What is Grower Champagne and Why Should I Care?
Champagne doesn't seem to follow the the same rules as every other fine wine producing region. In most places, the quality end of the market is dominated by grower/producers, I.e. the guy that grows the grapes makes the wine. It makes sense that it should be this way, certainly when quality control of grapes is the overriding factor in making fine, or at least very good wine. Champagne however, has always been the other way around. This region is vastly dominated by the Champagne Houses, those producers that may or may not have famous names on the label, and buy their grapes in the main from grape growers.
The latest figures from 2018 show that 72.7% of Champagne is from the Champagne Houses (we'll call them the negociants from hereon), 18.2% from grower/producers (vignerons) and 9.2% from co-operatives. What is surprising is that the figure for the vignerons' share of the market is in decline from a peak in 2008 of 25% of the market. Also in decline is the number of vignerons, currently standing at 4,159 - down by 112 from 2017. Even more surprising is that on export markets the figure for market share of vignerons is even lower: in the UK, for example, the biggest export market in the world for Champagne, they represent a mere 1.2%. Compare this to France where they have 32%.
What do the French know that we don't?
Well, for a start, the French have much less reliance on branded Champagnes from the negociants. It would seem that they have more confidence in their palates, letting the wine do the talking. In the UK wine trade we pride ourselves on finding and championing the best of what is available, but when it comes to Champagne, it appears we are letting ourselves down.
Should it really matter who grows the grapes? The unsatisfying answer to that one is 'it depends'. It depends, of course, on the skill of the grower, his desire to produce quality, and where his/her vines are grown. Champagne is a complex region of hills, valleys, with varying expositions and soil types. Added to that is the complexity of the grape variety blend, trellising method, harvest date, etc.