Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, and Louis Roederer are just a few of Champagne’s biggest international superstars. If you love Champagne, no doubt you’ve already got their posters up in your mental locker. But there are dozens of smaller independent producers worthy of discovery. Many of these wines are produced by local grape growers, called vignerons in French. These are usually family-run “grower-producers” who grow their own grapes and make their own wines. You may have only heard of just a few of them, but if you have the opportunity, they are worth tasting and expanding your “Champagne palate” for. I recently had the opportunity to do just this at an all grower-producer event and everyone was bubbling with excitement.
According to the Champagne Trade Association, an organization that represents both growers and Champagne houses, “There are more than 15,000 growers in Champagne and between them, they own roughly 90% of the vineyards. In contrast, there are around 320 Champagne Houses.” Most likely that glass of champagne you are enjoying at a friend’s wedding reception, company holiday party, or charity awards dinner, is from a leading Champagne house. This is due to the major brands comprising more than 80 percent of what is sold in America while grower-producer Champagnes comprise only about 5 percent.
Let’s explore the different categories of Champagne producers. By law, the label on the bottle must indicate their designation. These are usually very tiny initials. You may need a magnifying glass to find them!
Maison Champagnes are larger négociant houses who source and purchase their grapes from different dedicated growers and then produce their sparkling wines at another production facility, usually owned by the Champagne house. Négociants are wine merchants who purchase grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, then bottle and sell them on the wholesale market. Négociants carefully source their grapes from growers with whom they have long-standing relationships in order to create the exact blend that distinguishes the Champagne’s signature “personality” and provides consistency year after year. Many major names in Champagne, including, Dom Pérignon, Louis Roederer, Bollinger, Perrier-Jouët, and Veuve Clicquot are négociant producers.
The fine print: “NM” stands for négociant manipulant, which is an individual or company who buys grapes, grape must, or wine to make Champagne on their own premises and market it under their own label. All the large Champagne Houses belong in this category. An “ND” (négociant distributeur) buys and distributes finished Champagne to label on premise.
Grower Champagnes are made by the grape grower who makes sparkling wines from fruit grown in his or her very own vineyards. These champagnes are considered “artisanal,” both for their limited production and for being more terroir-driven based on the local growing conditions during the harvest. In contrast, the sourcing capabilities of Champagne houses allows them to create a consistent “classic style” year after year.
Daniel Johnnes, Wine Director for Chef Daniel Boulud’s DINEX Group of restaurants and a Co-Founder of the annual event, La Fête du Champagne, explains the nuance this way: “Grower champagnes are more vulnerable to the whims and vagaries of nature. The large houses have more flexibility with sourcing and blending.”
The fine print: “RM” stands for récoltant manipulate, the designation reserved for grower-producers. “SR” (société de récolants) is for a family of growers that produces and markets its Champagne label from grapes sourced exclusively from family-run vineyards.
Cooperative Champagnes are made in a village cooperative (vineyards that are owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits) which may produce several wines for different producers, both large and small. For a smaller vigneron with limited resources, a cooperative can offer the ideal state-of-the-art production facilities to make his or her own cuvée without investing a lot of money on equipment. Both small and large producers utilize cooperatives. One of the most well-known larger brands to do so is Nicolas Feuillatte.
The fine print: Look for “CM” designating cooperative manipulant – a wine co-op that markets Champagne made from members’ grapes. Another designation is “RC” (récoltant-coopérateur) which indicates a cooperative-grower who markets co-op- produced Champagnes under their own label.
Another designation commonly used for private labeling is “MA” (marque d’acheteur) which refers to a Champagne produced exclusively for one client. These are often private “house” labels for a hotel, restaurant, or supermarket, or sometimes even special labels for a celebrity or fashion designer.
You can find outstanding Champagnes from these categories and at all different price points.
However, the smaller independent Champagne producers have achieved a certain prestige among sommeliers, savvy retailers, and consumers who enjoy the thrill of discovering and collecting smaller sparkling “gems.” Imagine that feeling when you find an amazing small mom and pop restaurant or pastry shop before everyone else knows about it.“The appeal in NYC [and elsewhere around the U.S.A.] for grower champagne is that restaurants can pick and choose products that are not widely available in larger quantities and they can pour them by the glass and [charge] whatever price they want since someone down the street is selling something different. The consumer likes the cachet of being able to introduce their friends at cocktail parties [to] this special grower champagne,” notes Theresa Rodgers Matthews, proprietor of Horseneck Wines & Liquors in Greenwich, CT.
There are many excellent independent, smaller champagne producers to try if you can find them in your local wine shop or favorite restaurant. Here are a few who, in following modern trends, happen to have women in charge.
