is for the consumer to decide, but they have a personality of their own, These growers were my curiosity during the visit to Champagne during the IWINETC 2015and will continue to interest me during the future trips to this beautiful region.

What is a grower champagne?

Click For Large View‘Les Champagnes de Vignerons’ is the sparkling wine made in Champagne region from specified grapes grown at the estate of the producer, without buying grapes from outside. Some call it artisanal champagnes while there may be single vineyard champagne (when the grapes are from the same vineyard) or those closely linked. Sometimes it is even referred to as farmerfizz in the U.S.  In contrast- champagnes from the big house may use grapes from any vineyard in La Champagne. There are about 19,000 growers with about 88% production being sold to the big houses. About 4,600 make wines from their own grapes.

 A Grower Champagne can be identified by the initials RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) on the label as compared to NM (Negociant Manipulant). They are usually kept for lesser years on the lees than the big brands (Grande Marque) due to financial constraints. Many of them generally use a lower dosage (sugar added at the time of bottling) but that’s not a rule.

The popularity of Grower Champagne is a relatively recent phenomenon as connoisseurs like to try to get close to the source of production. As of 2008, these wines accounted for less than 3% of champagne market, despite the increasing popularity. One of the delegates from UK, whom I met at the IWINETC told me that he imported only grower champagnes and was planning to visit a few of them at the end of the conference.

Click For Large ViewNot every restaurant stocks grower champagnes but there are some with discerning connoisseurs, who have an enviable inventory. An upscale restaurant at Claridges in London, ‘Fera’ stocks 41 labels of ‘Artisan Vignerons’-from Montagne de Reims (19), Cote de Sezanne (2), Cote de Blancs (10), Valée de La Marne (4) and Aube Region (6). The 5 areas of Champagne might even give you an idea of production pattern of these independent growers. The lowest price at the restaurant is £68 as compared with the cheapest being Laurent Perrier at £72 in the ‘Classical House’ section. (Page 5-7 of the Wine List.) Jacques Salosse Avize1995 is priced at £2100.

Quality not necessarily superior

Grower Champagnes can have difference in quality every year depending on the harvest as the growers cannot buy grapes from outside and have to depend on their own crop. Just to clarify though that growers' champagne is not necessarily superior. Well-known British author and critic Jancis Robinson conducted an interesting blind tasting of 64 champagnes a few years ago when  grower champagnes were also added along with wines from some of the most famous houses in Champagne. The results did not indicate the growing champagnes were superior, though she rated 3 of them very highly. In fact she recorded that there were a few grower Champagne that were poorly made and rather coarse. Like in a still wine, if vintage is bad the quality of Champagne will also suffer. It is just that they have their own independent personality that can be quite charming.

Prices of Grower Champagnes

The prices of grower champagnes are generally 20-30% cheaper than the regular NV Champagnes from NMs.  This is perhaps due to the lower marketing spends than those required by the bigger brands to keep up the image. But they have also not been able to develop the kind of branding like big corporate houses such as Moet Chandon, or Mumms etc. But there are about a dozen RMs whose prices have been at par or even higher than the Grandes Marques, for some time. About 150 have managed to increase their prices in recent years because of their marketing efforts and because they have been able to pass on the additional costs of exports to the buyers. Some of the elite producers have even formed their own alliances to showcase their wines at Champagne Week in Reims and Epernay in April.

Here are a couple of examples I came across during the short visit:

Champagne Bonnet Ponson


Click For Large ViewChamery is a small village with old world charm between Reims and Epernay in Montagne de Reims, where the 6th generation of the father to son, family run growers-producer has been  making champagne cuvees since 1862, with the young and passionate Cyril Bonnet whom I met at the Champagne tasting, and his father Thierry running the business together.

I tasted a few of their bubblies but the most striking champagne was Cuvee Jules Bonnet 2008, named after Cyril’s great-great-grand father, he says. Packaged in a luxurious bottle, somewhat reminiscent a Dom Perignon bottle, with the initials of BJ engraved, it was a very elegant and luxurious wine with millions of tiny beads, deliciously mineral and full on the mouth with a lingering finish. (95/100).

