Grower Champagne: A guide to the best bubbles in the world and what makes them different from the Grandes Marques
Champagne is the world’s most famous sparkling wine. Hailing from the Champagne regions of France, its biggest names are among the biggest names in wine: Moet, Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Cristal.
But there’s another side to Champagne: a universe of small-scale producers preserving ancient family farming traditions and bottling wines you’ve never heard of.
These are the Grower Champagnes.
What is Grower Champagne?
Grower Champagne is Champagne made by the farmer who grows the grapes that go into the bottle.
Grower Champagne can go by a few different names. Because it’s farmer-made wine, another nickname for Grower Champagnes is “Farmer Fizz.” You’ll also sometimes hear people refer to Grower Champagnes as “RM” Champagnes. This is because if you look at many grower champagnes you’ll see a small code on the front or back label that begins with the initials RM, standing for Recoltant-Manipulant, which is French for Grower-Maker (or “harvester-manipulator” if you want to be overly literal).
How to identify a Grower Champagne
It’s not always easy to tell if a Champagne is a grower champagne or not. The easiest thing to do is ask your wine merchant.
If you need to figure it out for yourself, the first thing you’ll want to do is look for the producer’s registration number, a long alpha-numeric code that will always be somewhere on the front or back label, but often in very small, hard to read print. The code will begin with two letters, usually one of these three:
Wait, you’re saying most Champagne isn’t made by the grape grower?
No, it is not! Most Champagne is made by big companies that buy grapes from many small growers (as well as growing some of their own grapes).
The big Champagne houses like Moet Hennessy and Veuve Clicquot (often called “Grand Marques”) make way more wine than any individual could grow. Moet Hennessy, for instance, makes more than 28 million (million!) bottles of bubbly a year. Veuve is smaller but still makes over 18 million bottles.
That’s a lot of wine and it takes a ton – actually, many many tons! – of grapes. In fact, estimates of how many acres it takes to grow that grapes that go into Moet’s champagnes range from nearly 8,000 acres to over 10,000. The range depends on just how much fruit each acre is able to produce at the quality levels they insist on (generally, the less fruit per acre the higher its quality and the better the finished wine). Obviously no individual farmer can farm that much land, never mind be rich enough to buy that much land.
Are Grower Champagnes always better than Grand Marques Champagnes?
Not necessarily: both Grower Champagnes and Grand Marques Champagnes can be great. Unfortunately, you can also find pretty bad examples of both.
What are the big differences between Grower Champagnes and Champagnes from the big houses (i.e. Grand Marques Champagnes)?
Grower Champagnes are different from Grand Marques Champagnes in a few key ways. But big picture, there are two main differences. First, Growers work on a much smaller scale (they farm less land and harvest fewer grapes), which means they can give an attention to detail that just isn’t possible for giant producers.
Second, the fact that it’s only the Grower’s own fruit that ends up in the final wine – a wine with their own name on it! – means they know that whatever they do in the vineyard will be evident in the final wine and will reflect back on their name.
Here are some important ways that those differences make Grower Champagnes what they are:
Focus on Consistent Farming
- Because a Grower Champagne is made by a single farmer (or farming family), the approach to farming will be super-important to them. Their name will be on the label and you can generally count on them paying very close attention to the farming. You can also count on the farming being pretty uniform for all the grapes that end up in the wine. If the farmer follows a sustainable philosophy, all the grapes will be farmed sustainably; if the grower likes organics, most or all of the grapes will be organic; and if the grower is biodynamic, most or all of the grapes will be biodynamically farmed.
- The Grand Marques, on the other hand, buy fruit from many different growers, some of whom will be more meticulous farmers than others. Likewise, some farmers will be very concerned about not exposing their land, their customers or themselves and their families to harsh chemicals and pesticides and will work sustainably or organically. Others will be comfortable taking those risks and decide for other economic reasons to go ahead and spray. So Grand Marques Champagnes are less likely to be fully organic.
- Grower Champagnes are generally made by small landholders with vines in one small village or area. These growers pay very close attention to the terroir and make sparkling wines that express that terroir in many small details, and with a terroir-focussed soul – just like the great wines of Burgundy or Piedmont.
- Grand Marques Champagnes can buy fruit from anywhere in Champagne (a large area) and blend many different terroirs together to produce a consistent house style that reflects their vision of what Champagne truly is, as a whole.
- Neither of these approaches is necessarily better than the other. Some people, some of the time, really appreciate a bottle that’s an intense reflection of a specific terroir. For instance, you may be in the mood for a very chalky, minerally wine, like Pierre Peters’ Chetillons, for example.
- Other times, the same people may really crave a delicious bottle that expresses the very best balanced, most complete range of flavors the Champagne can present, like a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee, for example. Both can be great!
