Discover Sparkling: Grower Champagne

Written by
Vintage Cellars
October 1, 2018
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The grower champagne movement has been the most profound transformation in the champagne landscape of the last 50 years. Traditionally, Champagne's 15,800 growers took responsibility only for growing grapes, while the production and sale of the region’s wines were the domain of its now 306 négociant houses and 39 co-opératives. All this is changing. The lines of responsibility have increasingly blurred over recent decades, as houses buy more and more vineyards and assume grower responsibilities. Meanwhile, 4,461 Champagne growers now produce their own champagne.

Sometimes small is better

Grower champagnes are typically smaller in production than the houses, often capturing the expression of a group of nearby villages or even a single village or vineyard. There is something inherently compelling about a champagne from a family estate, made by the same hands that raised the grapes – and for this reason grower champagne have become the darlings of champagne lovers the world over.

The challenge for growers is that the vagaries of Champagne’s climate, exacerbated by climate change in recent decades, makes production of consistent, high-quality champagne nigh-on impossible without the blessing of blending from across a wide geographical spread of vineyards. For this reason, it is only the very top growers, blessed with a good resource of vineyards in the finest locations, who are able to produce outstanding champagne.

Identifying grower champagne

You can recognise a true grower champagne from the initials "RM" (récoltant-manipulant) in tiny print on its label, distinct from "NM" (négociant-manipulant) or "CM" (co-opéerative-manipulant). An RM is permitted to use no more than 5 per cent of fruit from vineyards outside their own estate.

The lines in grower champagne are increasingly blurring as more and more growers take advantage of the benefits of supplementing their production with fruit from their neighbours, friends and family. The result is that many small growers no longer satisfy the 5 per cent rule and so must relinquish their récoltant status and become négociants. Their cuvées are labelled "NM", indistinguishable from the very largest houses. If you only drink RMs, you’ll miss many of Champagne’s top growers.

Australia imports less grower champagne than any other country and also imports the smallest number of growers. Globally, one in five champagne hails from a grower, but in Australia we drink less than one in 60!

JM Sélèque

Champagne is in the midst of dynamic change as a new generation of growers takes over from their
parents. Some have grown tired of the challenge of making and selling their own cuvées, instead opting to sell their fruit to négociant houses. More dynamic types have revitalised their family vineyards and breathed new life into their family brands.

Jean-Marc Sélèque has recently transformed his family vineyards and created a brand new winery to heighten the terroir expression of his chardonnay-led cuvées. His grandfather, Henri Sélèque, planted his first vines in Pierry, south of Épernay, in 1965, and made his first Champagnes in 1976.
The estate now comprises 12 hectares across 40 plots in eight villages, with a vine maturity of 18–60 years. Chardonnay defines the house style, comprising 60% of plantings, followed by 30% pinot meunier and 10% pinot noir. Vines are managed with a focus on natural balance, including ploughing by horse, and six hectares are in transition to biodynamic viticulture. The estate’s small, far-flung plots necessitate a small press to vinify the juice of each plot separately.

Selective oak fermentation was introduced in 2004 to enhance finesse and complexity, and today 30% of parcels are fermented in small, old oak barrels and 2,000L foudres, with the rest in stainless steel. The estate is managed by Henri’s sons Richard and Jean, and their children Nathalie and Jean-
Marc. Back labels informatively detail disgorgement date, base vintages, cépage, time on lees and dosage.

Jacquesson

No Champagne house today is on a trajectory of ascent as steep as Jacquesson. While many houses are on the prowl for more fruit to increase production, Jacquesson has drastically slashed its yields and its contracts to radically improve quality despite lowering quantity. When others set out to make a consistent blend every year, Jacquesson throws uniformity to the wind to draw the best blend out of every vintage. This little house in the village of Dizy, founded in 1798, appears more like a fanatical growerproducer. Purely on the refinement of its current cuvées, Jacquesson has leapt from ranking among Champagne’s top 20 houses to a lofty position among its top 10.

In the year 2000, Jacquesson turned the concept of nonvintage Champagne on its head. Rather than dumbing down the seasons by blending to create a consistent style, brothers Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet had the vision to create a non-vintage blend that dares to be the best it can be every year. The number on the label rolls consecutively each year to reflect the changing blend. It’s a genius concept that other houses are increasingly following.

Jean-Hervé describes Jacquesson as a grower more than a Champagne house, and himself and his brother as "frustrated growers". In 2008, they slashed their fruit purchases from 40 hectares to just eight, with their own vineyards supplying almost 80% of their needs – a remarkable proportion by Champagne house standards. Little wonder their cuvées took a leap in quality at the same time, and have never looked back.

Discover the exciting diversity of Grower Champagnes at Vintage Cellars today.