At €30-35 a bottle, it is truly the labour of love and toil of small grower producer. It tasted even better when Cyril told me that in a blind tasting this wine could well compete with the Grand Dame from VCP or Comtes from Taittinger. At a fourth of the price of those iconic wines from Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Taittinger, even if it reached only up to their shoulder, it would be a great testimonial for Grower Champagnes and make you sit up and take a note.

Click For Large View10.5 hAs of vineyards are spread in over 60 parcels in 6 premier cru and grand cru villages in Chamery, Coulommes la Montagne, Pargny, Vrigny Verzy and Verzenay. The vineyards comprise of 40% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Meunier. The farming is organic giving birth to very expressive champagnes, aged for at least 4 years in their cellars. The complete process of making 90,000 bottles a year is in-house.

To enjoy and understand the working of a grower champagne house, Bonnet-Ponson has opened an 8- room accommodation with kitchen in Chamery. Gîte Bonnet-Ponson is merely 15-minute drive from Reims, in the heart of Montagne de Reims Regional Natural Park. Guests can visit Reims Cathedral or the surrounding vineyards or go horse-riding in an equestrian centre located 6 minutes away by car. Champagne-Ardenne Train Station is 10-minute drive away. Though priced slightly on the higher side, it is new and comfortable.

Champagne Charlier & Fils

Montigny-sous-Châtillon (Marne)
Lauriane Utta at

Click For Large ViewThe family run winery was started in 1892 in this small village of 120 people 50 out of which are in the champagne business. With 15 hA of vineyards where the 60% of the grapes grown are Pinot Meunier, Charlier uses only own grapes-they don’t buy or sell grapes which many of the independent growers are obliged to do to sustain financially. The grapes are expensive in this region and at €5-6 a kg price can help you survive. Focusing on 5-6 labels only, this grower producer makes only 120,000 bottles (10,000 cases of 12 bottles)

An excellent quality producer with warmth, sense of hospitality and passion that is a landmark for many growers, you will be impressed with their appreciation for Art as you enter. They use oak casks for fermentation and the great wooden barrels sculpted by a Slovakian artist depicting rustic, rural scenes will make you run for your camera. You will see the remuage (riddling) room where one man can riddle 9000 bottles in an hour! The Tasting Room is very interesting and makes you ask them what they mean by ‘ Club Tresor’. This is a group of 27 high quality independent growers who are proud of their quality and are authorized to make a Click For Large ViewSpécial Club Millésimé in excellent years.

We tasted  "Brut Carte Noire","Carte Blanche", "Prestige Rosé", "Millésime Bacchus", "Spécial Club Millésimé" and "Perle de Rosé".  Perhaps reminding one of that Broadway Musical, Champagne Charlie, most wines sing on your palate and if you taste all of them in bigger quantities, they will certainly make you want to sing.

Spécial Club Millésimé was my most favourite champagne. The Prestigious Cuvée of Club Trésor of Champagne, this wine had 80% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier, 10% Pinot Noir was an elegant and refined wine, with a very creamy texture and excellent length. At €28.50 it dares challenge the big house-special Vintage champs selling for over €100. (94/100).

Click For Large ViewI also loved the Carte Noire Brut with 60% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. It was very fresh and lively with citrus flavors and slightly sharp acidity. A shade of oak comes into the flavour but it’s very rounded. The right amount of sugar of 7.1 gms (I felt it was 8 gm/l) the balance was excellent. At €17.50 at the winery it seemed to be a steal (93/100).

It’s winery like Champagne Charlier and wines like these two I loved, that make you want to come back again and again to Champagne. It’s a pity that due to the constraints from both Champagne and India, we may not see such elegant and seductive beauties here unless a discernible 5-star hotel could import these and make it a special attraction for the true champagne connoisseurs. It’s a must-visit winery in Marne for any Indian drinker who can tell his Champagne from Prosecco.

The increasing interest in grower champagnes could take the share to 5%. It may not be easy to taste many of them in India- and the excise registration charges make it even more arduous task, but one should look around for these charmers on foreign visits or when returning home. I should warn you though that you may not find any grower champagne at the Indian Duty Free shops.

Subhash Arora

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