Most quality still wines are made from fruit harvested in a single vintage, but almost all Grand Marque Champagne is made by blending multiple vintages to produce a consistent “house style.” That way, year after year, your bottle of Bollinger is delicious in the same way, even as vintages vary from hotter to colder and wetter to dryer.
Champagnes that are made by blending multiple vintages together are called “non-vintage champagnes” and you will often see “NV” on the label instead of a year.
To be able to blend multiple vintages, the houses must store large volumes of wine every year to use in later years (for more on this process, read about how champagne is made, here). Wines held in reserve like this are, logically enough, called “reserve wines.”
But small growers can’t afford to maintain such large stocks of reserve wines, so they tend to make more vintage-dated wines. And even their non-vintage Champagnes tend to have a much larger component of a single vintage. While a bottle of Krug can have eight or more vintages blended together, many grower Champagnes will only have three.
Again, this isn’t necessarily better or worse. If you love Krug (and honestly, who doesn’t?!), it’s great to be able to pick up a bottle any time and enjoy that particular pleasure – no matter what the weather was like the year before. But sometimes, especially after a particularly great vintage (like 2008, 2012, or 2016), vintage wines can be particularly brilliant.
Focus on drier, “lower dosage” wines (aka, Brut vs Extra Brut and Brut Zero Champagnes)
- Before shipping a Champagne off for sale most Champagne makers add a little bit of sugar to the bottle, called “dosage,” to balance the wines naturally high acidity. (For more on this process read our complete explanation of how you get the bubbles in Champagne).
- That sugar is sometimes called “residual sugar,” or simply “RS.”
- How much sugar do they add to Champagne? The Grand Marques generally add enough so that their Brut Champagnes finish with 7-12 grams of residual sugar per liter (g/L), to balance the wine’s natural acidity. For example:
- Roederrer and Bollinger are dosed to about 8 g/L.
- Nicolas Feuillate, a Grand Marques Champagne that is much more popular in France than in America, is dosed to 10+ g/L.
- Moet’s Brut Imperial was traditionally 12 g/L (although it may be lower now).
- But many modern wine-lovers prefer much lower levels of sweetness and Grower Champagnes have answered the call, generally making wines with lower dosages (that is, less added sugar).
- Growers can do this thanks to a combination of global warming (which has increased the wine’s natural ripeness and fruitiness), the growers’ own focus on terroir and diligent farming (which can also increase ripeness levels as well as terroir expression), and changing tastes which have created a market for wines in this style.
- Again, neither style is necessarily better, and sometimes a little sugar can a long way. Most winemakers discuss dosage like chefs discuss salt: a little bit is sometimes necessary to bring out flavors and complete a wine, even without making it taste sweet in the least, in the same way a little salt at plating brings out flavors without making the food taste overtly salty.
How can I tell how sweet a Champagne will be?
Some bottles will say right on the back how much residual sugar is in the wine, measured in grams per Liter (“g/L”).
A word about sweet Champagnes: Why is “Brut Champagne” dryer than “Extra Dry”?
More of an emphasis on rare grapes
- Champagne’s three main grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Most big houses focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and use Pinot Meunier as a blending grape.
- But Grower Champagnes, including superstars like Ulysses Collin and Chartogne Taillet have championed Pinot Meunier. Some, like Aubry, even promote less well known grapes, showing that they can make beautiful, ageworthy wines of terroir.
- Why do growers focus on rarer grapes? Given their small scale, growers can tailor their plantings very precisely to their terroir, putting Pinot Meunier, for instance, only where it will do best. And they can farm it appropriately so that it produces the most complete and expressive wine possible.
- In addition to Champagnes big three grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), local rules permit a few other grapes that are much less commonly planted. But rare as they are, you will find Grower Champagnes that highlight contributions from these other permitted grape varieties:
- Pinot Blanc - a cousin of Pinot Noir, can give some punch and round fruit
- Pinot Gris - even more closely related to Pinot Noir, gives earthy or smoky note – in Champagne it is sometimes called Enfumé (French for “Smoked”)
- Petit Meslier - is very rare because it is hard to farm and susceptible to disease, but growers who love it say it brings complexity
- Arbane - also very rare and difficult to work with but a favorite among some forward thinking growers who say it brings a very fine balance of stone fruit and floral notes to a wine.
What do Grower Champagnes taste like? Do Grower Champagnes taste different than Grandes Marques Champagnes?
Grower Champagnes tend to taste a little different from the Grand Marques given all the differences in their scale and focus. They are all very different from each other too, since each grower has their own unique terroir, preferences and practices.
However, it is fair to say that Grower Champagnes generally taste different from Grand Marque Champagnes in the following ways:
- Dryer – Grower Champagnes often have lower dosages than Champagnes from the Big Houses
- More minerality and terroir focus – Grand Marques Champagnes are generally a reflection of a house style, rather than a single village's particular soil or terroir; Grower Champagnes focus more on a single terroir expression. Their lower dosages also help to let the terroir shine through.
