The champagne industry is structured in a really weird way and a quick look at some revealing facts and figures will show you what I mean.
At the top of the ‘glamour ratings’ there are around 250 maisons, or houses, and amongst them there are a few fabulously famous brands which are sometimes referred to as Les Grandes Maisons – you know the names already: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Laurent-Perrier etc etc...
The houses are officially classified as NM or Négociants-Manipulants (literally dealers and handlers) and you can find these two letters, in small type, on the label.
What these two little letters mean is that the maisons rely for the majority of their grape supplies on the deals they strike to buy grapes from other grape growers. In fact the maisons only own about 15% of the vineyards in Champagne, but amazingly, sales of their brands represent over 80% of all the champagne that is sold – actually when you’re talking about sales outside France then the percentage is even higher.
So who owns the other vineyards?
Well, there are about 20,000 people who own a few hectares, or acres, each and grow grapes. They are called Vignerons. 2/3 of these don’t make any champagne at all; they just harvest their grapes and sell them to other people to make champagne.
In most cases it’s the maisons they sell to, but there are around 2,000 of those vignerons who keep their grapes to make their own champagne. They are then classified as RM or Récoltants-Manipulants (literally Harvesters and Handlers). Once again you can find these two tiny letters on the label and it’s the champagnes made by these small operators that have become known as ‘Grower Champagnes’.
How are Grower Champagnes different?
So the first and most obvious difference between the large maisons (NM) and the grower champagnes (RM) is that the RM don’t have the right to buy in more than 5% of the grapes they need – 95% or more must come from their own vineyards.
The next big difference is the scale of the operations.
The big houses count their production in millions of bottles – the largest of all, Moët & Chandon, produces over 30 million bottles per year if you count in all the different types of champagne they make. At the other end of the scale, some of the smallest producers may make only around 25,000 bottles although some are considerably bigger.
For the small producers making champagne is not a job; it’s a way of life and it’s usual for the entire family to be involved and for the vineyards and know-how to be passed from one generation to another. It’s exactly this type of passion and link to the soil that more and more consumers are looking for these days.
Let’s not forget however, that it’s thanks to the big brands and their pioneering work over hundreds of years that champagne has enjoyed so much success. Without them there would be no market for champagne at all, so it is churlish to criticize them unfairly, but if you value things that are made on a more human scale then you’ll find it’s really rewarding to seek out some of the grower champagnes.
That’s a quick overview of what Grower Champagnes are and in the next part of this article we’ll look at some other characteristics and I’ll explain a couple of common misconceptions.