If you’re fortunate enough to have a reason to reach for a bottle of Champagne these days — a time when the very thought of celebrating remains complicated by world events — you best make it count. But if the world of wine seems baffling (and it definitely can be), Champagne, with its high price tag and even higher expectations, is pure, unfiltered intimidation. The famed French wine region is synonymous with excess, marketing fluff, and conspicuous consumption — things we could all do with a bit less of right now. But not all Champagne is this way. There is, in fact, a different kind of Champagne, delicious sparkling wine from that same hallowed ground, made of humbler stuff yet no less compelling, and every bit as celebratory.
It’s grower Champagne, a term that is in itself a hack, a cheat code, a secret password through the hidden door that leads directly to the good stuff. Drop the phrase “grower Champagne” to a sommelier at a restaurant (remember that?) or the staff at your friendly neighborhood wine shop and watch their eyes light up. It shows that you’re open-minded and willing to try wines that are exciting, occasionally unusual, and profoundly fulfilling. In short, asking for grower Champagne makes you look cool.
Cred aside, these are, in my humble opinion, some of the most glorious wines you can drink from any region on the planet, and happily, they’re available at a range of price points and styles to fit a diversity of tastes and budgets.
What is grower Champagne?
“Grower Champagne” generally refers to wines from the Champagne region of France that are made and bottled by the same person who grew the grapes. This is different from wines produced by Champagne houses — think Veuve Clicquot or Pol Roger — which typically (but not always!) blend together grapes grown by dozens, or sometimes even hundreds, of individual grape growers from across the region.
For hundreds of years, that was more or less the order of things: Farmers farmed, houses did the rest, with very occasional exceptions made by the odd grower who undertook their own bottling for personal consumption, or who made at most a few hundred cases a year for the wine bars in Paris, perhaps. But then a major moment for change began in 1994, when the influential Gault Millau guide declared an independent grower Champagne maker, Anselme Selosse, to be the finest winemaker in France. Selosse in turn inspired a whole new generation of independent Champagne winemakers — many of whom are second-, third-, or fourth-generations inheritors of family vines — to begin bottling and selling for themselves, in addition to the ongoing practice of selling fruit to the big houses. Consumer interest soon followed, and today there are many excellent grower Champagne options available to drinkers in the United States.
What’s the main difference between grower Champagne and house Champagne?
It’s helpful, if a touch reductive, to think in terms of a simple equation: Grower Champagne = one bottle from one farmer, whereas house Champagne = one bottle from many farmers. This holds true perhaps 99 percent of the time; as in all things in wine and life, there are exceptions. In musical terms, grower Champagne is a like solo album, while house Champagnes are more collaborations, like GZA’s Liquid Swords compared to the group triumph of Wu-Tang Forever, or Zayn Malik’s latest compared with anything from One Direction. House Champagnes are also produced in far larger quantities than grower Champagnes, are more readily available to consumers, and comprise the household names like Krug, Moet, and Dom.
What does it taste like?
It tastes like almost anything! Grower Champagne is a showcase for the diversity in flavor and style found throughout the Champagne region. Some are clean and bright, others are weighty and round and fruity, while others are chalky and taste like minerals, as though someone melted down the chalk and limestone soils found throughout Champagne and turned them into a sparkling drink. House Champagnes often try to create a unified flavor profile that can be repeated year after year; grower Champagnes tend to be a little more wild and interesting, in a good way.
As a general rule of thumb, if you like a Champagne that tastes light and sunny, look for a blanc de blanc — that’s a Champagne made entirely from white grapes, almost always chardonnay, which is one of the main grape varieties of the Champagne region. If you’d rather drink a Champagne with a bit more weight and round stone fruit flavors (like yellow plum or nectarine), check out a blanc de noir Champagne, which is made from red grapes like pinot noir or pinot meunier. Don’t worry: Even though these are made from red grapes, it’ll still be white in the glass, part of the wonders of Champagne-making techniques.
Regardless of the makeup of grapes in the bottle, with grower Champagne you are tasting the individual winemaker’s vision — something definitionally idiosyncratic, and sometimes a little peculiar, but always compelling.
How do I find it?
Figures vary, but less than 10 percent of all the Champagne imported in America is of the grower Champagne variety. Seeking it out, though, will lead you to some exceptionally good wine shops and restaurants that pride themselves on unique offerings, and from there a world of fun drinking awaits.
But how do you recognize a grower Champagne on a list or store shelf? This is a little confusing, because both grower Champagnes and house Champagnes can be named after individual people. One way is to look for a little term on the bottle itself, the letters “RM,” which stand for “récoltant manipulant” in French, and refer to someone making wine from their own grapes. But you won’t always see this on a wine list, and it sometimes requires hunting around on the bottle label to find it. Honestly, the best advice is annoyingly basic: Google the wine. From there you can find out who made it, a bit more about the flavor and style, and if it’s being offered to you at a fair price.
What should I try first?
Here are five great grower Champagne producers to know; it could just as easily be 15 or 50. Consider this a starting point for further exploration.
For a crowd pleaser: Champagne Marie Courtin, “Resonance”
This is the wine that made me fall in love with grower Champagne. Marie Courtin is the work of all-world winemaker and farmer Dominique Moreau (the label is named for her grandmother), who since 2005 has cultivated an extraordinary plot of grapes in the very farthest southern corner of Champagne, in a region called the Aube. Moreau works with biodynamic grapes, a style of vineyard management that can quickly be surmised as organics on steroids with a dash of Paganism. From pendulums in the cellar to the names of the wines themselves — her bottles are called things like “Presence,” “Efflorescence,” and “Indulgence” — drinking this wine is a spiritual experience.