- Single vineyard wines – Although some Grand Marques release single-vineyard wines (including famous and prestigious wines like Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay and Clos du Mesnil), Grower Champagnes are much more likely to be from a single vineyard.
- More vintage expression – because they have less reserve wine to blend, Grower Champagnes will often be more strongly marked by recent vintages.
- There’s nothing better or worse about either approach. If there’s a vintage you particularly like (and right now there are a lot of delicious 2016s showing up), this is a great thing. If there’s a vintage you don’t appreciate (some people found 2011 odd, for instance), it’s not so good. And of course, if what you want on a given day is a particular house style (say Roederrer’s perfectly balanced complexity) then a vintage wine just isn’t for you that day.
- Some Growers have started a “Reserve Perpetuelle,” or “Solera” (named after the Spanish practice) where they add a little bit of wine each year to a large container of past vintages. That container will thereby continue to reflect (though to an ever diminishing degree) each prior vintage. The Grower can then use that stock either in their blending to get some of the Grand Marques’ consistency, or to make a stand-alone bottling.
- More oxidative style - Grand Marques Champagne are almost always focused on generous flavors: fruit, toastyness, minerality, sometimes florality. Some Grower Champagnes will have a much less generous vibe, with those flavors playing second fiddle to earth, nut, and other “dryer” flavors that can even evoke dry Sherry.
- Natural winemaking and idiosyncratic methods – Big Champagne houses have to be able to sell tons and tons of wine, so they need to make wines with very broad appeal. But small growers can afford to make wines that follow their hearts and make wines that appeal to much smaller subsegments of the market. In some cases those are natural or maybe zero-sulfur wines; in other cases it’s cutting edge farming techniques based on obscure Japanese philosophies.
- Thus, if you are interested in, for example, a completely unsulfured Champagne you’re likely to end up with a Grower Champagne.
What are the Best Grower Champagnes?
There’s no way to say who are the best Growers Champagnes, any more than you can say who are the best Burgundy Growers or the best hockey players (ok, never mind: that’s obviously Wayne Gretzky).
But here’s a quick guide to some of our favorite and some of the most famous Grower Champagnes:
Rarest of the Rare, the Unicorns of Grower Champagne:
To find these you’ll not only need to pay (and pay and pay), but you’ll need to get tight with your local wine merchant. These wines are usually allocated to folks who spend years waiting for them. There’s just not much of this stuff to go around, at any price.
- Jacques Selosses - Standing alone in the Grower Champagne firmament, Anselme Selosses was a trailblazer who was the first to achieve wild international fame (and insanely high prices) for his “Farmer Fizz.” He popularized a terroir focus and single vineyard bottlings, zero-dosage, and the Solera method.
- Jerome Prevost - The darling of wine insiders for that last number of years, Prevost brought Pinot Meunier to unparalleled heights.
Classics and (a little) easier to find
These wines aren’t what you’d call “generally available,” but each year when a new release arrives they will make their way to shelves (and email offers) in better stores.
- Aggrapart – A Champagne-focussed grower from the Cote des Blancs, with an “introductory” bottling (7 Crus) that is utterly delicious, as well as a series of more serious wines that can be as stunning as any of the more famous growers.
- Bereche et Fils – Another gorgeous line up of supremely age-worthy Champagnes, anchored by a stunningly pure NV entry level wine. For a long time an insider's secret, Bereche’s Champagnes are no longer as easy to find as they were just five years ago. But you still see email offers for them and can spot them on better wine lists (and the occasional retail shelf). Get them when you see the name!
Up and coming growers
The world of Grower Champagnes is one of the most exciting, dynamic and delicious in the world of food and wine. There are so many families with amazing plots of land who have sold their fruit to large Houses for generations, but that are now eager to begin making their own wines.
In this environment there is always someone new to discover, someone great who is improving radically, someone who has been doing amazing work for ages and is finally getting the recognition they deserve. Here are two recent favorite up-and-comers:
Christophe Mignon – Christophe Mignon’s vines sit on the limestone-rich western edge of the Vallée de la Marne. He is a deeply committed natural vine grower and employs one employee per hectare for maximum productivity and surveillance during the season—the type of commitment only seen at top estates like Dagueneau and Domaine Leroy. His wines include some of the greatest Pinot Meunier available at any price and, unlike some of the more famous growers, they actually are available.
Robert Barbichon – Barbichon is a multigenerational operation (Robert’s sons, Thomas and Maxime, call the shots here now) that has been biodynamic since 2005. Based in the Cotes des Bares, Barbichon is focused on Pinot Noir and makes absolutely stunning wines that age exceptionally well – even if they are delicious on release.