Emilien Allouchery from Champagne Allouchery Perseval moved back to the family’s eight-hectare Montagne de Reims estate about 10 years ago, having worked overseas for wineries in New Zealand and South Africa. What did he learn, making wine outside of the Champagne region? “English!” he grins. The confidence and individuality of this rock star lookalike is typical of those in the area in which he is working, the milieu of Les Champagnes de Vignerons – Grower Champagne.
In similar vein Jean-Philippe Moulin, representative of Champagne Paul Goerg, declares that they don’t even necessarily keep their “best” grapes but rather the ones they like and want to work with. They sell the remainder to the big houses. And Alain Legret of Champagne Legret & Fils says that income is made from his five hectares by selling grapes to the big houses – leaving him free to make exactly the style of champagne he wants to with the grapes he retains. He makes about 20,000 bottles a year. Though located on the Cote des Blancs, famous for its chardonnay, he grows pinot noir saying his particular village is well suited to red.
The trend for grape growers to bottle their own wine rather than sell their grapes is not new, though visibility on global markets is a recent phenomenon, led by names such as biodynamic producer Larmandier Bernier. Some grower houses, of which there are about 5,000, work by themselves, while others such as Paul Goerg form cooperatives – in this case with an annual production of about 350,000 bottles.
Only decades old as a movement, the grower champagne movement is new in the grand scheme of things. Critically, these wines are becoming more and more available on global markets, and so are only now gaining international visibility.
The tradition in the Champagne region, one of the world’s most successful (and self-protectionist) wine areas, has been for large houses to buy grapes from all over the region and create wines from a vast array of “base” wines from different years. This practice has helped to balance dramatic vintage variation and, given that champagne is expensive to produce, provide economics of scale. It has also allowed the large houses to distinguish themselves from the others through blending practices that lead to a unique house style.
The success – and challenge – of the large champagne houses is the actualisation of, and commitment to, maintaining that style. Consumers bring a huge set of expectations to a glass of, say, Veuve Clicqot. Elsewhere in the luxury world consumers similarly expect an iconic perfume like Chanel No 5 to smell like, well, Chanel No 5. A Hermes bag will always be a Hermes bag.
On the other hand, growers place more emphasis on the diversity of vineyard sites in the region. The word “style” also arises a lot when talking with grower champagne houses, but what is intriguing is that stylistically the wines are more about difference, one from the other, than about attaining uniformity under an umbrella style. Within a single house, there is not even necessarily a house style.
Champagne Gimmonet Gonet, which started in 1986 with five hectares but now has 13 in some of the finest Grand Cru villages such as Cramant and Oger, is a good case in point. Working almost exclusively with chardonnay, its Cuvee Or has a really interesting floral-earthy-lemony nose and is a big wine, even while being a blanc de blancs. The Cuvee Prestige, while having a vibrant energy on the palate, is ephemeral. Meanwhile, for the dense and chalky Carat du Mesnil, of which just 500 bottles are produced, Charles Gimmonet is even considering plans to experiment with zero malolactic fermentation in 2016.
The Paul Goerg blanc de blancs and rose are both delicate and pure – “without makeup” as Moulin puts it. They display the simplicity of luxury. But the Lady 2004 is fuller and broader. That vintage was very “open,” he says, “like an Italian guy”.
Brazilian national Claudio De Villemor Salgado is the consul general for greater China of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, which is based in the important niche market of Hong Kong. He stresses that grower champagnes are not necessarily better – or “less good” – than the grandes marques. “They are just very different,” he explains, “and also different one from another.”
It is not difficult to identify grower champagnes. A Recoltant-Manipulant (abbreviated as RM and referred to as a grower champagne in English) is essentially a grape grower (an individual or a company) who relies exclusively on the fruit from their own vineyard or vineyards. Such producers are identifiable by a matriculation number on the label beginning with the letters RM. Those who sell their fruit are known simply as Recoltants, and they supply the so-called Grandes Marques who trade under the classification of Negociant Manipulant.