Champagne is synonymous with celebration. It's the magical sparkling beverage that stirs anticipation when opening and an explosion of excitement once popped. Champagne and New Year's Eve are the perfect fusion. New Year's Eve is all about anticipation. It's a day to count our blessings, accept our defeats, and ponder how the next year will be different. This New Year's Eve I propose a challenge: As the last seconds of 2013 count down and excitement fills the air, let's support the farmers and fill our glass with grower champagne.
What is "grower champagne"?
The Guild of Sommeliers defines it as "a grower-producer who makes champagne from estate-grown fruit. Ninety-five percent of the grapes must originate in the producer's own vineyards."
Simply put, it's wine made by family farmers who tend their vineyards, care for the vines, and then create a wine that expresses where it came from. There is no PR involved in grower champagne. There are no musicians like Jay-Z promoting the farmers and families who pour their hearts into tending their land and creating a magical bottle of bubbly deliciousness. Unofficially known as "farmer fizz," grower champagne is not factory or company made. It is a product of love, and this love deserves to be enjoyed on such a joyous day as New Year's Eve.
Can I find grower champagne easily?
Yes. Grower champagne can be found at just about every wine shop in town. And demand is rising as more people want to support family farmers. The next time you go to your favorite wine shop, simply let them know you are looking for a bottle of grower champagne, and I promise they will not only be able to but excited to help you.
How do you know which champagne is grower?
Look for the letters "RM" on the bottle's label. Every bottle of champagne is labeled with a code (a matriculation number) that has been assigned to them. The letters "RM" signify Récoltant Manipulant, or rather a grower who grows his own grapes. Big champagne houses like Veuve Clicquot are designated "NM" for Negoçiant Manipulant, which refers to a brand that buys grapes from many growers to make its champagne.
Is grower champagne more expensive than non-grower?
No. Actually, it's often cheaper. Think about this. You go to the farmer's market on Saturdays and buy produce or sign up for a CSA from your favorite family farm. Usually the price for produce is less than going to your local grocery store. Grower champagne is a very similar concept. The farmer grows and harvests the grapes, makes the champagne, and then sells it either direct to consumer or to a distributor or importer. The economics of all other champagne houses is much more complicated. Terry Theise, one of the greatest proponents of grower champagne, says it best: "You should drink it because its price is honestly based on what it costs to produce, not manipulated to account for massive PR and ad budgets, or to hold on to market-share. You should drink it because it's better to buy wine from a person than from a company."
I only drink champagne on special occasions and really like a particular label. Do I really need to change?
No, if you love it, drink it. But think about this, much of champagne is sold as an artisanal product but isn't one — grower champagne is. It is worth every dollar. Any consumer who cares about what they are buying, where it comes from, and who it will affect should look for "RM" on the label. Champagne is the one wine almost every wine drinker will buy during the year. This is heavily influenced by New Year's Eve. If every wine drinker reached for the grower champagne bottle over the mass-marketed bottle, collectively we'll be supporting the farmers who put their love, sweat, and tears into making each bottle.
So, I challenge you this holiday season to keep a close eye on the champagne label. Give grower champagne a try, reach for the bottle labeled "RM," and as the anticipation builds, the bottle gets popped, and excitement fills the air, enjoy every sip of this magical wine as the farmers intended you to.
I have to thank Rick Rubel over at the Charleston Grill for introducing me to the great grower Vilmart & Cie's "Grand Cellier" Brut N.V. It changed my perspective.
Cheers to a safe and happy new year. Here's to a joyous 2014.
David McCarus is the general manager & beverage director at FIG.