The winegrowers' champagnes (also called owner's champagnes) are sparkling wines made in the Champagne region (AOC). They are produced by winegrowers who own the vineyards from which they make their own champagnes. These winegrowers do not have the advertising budgets to establish themselves worldwide and their wines are rarely available in mass distribution. Their only way to sell is to produce very high quality champagnes and gain recognition in the international and independent wine press.
Some of our winegrowers have received scores of 95 or even more from Robert Parker for their champagnes, which are therefore in the big league, while remaining affordable. As a simple example: in his guide "The Wine Advocate" (the most widely read wine guide in the world), Robert Parker rated the Rosé de Saignée from Larmandier-Bernier at 96/100 in December 2008, which is the second score to the world! However, we sell this champagne for less than 40 € a bottle and if you want to taste the champagne which has the best score in the world - 98/100 for the Cristal Rosé 1996 by Louis Roederer - you will have to pay between 450 and 700 € ... conclusion, the winegrowers sell wine, not handbags ;-)
For the rest, here is for you some revealing articles from the most famous specialists. Happy reading and ... have fun!
JANCIS ROBINSON (UK)| PARKER (US)| DECANTER (UK-US)
Robinson, June 3, 2009
Master of Wine and "high priestess of wine" in the United Kingdom
"I cannot stress enough what superb value can be found among champagnes from the best winemakers - those made by the people who cultivate the vines, as opposed to wines blended by the big houses from the grapes they buy (and, in a few cases, cultivate themselves)."
Non-vintage champagne - where is the value ?
May 29, 2008
Of all the wines in the world, champagne is the greatest success story. While other French wine regions must fight, the Champagne region must be extended to be able to meet demand. While Bordeaux and Midi producers desperately try to build brands, champagne is the most famous wine appellation in the world.
But as a wine lover, rather than a marketing expert, I find this quite depressing. The vast majority of the champagne sold is a non-vintage blend and my recent tasting of the best known of them was far from a pleasant experience - especially when you look at the average prices.
This concerns the majority of the nearly 80 non-vintage champagnes that were tasted in London at the annual tasting of the Interprofessional Committee for Champagne Wines (CIVC), held in the astonishing Banqueting House in Whitehall.
In general, I found these non-vintage blends to be uninspiring. They were arranged in alphabetical order and it was only when I tasted Gosset, about a third of the way, that I discovered a truly enthralling nose.
There was little information about the characteristics of the bottles, and too many wines seemed to be made from tired or roughly squeezed fruit. If you are spending money on champagne, you want complexity and / or delicacy and certainly refreshment.
Winegrowers' champagnes are among the bargains, but anyone who has studied the subject a bit on a website like this knows that.
While champagne producers vary their pricing policies, often without much relation to quality, they also vary enormously in the amount of information they provide. Bruno Paillard and Chartogne Taillet, for example, provide information on the blend - not just the grape varieties, but also the most important information: which vintage (s) the blend is based on. But most champagne producers don't give any information on the age of the wine, or how long it has been in the cellar before it goes on sale, and expect us to spend double digits per bottle for what is actually a mystery wine ...
The usual old argument used was, "Trust us, it's our job to produce a standard blend every year." But a growing proportion of today's consumers are knowledgeable enough to notice the stylistic changes in the blends of various houses. They know there are huge differences between the vintages, say, 2001, 2002, and 2003, differences that will likely be noticeable in the blends based on them.
At this event, which took place in London in May 2008, eighty houses were represented (including almost all of the major brands), including six of our winegrowers, with their non-vintage wines. They received the following scores from Jancis Robinson (the highly respected wine "papess" in the UK)
Larmandier-Bernier got 18/20 (highest score) and a 17 ++
Jean Milan : 17,5/20
De Sousa & Fils : 17,5/20
Pierre Moncuit : 17/20
René Geoffroy : 16,5/20
Philipponnat : 16/20
- Antonio Galloni, champagne specialist for The Wine Advocate, Robert Paker's guide, December 2008.
"Major brands and champagnes from winegrowers - Two different interpretations of champagne"
Once largely ignored by all but a handful of savvy consumers, champagne has burst into broad daylight and on a global scale. The prices of these "most desirable" wines have skyrocketed to levels never seen before. This follows a demand created by the big houses through cutting-edge marketing, which has built the image of champagne as a luxury product. Until a few years ago, champagne received little attention in wine auctions, while today some wines have reached the front pages of catalogs. As with the great Burgundies and Bordeaux, the prices and prestige of owning the rarest champagnes have skyrocketed, all this before the crisis of course.
