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Several recent discussions on grower Champagnes and a seeming indifference among wine lovers to these small artisinal makers led me to this post. A grower Champagne can be distinguished by the fine print on the front label of a bottle of Champagne. You will have to look for the initials "RM". An explanation of them is at this link.

The large negociant corporations bottling Champagne (aided by many importers, distributors and retailers) go to great lengths to convince wine consumers of the virtues of the art of blending to produce a "superior" product which is consistent from year to year.

Here is what they don't want you to know about how they make their house styles:

Most of the grapes they use are purchased from small growers. You would be hard pressed to find any grower that actually sells their best grapes to the negociant firms.

When the grapes come in to the negociant, they are run through a centrifuge, chapitalized and rapidly pressed. Often the pressing is done with cultured yeasts (as opposed to natural yeast which quality winemakers praise), enzymes and nitrogen. The result of this manhandling of the wines is a product which has been stripped of its character. This is only the beginning though.

The next step is to age the grapes in stainless steel, fine, extensively filter and constantly rack the wine to prevent any H2S taint. They now have a bland or blank canvass to work with. This is where the "art of blending" comes in. The large houses use up to 70 different base wines in their blend. How can any distinct vineyard character survive that? The top houses use quality blending practices and may take pride in what they do. However, for every large house that truly blends with pride, there are probably 10 who simply take all the grapes they could buy and dump them into one large vat and call it a house style. There are still other negociants who simply buy bulk wine from a coop and put their label on the bottle. All completely proper for a negociant in Champagne.

At this stage of winemaking, any expert would be hard pressed to distinguish one house style from another. The truly unique flavor from any house style has more to do with the additives than the grapes used. During the first fermentation, each house adds a liqueur de tirage which contain unique additives to each house. It is really these additives which provide the house style. The exact nature of the additives is a closely guarded secret and varies from house to house.

The wines are then aged and riddled. Sediment is removed and a second sugar dosage is added to provide the desired sweetness level. It seems to me that the large negociants do everything in their power to remove any character in the wine only to add their chemically treated special recipe "house style" flavor back into the wine. Presto. A consistent style year after year.

With that my Festivus airing of grievances is over.

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Thanks for the interesting post, VM. In my case, it's sort of timely. Last month I ordered a case (6-pack) each of NV Diebolt Vallois BdB and 2002 Billiot Millesime Brut. I had never heard of either House until I received an e-mail offer, but I'm excited to try something new and hopefully a bit different. They should arrive tomorrow or Saturday.

Best of the season to you and Lady VM, and your delightful son Foster. And of course, to all the other warm and appreciative posters here.
K.Patten- I see from your profile that you are in the wine business. Any chance you work with large champagne houses?

Seaquam- Happy Holidays right back at you my Canadian compadre. Pass along our well wishes to your wife also.

Futronic- Seaq was just making a joke about our dog after my wife sent him an email that showed him dancing in an elf outfit. No new additions. Merry Christmas to you buddy.

Well I understand Vino Me's post although I think it is rather one-sided and directed more accurately at the NVs of the large Houses/grande marques than their generally much higher quality vintage and special cuvee offerings. It also varies considerably from House to House.

Companies like Bollinger do indeed own most of their own vineyards and Roederer also has large Grand Cru and 1er cru holdings.

Even the vast majority that don't often have long-standing relationships with their suppliers which guarantee a level of quality.

And at the very top the wines are made from wholly-owned and/or contracted vineyards- like Krug's Clos du Mesnil, Bollinger's VVF, and in the latter category Laurent Perrier's Salon. Of course these are very to horribly expensive wines.

Another beauty is the more modestly priced Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses which also comes from a wholly-owned site.

However I would also hold up Taittinger's [Blanc de Blancs] Comtes de Champagne as a reliable, distiguished, top quality wine along with e.g. Gosset's Celebris, and many other more and less expensive prestige, special and vintage cuvees.

The big Houses also have the money to invest in facilities and buy grapes from the top GC and 1er Cru vineyards as well as the working capital to maintain their large volumes of maturing stocks and reserve wines for blending, in ideal conditions.

We drink a lot of champagne and spend time in champagne each year so we also drink a wide variety of excellent Grower champagnes - some of which I listed in that thread.
The most successful growers like Selosse, Egly-Ouriet and Larmandier-Bernier also have top sites and have become wealthy in their own right which in turn has permitted continuing advances.

In fact driving around Reims and Epernay one can see just how successful these growers have become.
I guess the biggest problem for Grower champagnes is their relative lack of exposure due to the enormous promotional budgets deployed for many years by the grand marques.

However the USA is generally better served in that respect because the small number of Grower champagnes that are imported [what is it?] have presumably been carefully selected and virtually all those that have been discussed are among the best.

Indeed some [of that small number] don't even appear in the UK, historically the biggest market, and they get excellent reviews from WS, RP and Tanzer.

At the end of the day it comes down to what people like and consistency is often high on the agenda.

The best of the Houses provide consistency and pleasure even at the NV level although the better Grower champagnes will often provide that extra dimension of ‘terroir’ as well as quality - if that's what people want. It may be good and the best is very good but it is ‘different’.

Our approach is to drink the full range of both House and Grower wines [after some research] and spend some time and effort deciding on one's personal favourites. And be prepared to shift if things change.
Interesting posts Vino Me and Nigel. My gf and I really like the bubbles and we get a lot of enjoyment seeking out small production grower champagnes. But at the same time, I also think it’s a positive thing that I can go to Costco any day of the week and find cases of clicquot yellow label. I suspect even casual wine drinkers know that they are not getting some great expression of terroir out of champagne like this. But it’s great having the option when you just want some bubbles for a dinner, party, etc. I give Costco $35, and they give me something I know is going to consistently meet my needs.
The unity of the Champagne producers in their support of the "Champagne Brand" and their defense of the AOC makes sense, from this consumer's perspective. I think many of the grower Champagnes are interesting and even excellent in some cases, but I think the almost universal support and protection of the greater Champagne AOC by the majority of its producers has been good for the consumer as well as the industry.

Vineyard Designation has gotten out of hand - Woodbridge has vineyard designates! - and if the quality is not appreciably better, aside from the highly subjective feelings of a tiny minority of drinkers, I think the reliance on the greater appellation makes sense. Many of us - who are a tiny fraction of wine drinkers - believe instinctively, that an estate grown, small production wine is better. Wines with a "Champagne" AOC have received incredibl high ratings from critics and drinkers on these forums frequently.

Bottom line - I'm a free market guy and a vigneron is obviously free to do as he wishes with his grapes, but I like the simplicity of Champagne as it is currently grown, produced and marketed.
I think it's generalizing to suggest that all grand marques NV wines are spoofilated/crap/generic tasting.

The purpose of house NVs isnt to highlight terroir or a specific vineyard, even at its best. It's to give the consumer a fairly consistent (not always depending on the blend wines, vintages going into the NV and amount, if any, or reserve wines) "style" of champagne that varies obviously by house.

I dont believe Ive ever heard a house touting the expression of a vineyard in it's NV - maybe the chalky soils, but certainly not a specific vineyard.

There are just as many lousy grower champagnes as there are house, if you drink enough of them.

Is it just me of have we been getting hammered with the "try grower's Champagne!!" message from a bunch of different angles this year?

I have actually gone out looking for it a couple of times and was surprised how difficult it is to find in the normal suburban wine shops. It was only after I went downtown that I found someplace with more than 1 RM label (Pierre Peters) and most had none at all.

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