A glass of champagne can either indicate a celebratory occasion or simply the end of a long shift on a Friday night. Although it appears allusively in the "real world," to sommeliers and industry professionals, it's as much a part of life as breathing. A wine list will often feature a variety of champagne producers which, like Krug's Clos du Mesnil and Salon, hold special meaning to many people and command high prices.
How is Quality Determined?
In Champagne quality (and theoretically price) is regulated by the village the grapes have grown in. To a consumer price indicates how good the bottle will be; concurrently the price of grapes is one of the most important variables of the viticultural year to most grape growers. The regional organization in Champagne, Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (aka CIVC), is the oldest of the French regional associations. It was established in 1941 as a co-operative organization grouping champagne growers, shippers, and houses for the French government. As well as mediating relations between growers and producers, it also oversees the production methods and promotion of Champagne. The CIVC regulates the size of harvests, authorizes the reserve and release of wine stocks for use in future vintages, and safeguards the protected designation of Champagne.
Before the CIVC was even established there was the Échelle de Crus (est. in 1911), which translated means "ladder of growths." This system was meant to formalize grape prices, with the ranking determining what percentage of the fixed price per kilogram that a village's grapes would be worth. From 1911 to 1990 the 318 villages included in the Champagne appellation are rated between 100 and 80% (the lowest rating). The top vineyards typically are Grand Cru or Premier Cru:
17 Grand Cru villages - rated 100%
The 17 highest rated villages are all located in the three best-known districts with nine in the Montagne de Reims, six in the Côte des Blancs and two — Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne — in the Vallée de la Marne.
44 Premier Cru villages ranging in their classification from 90% to 99%.
Mareuil-sur-Ay in the Vallée de la Marne and Tauxières in Montagne de Reims were the only Premier Cru villages with a 99% ranking.
In 1990, price fixing on grapes ceased and houses began negotiating directly with growers over pricing. Eventually the Échelle de Crus was abolished in 2010; however, grand cru and premier cru are still permitted to be used on champagne labels for villages classified as such under the old system.
What is a Grower Producer?
In Champagne there are various terms used to classify who actually made the bottle. Typically Champagne houses are classified as a négociant manipulant (NM): "A producer that purchases grapes, grape must, or wine to make champagne." Common NM houses are Louis Roederer, Laurent Perrier, Billecart-Salmon, Moët et Chandon, and Taittinger. A Grower Producer is a récoltant manipulant (RM): "A producer that makes champagne exclusively from its own vineyards." Historically, growers grow the grapes and négociant purchase grapes from the growers. And although only 5% of the Champagne imported into the USA is Grower champagne, it has become a very popular choice among consumers and sommeliers alike. Grower Champagnes tend to be sourced from a single vineyard or closely located vineyards around a village, and made with grapes which vary with each vintage. Today there are over 19,000 independent growers in the Champagne region, and around 5,000 of these growers produce wine from their own grapes.
Lastly a consumer might come across the term "Special Club" or Club Trésors de Champagne. It was established in 1971 by a group of a group of twelve growers to promote the concept of terroir and estate bottled wines. Today it consists of 28 grower producers who must obey a strict set of guidelines, including:
Vinification and bottling must occur on the estate
All base wines and finished "Special Club" wines must undergo tasting analysis
All "Special Club" bottles share an identical bottle shape
The Club Trésors will declare a vintage as being worthy of "Special Club" prestige cuvées, giving each member the choice whether or not to produce a "Special Club" wine
On a wine list a Special Club bottling typically warrants a higher pricepoint. And they should, given the fact that only the very best wines are sold as Special Club.
Here are some of my top choices of grower producers:
Agrapart & Fils: Founded in Avize (Côte des Blancs) at the end of the 19th century, it has been run by Pascal Agrapart and his brother since 1984. Agrapart works with his vineyards according to lunar rhythms and sustainable practices to maximize the vines' potential. And they are not typically cheap wines, Terroirs is entry level and (typically) pretty reasonable.
Pierre Peters: Established in 1919, Pierre Peters is located in the Côte des Blancs, focusing primarily on Blanc de Blanc Champagnes from the Chardonnay grape. Côte des Blancs is prized for Chardonnay vineyards, especially Les Chétillons in Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger (one of the top vineyard sites in all of Champagne).
Paul Bara: The Bara family has been growing vines in the village of Bouzy (Montagne de Reims) since 1833. Paul Bara produced the first Special Club Rosé in the club's history, and although this surely is grand, I'll take Bara's normal rosé any day of the week.
Please feel free to share your favorite grower champagne in the comments!
1. "Getting into Grower Champagne" - Wine Folly
2. Oxford Companion of Wine - Jancis Robinson
3. Champagne by Peter Liem