Moreau’s “Resonance” bottling is an extra-brut wine (this means no sugar is added at bottling) is composed of 100 percent pinot noir. This is a knockout bottle, absolutely alive in the glass; a clean pure white sparkling wine that someone glints with hints of round red orchard fruit, floral tisane, and grilling savory herbs. It is a profound and masterful bubble, a Stevie Nicks record in a glass.
For a value: Bérêche et Fils Brut “Reserve”
The Bérêche family has grown grapes in Champagne village of Ludes, in the Montagne de Reims, since the time of the French Revolution in the late 1840s. But by the time young Raphael Bérêche took over the estate in the early 2000s — with brother Vincent following soon after — a seachange was underway in the region, with grower Champagne growing in esteem and market interest. The brothers Bérêche dove in with both feet, moving the estate vines — including plots of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier — toward organic and biodynamic farming practices, and developing a tight range of annual releases.
Today Bérêche’s wines are in the sweet spot for interested wine drinkers: accessible, yet complex, and priced at a comparative bargain for the Champagne category. The entry-level cuvée is called “Reserve,” and it’s classified as a brut Champagne, meaning it’s made with fewer than 12 grams of sugar per liter (sugar is added to Champagne in varying quantities during the bottling process, to promote longevity and, to some extent, complexity; Champagne made in the non-dosage style, without any added sugar, is increasingly popular today). In the glass you’re getting a blend of three grapes from the family’s land, and it tastes like the perfect before-dinner cocktail: mouthwatering and moreish, with dried bitter orange offset by round sweetness and long-lasting minerality. A Negroni cocktail with Mineragua soda back.
For natural wine lovers: Vincent Couche “Chloé” Extra Brut
There are many talented young winemakers in Champagne approaching their work with an eye toward natural winemaking, although some have argued that the very concept of “natural Champagne” is something of a non sequitur. It’s difficult to argue that these wines can truly be “minimal intervention”, as the buzz phrase goes; after all, the Champagne-making process requires significant amounts of labor, technique, and time. Something about that tension is thrilling, applying naturalism to a winemaking style that isn’t remotely natural at all, and the results can be gobsmackingly good.
One of the very best of the natural-minded Champagne makers is Vincent Couche, whose bottling called “Chloé” I stumbled upon a few years back at Oakland’s influential natural wine bar and bottle shop, Ordinaire. It was a true lightswitch wine for me, and helped me understand and appreciate grower Champagne in a deeper way. It’s a natural wine and a Champagne at the same time, somehow, and gosh is it good. In the glass you get honey marzipan coating zested blood orange, like eating the apricot and the pit all in one bite, with an enormously long, starchy breadiness. A loaf of challah! A butterscotch plum Jolly Rancher! What could possibly taste like this? You can understand the process and the winemaking terms — or at least be aware of them — and still wonder, genuinely, how do they do this?
For the obsessives: Egly-Ouriet “Brut Tradition”
There are a handful of very particular grower Champagne makers who tend to be loved by wine geeks, by which I mean wine-drinking obsessives and/or professionals in the wine trade — sometimes both. Names that fit this particular bill include (pardon my geekiness) Ulysse Collin, Frederic Savart, Eric Rodez, and, most especially, Egly-Ouriet, which is perhaps the wine-geekiest grower Champagne of all. At the helm here is Francis Egly, who represents a very rare place in history as a multigenerational grower Champagne maker in the grand cru village of Ambonnay. Richness is the key here, as these are particularly brawny wines.
The phrase “Burgundy with bubbles” is sort of a cliche in Champagne writing, but this really does taste like drinking a vast, intense white wine from somewhere very famous and expensive. This wine is no wilting violet aperitif; it’s buff and muscular enough to make an awesome wine to pair with a broad range of foods, from sushi to fried chicken, a little charcuterie board or a multicourse meal. You can leave it open for hours and watch how the wine grows and changes with more exposure to oxygen, or, better yet, decant it — yes, decant a Champagne! — and give a few good swirls before pouring each glass. Wine geeks are wine geeks for a reason, and there’s a very good reason why so many finely trained palate types adore Egly-Ouriet.
For a splurge: Jérôme Prévost La Closerie “Les Béguines”
Forced under duress to suggest a single splurge bottle, Jérôme Prévost’s “Les Béguines’’ ticks all the boxes. Prévost got into winemaking with the help of Anselme Selosse back in the late ’90s, and today he makes wines exclusively from his family’s parcel of pinot meunier in Gueux, a few miles outside Reims. Meunier is typically considered the junior partner in the Champagne triumvirate alongside chardonnay and pinot noir, and when you isolate it as Prévost does, the results are totally distinct. Prevost’s label, La Closerie, makes just two wines: “Les Béguines,” a single vintage extra brut that’s taut as a zip line, a shark with freaking laser beams of a Champagne that tastes like three-dimensional white chalk; and “Fac-Simile,” in which 10 percent of red wine is added to Les Beguines for a subtly amplified experience, as though someone turned up the middle EQ on the hi-fi.
“Les Beguines” is like peach nectar and rose water spun through a chamber of icicles, pointed and focused, compact, both small and huge at the very same time — like Prince or Mick Jagger or Janelle Monáe in wine form. Nothing else tastes quite like it, and the fact Prevost actually makes this wine from red grapes suggests some delicious unknowable alchemy. For a special occasion, or in the company of wine lovers, this is an exquisite pick.
Jordan Michelman is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism, and a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards shortlist in the Emerging Wine Writer category.