Let me clarify right away. It is like David and Goliath in size, except Goliath would have to be much, much bigger, but there isn't really any fighting... I guess I just thought the reference fit. Moving on...
Alas! My favourite movement in the wine industry today. This convoluted world of wine holds a plethora of interesting, trendy, abnormal and of course hipster-esque movements popping up in every corner, year after year. But without any doubt, the one that I am always pulled back to and can’t seem to stay away from is that of the tiny growers in Champagne blowing up and taking some of that illustrious limelight from the world’s most recognizable wineries. Move over Moët, step aside Louis, it is time for the likes of these passionate farmers to start taking over the bubbly world!
Before I get in to what exactly a grower Champagne producer is, lets establish why they are different from what you may be used to, or at least why they are different from what the Champagne norm has been for over a century. Champagne is a region that is dominated by large producers that both grow their own grapes, and also buy a large amount from grape growers throughout the region in order to make their very large amount of wine every year. This is the style that accounts for over 85%of the wine exported to North America every year, and describes the most internationally recognized producers. These houses are called Negociant-Manipulant or NM producers, a classification given by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne… CIVC) and means that the producer purchases more than 5% of their grapes from growers, and makes the wines at their facility under their own label. You may be familiar with a few or a lot of them. Names like Moët & Chandon, Louis Reoderer, Taittinger, Veuve Ciquot and so on, are all classified as NM. Up until 1990, the CIVC set the prices of grapes using the Échelle de Crus, a scale that ranked the villages where the grapes were grown. Villages that were given the maximum échelle of 100 were considered Grand Cru, anything between 90-99 were premier cru, and anything below 90 were simply considered crus. If your grapes were grown and harvested in a village that received a 95% ranking on the Échelle de Crus, you would receive 95% of the price set by the CIVC when you sold them to a Negociant. The highly regulated process illustrates just how common or normal it was for the process of grape growing, and wine making to be separate. For many years of course, the common pass to the next generation of growers would generally mean that they take over their family business and continue to farm, falling in to this system and continuing on. With French inheritance laws notoriously dividing land in to increasingly small parcels, it is also difficult for the growers of Champagne to start creating their own wines, it is an extremely expensive wine to create after all and you need enough to regain your investment and start making a few bucks. Often times growers that wished to make their own wine but did not have a means to do so or the money to front the process would turn to a co-operative of growers. They would pool their recourses and produce wine under single brand instead of selling to the big houses. This is called a Coopérative Manipulant. There is also the option to make your wine at a co-operative facility with grapes from your own vineyards, and sell that wine under your own brand, this is called a Récoltant Coopérateur. This next classification is the one that has been affectionately given the name Grower Champagne, and after all of that mumbo-jumbo, the one that I am dying to talk about.
Here we are! Grower Champagne, Farmer Fizz, Peasant Bubbles and so on. All of these names refer to one of my favourite things in the whole world, and that is the wines of a Récoltant Manipulant in the region of Champagne. RM are the somewhat illustrious initials that you will find somewhere on the bottle of a Champagne made with a minimum of 95% of grapes that were grown on land that is owned by the producer of that bottle. That part is not all that new. There have been RM producers in the region of Champagne for a long, long time. What is new is the worldwide attention that some of these producers are now receiving. Something changed in the region in the late 70s and early 80s. From what I can tell, ground zero seems to be a small town just outside of Epernay called Avize, in the heart of the Cote des Blancs, a prestigious Grand Cru village known for exceptional Chardonnay, and the home of some of Champagnes most prized Growers. In the latter half of the 1970s, a young man in Anselme Salosse took over the winemaking and management at his family domaine. His lineage was that of centuries of grape growers in Avize, but it wasn’t until 1959 that his father decided to produce and sell his own wine, although in small portions of their production, only about 1200 bottles, this was a big risk after all. So, taking on this task fresh off of gaining his degree in viticulture and enology in Beaune, Anselme spent the first few years continuing the methods employed by his father. After a vintage that gave poor conditions in 1976, Anselme decided to make a change in his method, and from that point forward, he realized a freedom that was virtually non-existent in the region of Champagne, and could be as close to the inception of modern day Growers as one can find. Not long after this, another young winemaker was taking over his families domaine, just a short walk down the road from Anselme, also in Avize. In 1984, a domaine which was founded in 1894 and uncommonly bottled their own wines since its inception, had a new young vigneron stepping up to take over. With a similar passion to his neighbor, and drive to create something special, something individual, and eventually something that is truly unique and literally changed the extremely thick and demanding rule book in Champagne, Pascal Agrapart became the head of his family domaine. Of course there were others that were blazing this “Grower” trail, but when I ponder its beginnings, I can’t help but think of this amazing coincidence that these two pioneers started so close together in both time and proximity. The story just fits so perfectly. It could also be because I have spent a good chunk of time In Avize, and I am slightly bias… but I doubt it. So, lets use Champagne Agrapart and Pascal as an example here and dive in to what it takes to be a Grower Champagne producer or, Récoltant Manipulant to be proper.