Big brands often collect criticism for the massive quantity and industrial quality of their champagnes. Granted, there are plenty of these wines on the market, however the best houses offer consistency across their range and wide availability which is commendable. At the very top of the scale of great champagnes, there are monumental bottles that can be kept for years, even decades. Unfortunately, these wines are no longer within the reach of ordinary people. In addition to their prestige bottles, the big manufacturers have become relatively good at producing reliable non-vintage wines, but it is in the mid-range where the big brands have problems and where the quality is more often than not quite variable.
In parallel with the flashy image of the great brands and their prestigious wines, also known as heads of cuvées, has emerged a generation of winegrowers-artisans for whom champagne is first and foremost a wine before be a champagne. The best Champagne winemakers place a significant emphasis on viticulture, something sorely lacking in a region where quantity and industrialization were often the primary concerns. Many of these winegrowers follow the principles of organic farming, even biodynamic farming or one of its variants such as sustainable management; an approach that seeks to reconcile the ideals of organic and biodynamic while accepting that strict adherence to these principles is not always feasible or desirable.
In reality, the appearance of artisan properties and small productions of bottled wines at the estate follow the same trend that other regions have already seen, but it arrived relatively late in Champagne, probably in part due to the fact that the difference between the small independent winegrower and the big houses is enormous. While the big brands aim for consistency from vintage to vintage and seek to express "a house style", the winemaker places more importance on place, on a vintage and on the variety of the grapes, as expressed by a particular producer. Champagnes from winegrowers cannot have the pedigree or the perceived pedigree of the big brands, but they are marketed at the prices of wines and not of luxury handbags. I have found superb wines from both big brands and winemakers, proving that size alone does not correlate with quality.
- Essi Avellan, Master of Wine.Decanter
The world's most respected wine monthly.
"It's time to look beyond the ostentatious side of Champagne and see the wine. Take a close look and get more bubbles for your money ..."
Look beyond the big brands and you will find spectacular champagnes great value for money with a taste of the land, Essi Avellan says in essence. The combination of the economic crisis and extremely high champagne prices has exceeded the tolerance threshold of a large number of consumers. The good news ? There is a way to pay less without compromising on quality. How? 'Or' What ? The winegrower's champagne.
The winegrowers' champagnes are handmade champagnes with a real taste of the land. While well-known brands (or Grandes Maisons) buy most of their grapes, the winemakers' champagnes are made by the harvesters themselves. Add to it an attractive price and you have a rough diamond in your hands. Seen from the outside, the winegrowers' champagnes look like a well-kept treasure, reserved for French consumption only.
Taking into account the global presence of champagne and brands, it is astounding that the French still manage to drink more than 55% of production, or 2.8 bottles per person per year. Although the largest part concerns the big brands, the champagnes of winegrowers represent 40% of this consumption.
Scandinavia and the United States are rare examples of markets where winegrowers' champagnes have positive connotations and significant distribution. There, these champagnes are promoted by the trade press and sommeliers as authentic, exciting and good value for money products. In most other countries, especially the UK, they are not seen as an attractive choice, but simply as a cheaper alternative. If this is your prospect, it's time to reassess it ...
The rise of the terroir.
But true wine lovers are becoming more and more educated and champagne is moving from being a simple aperitif or celebration drink to that of a 'serious' wine. Many terroirists ’, such as Jean-Hervé Chiquet from Jacquesson, believe that the champagne wine revolution has only just begun. And it is on the wine side that the winegrowers have a unique competitive advantage: they make wines with a real sense of the terroir, a high degree of authenticity and a real rarity.
Considering this, the production of a winemaker - on average around 100,000 to 200,000 bottles per year - should be much more attractive than that of a large prestige brand that produces millions of bottles. Go back a few decades and compare Burgundy to Champagne. Burgundy, too, used to be dominated by large merchants. Today, the most famous and appreciated wines are those of small winemakers, and the identification of the origins of the terroir is a trivial matter. Magic is the land, whether your choice is Romanée-Conti, Quinta do Noval Nacional or L'Ermita. Due to the blended nature of Champagne, even educated professionals do not always understand Champagne sub-regions as they do Burgundy or Bordeaux. Once again, the different terroirs and grape varieties are the keys to understanding.
So, while I admire the apparent simplicity of champagne, this is where I disagree with the big brands who don't want to discuss the product in detail, whether it's winemaking, grape varieties or again the date of disgorgement. Passionate connoisseurs should be given a chance to understand the product and its origins. Interest on the part of consumers in trying to understand champagne has led to the emergence of styles of terroir - a village (mono-cru) or a single vineyard (mono-plot) - both by champagne houses and by the winegrowers. This is where the winemakers have a lot to offer, as they typically source all of their grapes from their own vineyards, often in a village. What might be lost in the harmony of an assemblage of multi-regions is gained in personality and in the diversity of regional characteristics.
