Within the food and beverage industry bubble, it is easy to forget that only 5% of Champagne that is imported into the United States is Grower Champagne. Their popularity within Sommelier culture is almost deafening, and with good reason. In addition to the overall satisfaction of championing these smaller Récoltant-Manipulant grower/producers, their terroir-driven, unique-to-vintage styles will often make even the most serious wine professional all misty-eyed.
The holy grail of Champagne import portfolios is without question Terry Theise Imports. Since he began importing Grower Champagne into the United States in 1997, the market share has tripled. Never short on opinions, Theise will rail against the manufactured nature of big house Champagne and in the same breath tell you that just because it is Grower Champagne doesn’t automatically mean it is good. This is an interesting dichotomy, yet one that would easily hold true for other wine growing regions across the globe.
A Shift in How Champagne is Seen
Theise’s portfolio is imported by Skurnik Wines, based in Long Island. Valerie Masten, VP of National Sales for Skurnik, shares what kind of changes have occurred in American sensibilities as they relate to the growth of what has become termed “Farmer Fizz.”
“The movement parallels the cultural shift in America's conscience about a dialogue over food - where we're sourcing it, who grows it, and how. Initially, that conversation, where it concerned Champagne, was about Grower vs. Negociant. Today we've moved a step past that, and really begun to focus on the diversity of terroir and style within the Champagne region. That's possible now in part because top growers now have the same prestige as top producers from any other major growing regions: high visibility in top accounts, name recognition, and a demand that far exceeds supply.”
Rising “Somm Culture”
Certainly the most visible of group to get behind the Grower Champagne culture, restaurant Somms are currently experiencing a level of idolatry in America. Most Millennials would rather follow a Somm on Instagram than read the latest edition of Wine Spectator. That almost makes the task of generating consumer interest even easier. Still, Somms don’t get all the credit. According to Valerie, they are part of a much larger “sea change” in how Champagne is viewed.
“I can't begin to express how grateful we are for the years of support by top sommeliers in presenting Grower Champagnes to their customers, treating them as some of the most important wines on their list. But the interest has come from so many quarters: restaurants, absolutely, but also independent retailers who committed to these wines when it would have been far easier to just sell big-name brands; consumers who decided to buy on quality rather than labels; distributors who chose to support grower Champagnes in markets that, for decades, had access to just the same few big brands; independent journalists and critics who chose to look past big-house hype and saw wines worth talking about.”
The complex relationship between those that grow Champagne grapes and the several-million cases per year houses that buy them is an interesting one. Terry Theise has stated that one of the top reasons to drink Grower Champagne is “because its price is honestly based on what it costs to produce, not manipulated to account for massive PR and ad budgets.”
With Veuve Clicquot’s average retail coming in around $55, and many fantastic NV Grower Champagnes around the $40’s, there is some sound logic at work in Theise’s reasoning. Sound, yet potentially reversed to a consumer. When someone buys Champagne, more than any other wine region, there is a presumption of extremely high quality. Someone prepared to celebrate an event will gladly pay more for the Clicquot if they thought it was a clear indicator of better quality- and be none-the-wiser. Again, this is where the educated and Champagne-obsessed beverage pro can come in mighty handy.
In such a traditional region, what new chapters are unfolding behind the scenes of these über-popular Champagne producers? Without a doubt, the aforementioned dedications to terroir expression and vintage personality, but among the minutiae are changes in the base wine used in Champagne production.
Valerie states, “Today there's an unprecedented focus, at least among growers, on making great vins clairs - the still base wines that are the first step in producing Champagne. Not long ago, base wines were thin and acidic and required that long secondary fermentation to give them richness and depth. But today's vignerons are driven to make exceptional still wines, with a helping hand from climate change - wines that show complexity and a specific signature of place before the bubbles are produced. That means today's best Champagnes are often much more transparent in terms of their origins, reflecting their terroir rather than the winemaker's hand.”