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What are Grower Champagnes and why you should try them.

Jiles Halling,
UK’s leading Champagne host

There’s something stirring in champagne. Perhaps not a full blown revolution just yet, but an irresistable trend nevertheless: the rise and rise of what are called Grower Champagnes.
If you haven’t come across them yet and have never tasted them, then give yourself a treat and try them out. Here’s what they're all about and what you need to look out for....

The change is happening everywhere if you take the time to look around you.
  • Micro breweries producing local beers that are more than a match, flavour-wise at least, for the giants of the industry;
  • Farmers’ markets where you can discover some fabulous produce and meet the fascinating ‘real’ people who produce or grow it, instead of struggling round the same old supermarkets shelves every week for mass-produced produce.

    Well, the same thing’s happening in champagne and that’s where grower champagne comes in....

    It’s the return of the small man, or woman, because more and more people are looking for something that gives them not just good value, but a sense of being.... what’s the best word? Perhaps ‘honest’ or ‘ authentic’.

    The champagne industry is structured in a really weird way and a quick look at some revealing facts and figures will show you what I mean.

    At the top of the ‘glamour ratings’ there are a couple of hundred maisons or champagne houses and amongst these there are a few fabulously famous brands which are sometimes referred to as Les Grandes Maisons– you know the names already: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Roederer etc etc...

    The houses are officially classified as NM or Négociants-Manipulants ( literallydealers and handlers ).

    What these two little words mean is that the maisons rely for the majority of their grape supplies on the deals they strike to buy grapes from other grape growers.

    In fact the maisons only own about 12% of the vineyards in Champagne, but amazingly sales of their brands represent over 70% of all the champagne that is sold – actually when you’re talking about sales outside France then the percentage is even higher.

    So who owns the other vineyards?

    Well, there are about 20,000 people who own a few hectares, or acres, each and grow grapes. These are called Récoltants ( Harvesters). 3/4 of these don’t make any champagne at all; they just harvest their grapes and sell them to other people to make champagne.

    In most cases it’s the maisons they sell to, but there are around 5,000 of those Récoltants who keep their grapes to make their own champagne. They are then classified as RM or Récoltants-Manipulants and it’s the champagnes made by these small operators that have become known as ‘ Grower Champagnes’

    The first and most obvious difference between the large maisons ( NM ) and the grower champagnes ( RM ) is the scale of the operations.

    The big houses count their production in tens of millions of bottles – the largest of all, Moët & Chandon, produces over 30 million bottles per year if you count in all the different types of champagne they make. At the other end of the scale, some of the smallest producers may make only around 50,000 bottles.

    I don’t want to say anything bad about the big brands, or about the many dedicated and professional people who work for them, I worked right alongside them for 10 years, but no matter how skilful they are, they are nevertheless employees and it’s difficult to see how they can really have the same point of view as the small growers.

    For the small producers making champagne is not a job, it’s a way of life and it’s very common for the entire family to be involved and for the vineyards and know-how to be passed from one generation to another.

    It’s exactly this type of passion and link to the soil that more and more consumers are looking for these days.

    Another major difference between the best of the RM champagnes and the champagnes from the large NM is the price.

    To maintain the buzz and glamour around a successful champagne brand takes a lot of investment and it’s obvious that this is reflected in the price the consumer – that’s you and me – pays in the shops.

    The small growers don’t have huge marketing machines and don’t have the same costs to bear, so inevitably their champagnes are less expensive.

    That’s not to say that all grower champagnes are dirt cheap, they’re not. In fact, if you're looking for a really good champagne for the price of a Cava or Prosecco then I think you're going to be looking for a long time.

    What's important though is that the price should be reasonable and should reflect the quality. That’s where the leaders amongst the smaller producers really score, so if you’re looking for value for money then the grower champagnes offer a far better deal.

    You can spot grower champagnes by the letters RM that you can find in small letters somewhere on the front label of the champagne bottle, so do keep your eyes open and see if you can find a few in your local wine store.

    The next thing will be to discover the names of the better grower champagnes and believe me there are plenty, so many in fact that it will need a second article to deal with them all, so watch this space or better still take a look at our champagne club which is coming soon.

    Stay Bubbly

    For an update of Jiles last publications: read more …..

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