Champagne Agrapart as I mentioned is in Avize, a Grand Cru village in the heart of the Cote des Blancs. This is lucky of course since that comes with some prestige already. Pascal has 12 hectares of vineyards spread over Avize, Oger, Cremant and Oiry made up of separate patches of land and totalling over 50 plots. He works his land organically, makes and uses his own compost and goes as far as ploughing with a horse to avoid compacting the soil with a heavy tractor in his most prized vineyard, La Fosse, just a stone’s throw behind his domaine. Working this land throughout the year is a ton of work, and it is just the beginning. Once the grapes are harvested, work in the winery goes in to overdrive. Pascal produces around 90,000 bottles per year, which is absolutely tiny compared to the insanely massive and almost unimaginable amount that the largest houses pump out (we’re talking 8 figures) hence the David and Goliath reference, but he oversees and also executes nearly every task throughout the process with every cuvée, of which there are seven. Two of which he still calls “experimental”. He also employs some very labour intensive methods, like performing secondary fermentation under cork, which requires hand disgorgement once it is time to do so. Don’t forget about his highly sought after and extremely difficult to get “experimental” cuvee, Experience, which he created an entirely new method of secondary fermentation where he uses the current vintage press juice in place of liqueur de tirage. This method is very time consuming, very difficult, and also now written in to the CIVC’s book of rules and regulations (see I was being serious when I said he literally changed the rulebook). After 4 years of experimenting and trying to convince them to do so of course, in order to label this wine “Champagne” it needed to be written in, so this was a kind of big deal. So, now the wines are made and all of that craziness is over (spoiler alert, its NEVER over), it must be time for a vacation, no? Cue the loud obnoxious buzzer sound, not so fast! There is wine to sell now, lots of it, and who else is going to do it? Now these days Pascal is fortunate enough that his wines are in demand far beyond his supply, and he really does not have to ask anyone to buy them but, there is still a ton of work involved in both the logistics of distributing the wines, as well as the obligations that one has when creating and maintaining business relationships. There are tastings to attend, winemakers dinners, media obligations, collaborations, consultations, travel, so on and so on and so on. For a perfect example of this, I will tell you of my experience when visiting Domaine Agrapart. I have been to the domaine twice, just about a year apart, and hope to visit once a year for as long as I can. What is beautiful about these visits is that when I arrive at the tall stone walled property and solid steel gated entrance, it is none other than Pascal Agrapart himself that opens the gate and warmly invites us inside, not without addressing his very happy and excited dog to make sure we are not attacked with what I imagine would be nothing more than a slobbery hello. From there it is a few hours of uninterrupted discussion while walking through his domaine and tasting along the way, completely open and honest about his methods, ideas and philosophies. All of which are explained in a remarkably humble way for such a well-known and respected winemaker, he basically calls them ideas, and whether or not they are right, they are what he believes in. Another one of his “ideas” that we spoke about at length is that the terroir in which the grapes are grown is far more important than the actual grapes being used to make the wine, an idea that perfectly displays a new way of thinking in Champagne. About 7 years ago, he decided to rip up an entire vineyard of Chardonnay… in the Cote des Blancs. In the Grand Cru village of Avize. This already sounds insane when you consider the market craze for Blanc des Blancs Champagne from this region. So, here is something even more insane. He decided to plant in no particular pattern, equal amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane… Come again? He planted What?... Yes, there are more than the 3 most famous and almost exclusively used grapes of Champagne, but you rarely see them, and even more rarely in a place like this. So, he grows all of these grapes interspersed together on a single vineyard sight, picks them together, co-presses them together, and treats it as if it was one single varietal. All of these methods have been used before, but never like this, and never on this land with these grapes with any sort of purpose. This is an experiment for himself more than anything, and he simply wants to find out if he is right. So he simply decided to execute the experiment which will take years to perform on some of the most sought after vineyard land in the world. Is it really the terroir that matters most? So far, from what I have tasted of this cuvee he is definitely on to something, the wine fits in without a hitch alongside the rest of his highly terroir driven lineup, and I can’t wait for the vines to grow and dig down over the years to see what sort of conclusions can be made. This is what has me so hooked on grower Champagne. This intense passion and curiosity that drives someone that has no reason to conduct these wildly risky and certainly costly experiments other than a love for what he does, an unquenchable thirst for enological discovery, and a respect for the land that he grows his vines upon. For so many years it has been a sort of Groundhog Day in Champagne. The methods have been much of the same, the grapes planted are basically predetermined by where you are located, and the resulting wines, while still delicious and hold much to discover, have become predictable. These pioneers like Pascal Agrapart or Anselme Salosse are ushering in a new era, and the amount of completely new, unique, and game changing wines that are now available through more and more Growers just like them and continuing to pop up year after year is truly astonishing.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Frederic Savart of Champagne Savart, a domaine that is absolutely blowing up at the moment, and couldn’t believe the energy and passion that he showed when talking about anything that had to do with wine, his or otherwise. Hearing some of the things that he is doing, the ideas that he has and tasting the resulting wines was yet another mind-blowing experience. Not to mention we spent a short time discussing business all while he was orchestrating dégorgement, and operating a pump truck and navigating his tiny space, another testament to the extreme work load it takes to be a successful RM Champagne producer. Just a few days after that I visited with Justine and Froncois Petit-Boxler of Champagne La Rogerie, a brand new domaine that only released 503 bottles of their very first Cuvée, “La Grande Vie” a few months ago. This was an yet again, an amazing experience, and one that deserves an entire story dedicated to it, so I won’t go as far as I want to, but this visit was just another example of this racing pulse that is beating through Champagne and showing no signs of slowing down. The guard seems to have shifted, and generations are now taking over with thoughts of creating beautiful wines, and bringing in their fresh ideas that will continue to remold the region over the years. It ultimately gives us, the drinking public, new and amazing opportunities to experience something that wasn’t possible even a decade ago.
For these opportunities that I have been on a mission to take advantage of, I am highly grateful. I can barely contain my excitement for what is to come, and most of all, I hope that more and more wine lovers, casual drinkers or even just the odd person that happens to be at the right place at the right time gets to experience these sensory marvels that are now able to make their way out of the world’s most famous wine region and on to our tables.