Originally wine brokers in Beaujolais during the Middle Ages, the Gonet family resettled in Champagne in the 15th century to work in the vineyards. But it wasn’t until 1802 that Charles Gonet founded “Champagne Gonet.” In 1973, Charles’ great-grandson, Michel, whose name now graces the label, modernized and expanded the wine cellars with the mission to improve the quality of the winemaking. Today, Michel’s daughter, Sophie oversees the business with her two brothers, Charles-Henri and Frédéric. The estate is comprised of 40 hectares (just under a 100 acres) located in some of the most ideal areas for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
Michel Gonet Blanc de Blancs 2011 100% Chardonnay ($47)
Michel Gonet Blanc de Noirs 100% Pinot Noir ($70)
Michel Gonet Brut Reserve 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir ($59)
Michel Gonet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 100% Chardonnay ($69)
While many Champagne houses focus on blending grapes to achieve a certain flavor profile, Dominique Moreau, Founder of Champagne Marie Courtin does the opposite. She created her estate in 2005 with the vision to produce single vineyard, single variety, single vintage champagnes from biodynamically-grown grapes. Dominique has been committed to organic farming since 2006 and became certified organic in 2010. The vineyard is only 2.5 hectares (6.17 acres) comprised of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay vines. Dominique named her winery after her grandmother, whom she calls “a woman of the earth.”
Marie Courtin Champagne Efflorescence Extra Brut 2013 100% Pinot Noir. ($80)
Marie Courtin Champagne Eloquence Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 100% Chardonnay ($70)
Marie Courtin Champagne Allegiance Rosé Extra Brut 2012 100% Pinot Noir ($110)
In the early twentieth century, vigneron Louis Billiot made a living supplying pressed juice to the large houses Mumm and Moët & Chandon. Making his own Champagne was a side business. His grandson, Henri, converted the champagne house from being a supplier to a full time designated grower-producer. His son, Serge, further expanded the portfolio in 1954 followed by his daughter Laetitia who currently oversees production. Domaine H. Billiot & Fils is located in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay, considered a premier location for growing Pinot Noir. Located on five hectares (just under 13 acres), 75 percent of production is Pinot Noir; the rest is Chardonnay. Laetitia notes “The classic terroir of Ambonnay produces powerful, vinous champagnes, but they can also be very fine and nuanced, with tremendous cellaring potential.”
H. Billiot Brut Reserve 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay ($50)
H. Billiot Cuvée Laetitia 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir ($85)
H. Billiot Rosé 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay ($50)
The mother-daughter team of Bernadette and Elodie Marion oversee this small Champagne house. A small house located in the small village of Hautvillers (population 850) four miles outside the city of Epernay. The tiny town’s most famous inhabitant was the Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. Famously, he was the cellar-master at the Hautvillers Abbey (1658-1715) who is credited with discovering the process to turn still wine into the bubbly version we know and love today as Champagne. Elodie Marion takes a hands-on approach to managing production: from harvesting the grapes to conducting weekly cuvée tastings, and monitoring sugar levels (dosages), maturing time, and flavors. Like other smaller grower-producers, Elodie uses a co-op facility to make her wines. She says, “The co-op puts at our disposal cutting-edge pressing and wine-making equipment on which they have spared no expense; it shows in our wines,” She describes her champagnes as having “elegance and finesse.”
Marion-Bosser Brut Tradition, Premier Cru 60% Chardonnay/40% Pinot Noir ($50)
Marion- Bosser Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru 100% Chardonnay ($55)
Marion-Bosser Brut Rosé, Premier Cru 55% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir and 15% Pinot Noir still red wine ($55)
The small, family owned Champagne houses was founded in 1920 by Armand-Raphaël Graser, who hailed from Alsace. Sensitive to his German sounding name after moving to Champagne during World War I, Graser decided to adopt a French title for his label. He christened his wines “Lenoble” since he believed Champagne to be the most “noble wines.” Today the AR Lenoble is run by Armand-Raphaël’s great grandchildren. Anne and Antoine Malssagne. AR Lenoble owns 18 hectares (just under 45 acres) divided between plots of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay, all produced on-site. It was the second Champagne house in the region to be awarded the “Haute Valeur Environnementale” certification in recognition of more than 20 years of environmentally-friendly procedures put in place on the estate.
AR Lenoble Brut Intense 30% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 35% Pinot Meunier ($35)
AR Lenoble Rosé Terroir Chouilly-Bisseuil 80% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Noir ($36)
AR Lenoble Cuvee Gentilhomme Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs Chouilly Vintage 2009 100% Chardonnay ($75)
What’s especially alluring about trying grower-champagnes is that they appeal to both your “Champagne-tastes” as well as your taste for discovering something smaller and more artisanal that isn’t on every wine list or store shelf. If you are a fan of trying farm to table fare than expand to farm-to-fizz!
*To dive deeper into learning about Champagne and its producers, check out Peter Liem’s comprehensive online guide ChampagneGuide.net featuring profiles of over 160 producers. Peter, a respected wine writer who lives in Champagne, is the author of the new book, “Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region.” (Also recommended by our Traveling Somm in Champagne Reinvigorated! A Guideline For Updating Your Drinking Traditions). He is a co-founder of the annual La Fête du Champagne, a sparkling extravaganza with many large and small producers that is not to be missed if you are serious about Champagne. The event is held in November, alternating between different cities, most recently London.