Enter into the Champagne section of any wine store, and one is sure to be faced with a selection of recognizable labels. Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Krug, all owned by LMVH, line most shelves. If the selection is more extensive, offerings might include sommelier favourites like Pol Roger and Louis Roederer. Increasingly, however, the grower Champagne trend is infiltrating wine stores, cellars, and restaurants alike. Although not at a pace some might hope or expect.
Interest in grower Champagne is growing, in part, because it comes from independent growers, or vignerons, and their families. Each specific vineyard site produces wine that directly reflects the soil and climate. Unique expressions tend to pique the curiosity of wine fanatics, particularly when it comes to bubbly.
But, as most know, with exception to recent upticks, the past few years have not been kind to the industry, particularly small producers. According to Comité Champagne, imports of grower Champagne into the U.S., U.K., and Australia had been rising pre-pandemic, but fell sharply in 2020.
In 2021, demand remained relatively stagnant, with grower Champagne accounting for between 5% and 10% of imports. However, LMVH reported a 32% rise in sales.
The ebb and flow of any industry is an economic expectation. There are Davids, and there are Goliaths. But, with today’s consumers focus on conscious buying, the question becomes whether grower Champagne can or will ever become a genuine challenger to large Champagne houses.
There Is No Grower Champagne Without Champagne
Looking back to the rise of Champagne’s popularity since the 18th century, it’s no surprise that big Houses need to source a large amount of grapes, often from hundreds of different sites throughout the region. For this reason, big brands – known as Grand Marques – are consistent and reliable; when the cork pops, the expectation of excellence is there. A lack of bottle variation is intentional; the non-vintage Brut is a calling card. They typically seek to showcase Champagne as a region rather than the micro terroir of the wine.
Due to their economies of scale and massive marketing budgets, Grand Marques are available globally. Consistency is key: a consumer in Sydney expects their glass of Champagne to taste the same in New York or Tokyo.
Each of the hundreds of sites that go into making a ‘Big Brand Brut’ represents a grower. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (4th Edition), there are over 19,000 independent growers in the Champagne region. They account for nearly 88% of all vineyard land in the region. Of them, 5,000 of these growers produce wine from their own grapes.
Producers create grower Champagne with intent. Its purpose is to tell a story and take the drinker on a journey, elevating all five senses. Unlike the Grand Marques, grower Champagne varies year-to-year depending on vineyard conditions. It’s an unpredictable expression of the soil, the weather, the harvest, and the human hand.
Conscious Consumption, Not Just a Grower Champagne Trend
The rise of grower Champagne corresponds with the overall trend of conscious buying. In 2020, Tiffany and Co began their Provenance and Sourcing initiative, directly tracing all rough-cut diamonds to a known mine or supplier. It is no different in the Champagne industry. Consumers are curious about origin, and grower Champagne caters to this trend.
Many grower Champagnes display detailed labels, sometimes stating the wine’s origin or blend. The Frerejean Frere Premier Extra Brut, Vintage 2006, notes a bottle number out of 6,000. This strategy engages the consumer, connecting them with a piece of history. This type of personalisation is something larger Champagne houses cannot offer.
Frerejean Freres also employs a brand ambassador. This personal approach creates a more engaging marketing experience, a stark contrast to the large advertising campaigns of the Grande Marques.
“Having a dedicated manager in the field has made a substantial difference”, states Megan Barber, Brand Ambassador for Frerejean Freres Oceania. “Champagne drinkers are becoming increasingly discerning.”
Award-winning sommelier Marin van der Klooster has also noticed a shift in demand. “Restaurant patrons are becoming more adventurous with their wine choices”, says Marin. “We now have sections on our wine list dedicated to specific Champagne regions and styles. Our customers want a story behind the wine; it is not enough to simply drink it”.
Artisanal, small scale and typically familial production resonate with a generation of eco-conscious millennials. This movement has created waves in Champagne. Recently, Ruinart released its ‘Second Skin’, a 100% recyclable skin that envelops the Champagne bottle. Additionally, Louis Roederer released its first biodynamic Champagne: the 2012 vintage of Cristal. And Dom Perignon’s chef de cave, Vincent Chaperon, recently ceased using herbicides in their vineyards, shifting toward completely organic Champagne. The transition toward ecological practices is slow, but growers proudly lead the charge.
A Challenging Landscape: The Future of Champagne
The individuality of Champagne made by growers and the fundamental expression of terroir is an experience to behold. The small-scale craftsmanship and stories behind the bottle create a personal connection with each producer, which is hard to achieve with Grande Marque wines produced on such an impressive scale. The tenacity and resilience of growers in the face of adversity, particularly in this uncertain season, is inspiring. Grower Champagne is here to stay and will continue to make its mark in a rapidly changing region.