Kevin Pike 
Member since Dec 29, 2011


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Re: “Not just any old bubbly, grower Champagne is something special

It never ceases to amaze me that an article like this can cause so much vitriol. The inaccuracies in the detractors’ postings for the case of why grower champagne is in fact a valid category in the region and in most cases (not all) a better product for the money than the former Grandes Marques houses are too numerous to attend to here. I’d be happy to address them personally in an email (Kevin Pike). But to name a few:
1. Champagne does have long history in winemaking, but sparkling wine has not been made there for 500 years, and in fact, sparkling Champagne was first made by the British who had stronger glass 300+ years ago than the French did and also still used corks, which the French had then abandoned. And the British mixed in herbs, elderflowers, cognac, sugar, etc. to make the sparkling wine they desired. Winegrowing has been in the region since the Romans conquered Gaul.
2. Of the 19,000 growers in Champagne (not 10,000), only 5,112 sell Champagne under their own label and of these, just 2,124 actually make what they sell. Adding to the confusion, the others may have a cooperative make their wine, generating thousands of seemingly different grower labels, but indeed many of them are actually the same wine made by the cooperative. The Champagne growers own 88% of the vineyards but account for just 22% of the sales. Only 30 growers own more than 12 hectares and produce in excess of 6500 cases per year.
3. Champagne is the ONLY region in world where Negociant wine is more Expensive than domain wine. Why is that? Maybe because of marketing? Maybe because it’s sold like diamonds (i.e., they’re not that rare, they shouldn’t be that expensive).
4. Many grower-producers have been around for as long as the big houses. Some are older. The grower Chartogne-Taillet in Merfy dates back to 1683. Veuve Clicqout was founded in 1772; Krug in 1843; Moët in 1743; Roederer in 1833. The point is that being “old and established” doesn’t mean you still make great wine. And the fact that Russian Tsars like Roederer with over 50 grams of sugar in it over 150 years ago has absolutely no bearing on the quality of Roederer now (I happen to like Roederer, by the way, and Bollinger too, but I just don’t think a history of an estate’s appeal necessitates that its still great now; that’s a fatuous argument).
5. To the totally ridiculous claim that grower producers sell their best grapes to the négoce, I can only say that you have absolutely no concept of what’s going on in Champagne. Every grower can sell everything they grow to the négoce. That’s why they voted a few years back to expand the AOC—to produce more wine. Growers who put their family name on their labels, keep the best fruit for themselves (most don’t sell any to the big houses, but if they do, they know they can sell flawed lots and the big houses will buy it; this is true in the entire world of wine: negociants will suck up anything from an appellation regardless of quality). That’s not only the norm because the CIVC sets pricing (so there is no reason to sell for less), but it is also good business sense and a point of pride for the small producer.
6. Not all growers are better than all négoce. The article didn’t claim this, nor is it true. The point is that there are several options in the market that are cheaper and better quality than the luxury marketed brands that most shoppers are bullied into buying—either because they think that those brands are the best or because they don’t know what they like and feel pressured to buy the big brands. “Yellow Label” is a major brand. It’s marketing like Vodka. That’s the problem. Fine wine is marketed differently. DRC isn’t advertised with young, blond, sexy women, scantily clad and looking all starry-eyed. But Veuve is! The biggest challenge to Champagne right now is that the big houses have been too successful marketing it as a luxury drink, and they’ve relegated it to celebrations and special occasions only. In fact, champagne is one of the most versatile wines out there and it should be enjoyed more often and not as an aperitif but throughout a meal.
7. The other major point of the article is that the bulk champagne out there (Moët produces 26 million bottles/year; over 500,000 bottles/year of Dom Pérignon alone; Nicolas Feuillatte, founded in 1972 and the largest co-operative in Champagne produced 26.3 million bottles in 2008, and has reserve stocks of 100 million bottles), is, frankly, BULK wine. Bulk wine has a place in the world of wine, undoubtedly. But is Bulk wine the end-all be-all of a the expression of the region? Isn’t bulk wine counterintuitive to the entire notion of terroir? Is Beaujolais Nouveau the best expression of Beaujolais? Is Liebfraumilch the best expression of Rheinhessen? Is Mateus the best that Portugal can produce? Is McDonald’s the best version of a hamburger? I don’t think so (partial to In-and-Out Burger myself, but isn’t your home grilled burger better than anything else?). But yes, you missed the point of the article, which is that mass factory production necessitates an anti-terroir stance and the lowest common denominator from the region.
8. Here’s a quote for you: “We’re against terroir; we’re very much in favor of blends.”—Régis Camus, cellar-master at Charles Heidsieck (Andrew Jefford, The New France p. 25)
9. “House Style” is a marketing ploy. This is a sparkling wine made in a highly interventionist and formulaic way with swift pressing, extensive use of chaptalization, acidification, cultured yeast strains, enzymes, nitrogenous yeast nutrients and rapid temperature controlled fermentations which amounts to millions of cases annually. Negociant’s don’t have to own any land to make champagne. Grower producers do. In fact, 95% of the juice that goes into their bottles must be from their own land.
10. By contrast, quality-oriented, small growers, or “récoltant-manipulants,” handcraft their limited quantities of Champagne from individual villages and parcels where the inherent qualities of the vineyards imprint themselves into the wines. These winemakers are brave souls in an industrialized age: growing, vinifying and bottling their own Champagne and offering it to the world as their life’s work.
Open your mind. You might actually find something more interesting beyond it.

9 of 13 people like this.
Posted by Kevin Pike on December 29, 2011 at 11:38 PM
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