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Why settle for ‘big house’ Champagne?

November 12, 2021

Anyone who sells Champagne faces a stark choice every festive season – do you join in the chorus and promote brand name ‘big house’ Champagne?

Here at Kaddy, we want to argue for a different option. Let’s call it the grower difference.

Vineyards of Larmandier Bernier

For years now, grower Champagne has been the nexus of Champenois development. The ‘farmer fizz’ movement – featuring wines made by the same people who grow the grapes – has pushed Champagne’s barriers like never before, ushering in new waves of interesting and ever more vinous sparkling wines.

Yet despite the unquestioned quality, grower Champagne makes up an increasingly niche part of our drinking culture. Powerful negociant houses are more dominant than ever before, making up more than 96% of our market, led by celebrity-endorsed labels at prices that are among the lowest in the world (outside of France).

Simultaneously, Champagne growers themselves are facing an existential threat, where the high prices offered by the biggest producers encourage growers to stick to just growing rather than production. Stir in the maddening 45% French inheritance tax, which pushes big business over family operations, and you have unquestionably challenging conditions.

Working the De Sousa vineyard

Speaking of challenges, one of the criticisms of grower Champagne is about prices, with the best wines unashamedly attracting strong pricing. Yet in a market with effervescent Champagne sales (up 11% in 2020, one of the few markets in the world to grow), wouldn’t you expect demand for the best?

Notably, Australia imported an all-time record 131 growers in 2020, up from 112 in 2018 and 2019 and 50 more than a decade ago. So the diversity is there and suggests that grower Champagne might present a perfect opportunity.

Tyson Stelzer lays out the situation perfectly in his ‘The State of Play of Champagne in Australia’ report:

‘The grower category is migrating progressively out of the realm of the big retailers and increasingly into the hands of small importers, independent wine stores and progressive restaurants. Australia’s importers are discerning, and those growers that do find their way down-under largely represent the best of this dynamic and enthralling category of Champagne’.

Similarly, As Tyson explains in this excellent article, while growers might face an existential crisis as a whole, the very best producers are still going to thrive.

Horsing around in Champagne

That grower difference? It’s more than just a quality choice. It’s a recognition of some semblance of place.

Champagne’s personality has been marketing-led from the start, its vineyards pushed into the background, the grapes merely an ingredient for brand success. Indeed, the region’s vineyards were used as a dumping ground for Parisian rubbish up until 1997 and with the average grower holding just 0.9ha, the power doesn’t lie with the farmers – it has always been dictated by the houses.

To see a cohort of producers embracing biodynamics, embracing sustainability and embracing a connection between vine and bottle is more than just a grower difference. It’s what wine should be all about.

Image sources:
Top Image: Larmandier Bernier.

Middle Images: De Sousa