Well the party season is upon us and it's time to start thinking about bubbles. Now there are plenty of cheaper and excellent alternatives, like Prosecco for example, but for many people, tough times or not, bubbles means Champagne. However, even if you're determined to stick to Champagne for those parties and special occasions, there are still plenty of interesting alternatives to the big and famous brands that account for the vast majority of the sales. Let's have a look...
Normally when people think of Champagne the brands they have in mind come from what are known as Négociant Manipulants (Merchant Winemakers), which are the big Champagne Houses like Möet et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot. This isn't surprising, as these Grande Marques (big brands) account for 70% of the Champagne trade and a whopping 90% of the export trade. However, although they dominate the global Champagne market they own just 10% of the Champagne vineyards. The remaining 90% belongs to nearly 20,000 independent growers, many holding less than one hectare of vines (about a football pitch). Consequently it's necessary for the big houses to buy grapes each year from scores or even hundreds of growers, thereby collecting grapes from all over the Champagne region to make their consistent and blended brands. In order to supply these big players and to get an excellent and fairly guaranteed return for their harvest, 75% of the growers sell on their grapes to either merchants or co-operatives. Often with contracts in place to ensure their full crop is bought every year, this is a safe choice for the grower.
Although he must ensure his grapes are of a certain quality, the amount of money the grower gets for his grapes is mainly dependent on where in Champagne his vineyards are. The different villages, or communes, of Champagne were all traditionally classified in a percentile system called the 'Échelles des Crus' which rated all the communes according to the quality of grapes coming from their vineyards. The villages deemed the best were designated 100%, with all the others scaled down from there (bottoming out at about 80%). The villages given 100% were known as 'Grand Cru' and the ones that ranked 90% to 99% were 'Premières Cru'. Consequently the money the grower got for his grapes was strictly based on the percentage rating of the commune where his grapes come from. These days it's not so rigidly followed as a pricing structure, but the principal remains and it still largely determines the price a grower gets for his grapes. The key point this highlights is the potential differences in quality and character of wines coming from different terroirs within Champagne. But with a Grande Marque Champagne this is all obscured to the consumer, as a Champagne House's standard blend will be made from grapes coming from all over the region with no mention of any particular commune or vineyard on the label. Of course the merchants do make premium cuvées from particular communes or even specific vineyards, but these are very much the exception. What Merchant Champagne is really all about is a consistent house style from grapes sourced from all over the region.
Although Merchant Champagne completely dominates the UK market, there are other categories of producer that offer an interesting change from the huge Champagne Houses. The next category down the supply chain are the co-operatives, of which there are 140 in Champagne, representing 50% of all the growers. Some of these co-ops will sell grape must or wine on to the merchants (so effectively the growers are selling to the merchants via a co-op), but others will make and market their own Champagnes. These co-ops are known as Co-opératives Manipulants (Co-operative Winemakers). They generally make blended Champagne from grapes pooled from all their members. However, some of them will also make wines with the grapes sourced from a single grower and sell the wine under the grower's name. In this case the grower is regarded as the 'producer' (even though the co-op will have effectively made the Champagne on the grower's behalf) and is known as a Recoltant Coopérateur (Grower Co-operative Member).
[caption id="attachment_1379" align="alignright" width="292" caption="Many Growers are members of Les Champagnes de Vignerons, representing independent producers"][/caption]
There are unquestionably some excellent wine making co-operatives in Champagne, but the alternative to the big houses that we're really interested are the guys who are first in the chain and do the whole process themselves; the Recoltant-Manipulants (Grower-Producers). These are businesses (usually simply a family) who both grow their own grapes and make their own Champagne. There are 5,000 of these brave souls making their own Grower Champagnes, as they're called, risking not finding a route to market or not selling all their wines each year. The contrast between these guys and the big corporate Négociants at the other end of the chain is simple and clear: small Recoltant producers offer an expression of their local vineyards, instead of a blended expression of the whole of Champagne, which is what most Merchant Champagne is. The big houses create a house style that is consistent year in year out, which is a perfectly reasonable tactic and for their size a necessary one. The Grower Champagnes give a variable but often excellent alternative to the homogeneous and invariant (but reliable) house style from one of the big players. Due to the fact that they are usually from one village, this village can also appear on the label, which can be accompanied by 'Grand Cru' or 'Première Cru' if the village is categorised as such.
So we've talked about Merchant Champagne, Co-op Champagne and Grower Champagne, but looking at a bottle, how would you know which type it is? Well, there's a simple trick to work it out. All producers in Champagne have a producer code with a two letter prefix at the start; it's this code that tells you the type of producer. A Recoltant-Manipulant (grower producer) has the code RM at the start, whereas a Negociant Manipulant has the code NM. Now let's look at the whole picture with the aid of a nice drawing and a list of the main producer types and their codes....
Grower making their own Champagne from their own grapes
|CM||Recoltant-Coopérateur||Grower Co-operative Member|
Grower who lets the co-op make wine from his grapes and then takes it back to sell
Co-op making wine blended from all the members' grapes
Champagne House making wine from bought in grapes.
|MA||Marque d'Acheteur||Buyer's Own Brand|
A brand name not owned by producer
All Champagnes must have this code on the label. It's usually found in the small print along with the producer's name at the bottom of the label or sometimes on the back. So if you look closely at the label of any bottle of Champagne, you can tell which type of producer the wine comes from. For example, Looking at the label below you can see at the bottom the producer code starting with RM, letting you know it's a Grower Champagne. It's all very arcane but there you go.
Obviously these grower producers have a tiny production compared to the big houses and therefore you don't see them much in the UK market, especially not in the supermarkets who require high volumes of Champagne supplied regularly. However, they can be found fairly easily and are well worth searching out. How about a couple of examples...
At the cheaper end, a good example is Brut Tradition from J. M. Tissier (as pictured above). It's a lovely light, dry and elegant aperitif that shows how well you can do with Grower Champagnes for under £20.
If you're looking to splash out, for a quid or so under £30 Eric Rodez makes an excellent Champagne called Cuvée des Crayères. As you can see from the label to the left, M. Rodez's vineyards are in the Grand Cru commune of Ambonnay, hence allowing him to write Grand Cru on the label. It's an excellent, rich, nutty, long and complex wine that competes really well against big name merchant Champagne of the same price.
So if you're passing an independent merchant before Christmas, pop in and see if they've got any Grower Champagnes. It's a good thing to do for many reasons; you'd be supporting the small producers (as opposed to a huge international luxury goods company), you'd know that the wine you're drinking came from a family who have tended the vines and made the wine themselves, you'd be getting a taste of a Champagne from a particular terroir, rather than a house blend of the whole region and you might have a wine from a grower that is prepared to be more experimental than a big house (with things like indigenous yeasts for example). And finally you could bore your guests with your new found knowledge of the Champagne industry and how to read the label!
J. M. Tissier, Champagne Brut Tradition, £19.95
Eric Rodez, Champagne Cuvée des Crayères, Ambonnay Grand Cru, £28.95
All wines from Seabright and Seabright Wine Merchants based in London