Champagne is more diverse today than ever before, in terms of both style and types of producers. In particular, the rise in prominence of grower Champagne has transformed the market, giving aficionados greater access to smaller producers and allowing us to explore the intricacies of the region in unprecedented depth and detail.
Grower Champagnes also highlight the importance of winemaking, terroir and viticulture – things that are frequently talked about in other wine regions but are not always part of the Champagne discussion.
The term ‘grower Champagne’ refers to Champagne made by the same people who tended the grapes; it can also be called estate-bottled Champagne or domaine-bottled Champagne. The reason for this differentiation lies in the traditional structure of the Champagne business: historically, vineyards were largely owned by growers, who sold their grapes to the Champagne houses that make and sell finished Champagnes. Other growers would become part of a cooperative, banding together to share resources, but the number of grower estates that produced and marketed their own Champagne remained a small minority. In truth, these lines have never been clearly drawn: nearly all Champagne houses possess at least some vineyards in addition to purchasing grapes from growers, and many growers would often make a little wine of their own.
The number of Champagne-producing growers increased in times of economic stress, when négociants were buying fewer grapes – in the 1930s, for example, and in the period just after World War II. In the 1970s and 1980s, more growers increased estate production out of an interest in winemaking and also with an eye towards profitability. The late 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of new Champagne-producing estates.
Over the years, the Champagne styles being produced by houses and growers have diverged: grower/ producers have often had more latitude to experiment due to their smaller size, initiating a proliferation of single-vineyard Champagnes and lower-dosage Champagnes, for example. In addition, owning and farming vineyards enables control over viticultural processes from start to finish, and grower estates have largely led the movement towards increasing the quality of viticulture in Champagne. Geography plays a role as well: most négociant houses have traditionally blended their wines from vineyards across the Champagne region, whereas most grower estates produce wine from a smaller area, simply because that’s where their vineyards are located. This doesn’t mean that grower Champagne is necessarily more terroir-expressive, but at its best, it can offer more focused snapshots of the region – intriguing for lovers of Champagne’s terroir.
In France and the United Kingdom, grower Champagne has sometimes been thought to put value over quality, leading to an inferior product. This is far from the truth: grower estates produce some of the finest wines in the region. More recently, fine-wine importers and retailers have success – fully marketed grower Champagne as a niche category, one that embodies virtues of artisanality, authenticity and terroir expression.
And this has led to other misconceptions, notably a romanticisation and glorification of grower Champagne as intrinsically superior to that of traditional houses. This is also not true; for one thing, the idea of grower Champagne is hardly uniform, since it encompasses a vast spectrum of producers, all with highly disparate philosophies, methodologies and levels of quality. Ultimately, the real distinction should be between high-quality Champagne producers and mediocre ones, no matter whether they are grower estates or négociants. The proliferation of grower Champagne, though, has caused us to view the region in a new light and to acknowledge its tremendous diversity of character, and it has brought greater attention to the appellation and to Champagne’s virtues as a real wine.