Taste the difference.
As in other high-end wine regions, there are identifiable differences between the products of each municipality. In the paradise of Chardonnay, for example, Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger produces the purest and the best like the purist Guy Charlemagne. The village of Cramant produces more subtle and feminine, sensual wines, like those of Diebolt-Vallois. Avize strikes a balance between strength and charm, Agrapart being the perfect example.
In short, there is a whole new world to discover. Not all winegrowers' champagnes are necessarily good, but there are objective reasons why they can be. Usually, the winemakers supplying the great champagne houses are paid for the quantity of grapes, not the quality. This may lead some winegrowers to prefer young and productive vines. But quality-oriented winegrowers work their land and care about it. Yields are kept low and old vines are considered essential. Pascal Agrapart, for example, aspires to make a vintage wine (grand cru) each year - a rarity in Champagne - by his careful work of the land and its vines.
In line with today's values, many winegrowers choose a non-interventionist and organic approach, or even biodynamics, as a route to quality. Larmandier-Bernier, located in Vertus, is a good example of a winemaker who has a complete biodynamic approach and whose philosophy is to reflect the terroir in its purest state in the glass. In addition to identifiable origins and natural methods, therefore, authenticity also comes from the involvement of people.
With the champagnes of the winemakers, you know that the grapes were cultivated and the wine made by those who have their name on the label - a rarity in champagne. Visiting the growers is a very different experience from the luxury and the perfect and sometimes excessive staging offered by the big brands. The winegrowers, artisans - farmers, must be out of their vineyards to speak. But once you've managed to make a date, they're proud to show you everything.
Compared to the prices we are used to, the champagnes from the winemakers are not expensive.
In France, you can get a good winegrower's champagne for € 15. Even the most prestigious rarely exceed 40 €. For big brands, € 30 is the entry point. Why is the winegrower, despite small volumes, less expensive? To answer this we have to look at the structure of the market. There are the inherent instabilities of supply and demand in the region. The 15,000 growers own 88% of the vineyards, but only sell 20% of the champagne. Most of them only sell grapes, not wine. Therefore, the battle between supply and demand has been going on since the dawn of time. At the start of the 20th century, there was significant dissatisfaction among winegrowers as the champagne houses flourished, but only a small part of the profits went back to them. So, in 1929, when houses were unable to buy grapes due to the economic crisis, the movement of winegrowers producing their own champagne began. Today, increased demand and the rising price of grapes give more power to winegrowers.
Change of power
As the demand for grapes exceeds production, the prices of vineyards and grapes soared to record highs, strengthening the position of winemakers. In the past it was the merchant who drove a Mercedes, today it is the winegrower. Ownership of land in the region has become increasingly profitable, with one hectare of grand cru vineyard starting at around € 1.2 million. The selling prices in Champagne are the highest in the wine world, apart from perhaps a few plots in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Owning your land and vineyard, opposed to the need to buy grapes at € 6 per kilo, allows growers to sell their wines well below the prices of big brands. But clean production is not an easy journey.
Power and prestige are in the hands of a few big brands. Big brands are fabulous advertisers while many growers remain limited in their marketing skills and financial resources. Many do not even go beyond their cellar door to sell. Thus the prices remained modest and the margins well below those practiced by the big brands.
But things are changing again: there are now a number of luxury ’winemakers who produce very high quality champagnes that are internationally renowned. Anselme Selosse, from Jacques Selosse champagne, gave an international face to the luxury winegrower movement. His charisma, his innovative spirit, and his extraordinary wines have paved the way for several other winegrowers. Unfortunately, many growers don't export at all, but the few who have managed to make a name for themselves and find the appropriate distribution abroad sometimes export more than 50% of their production. Most of these luxury growers are able to maintain prices slightly higher than standard prices, but these wines can still represent fantastic value for money. Only Selosse and a handful of others can charge prices above those of the big brands.
The Club Special
Despite some success stories, individual winegrowers can nevertheless get lost in the global market and wider cooperation, such as the wonderful Club Trésors de Champagne, is needed. This club is a group of a handful of quality-oriented winegrowers who call their prestige vintages 'Special Club'. There is a common bottle for the Club Special and a label format to follow and all wines are approved by a jury of members. (Marc Hébrart and Nominé-Renard).
Time and time again I see that they are great, far surpassing the prestige vintages of major brands, both in quality and in personality. It's a shame that they hardly remain known. So far, the winemakers have played in a different court than the big brands. But now these friendly "underdogs" are being given an opportunity to show their worth and establish themselves in international markets.
It's time to look beyond the ostentatious side of Champagne and see the wine.