The Champagne appellation of France provides a good example of the varying methodology. There, more than 70 percent of the sparkling wine is made at large negociant houses such as Veuve Clicquot and Moet & Chandon. Those houses bottle a number of cuvees — most combining multiple vintages from multiple growers, and some highlighting single vintages in exceptional years.
Much more rare are “grower Champagnes,” which are made at the estate that grows the grapes. It’s the wine world’s equivalent of the “locavore” movement, and because such wines are made in such small quantities, they rarely find their way outside the communities in which they’re produced, let alone outside of France.
In some cases, the grower/winemaker sells most of his wine to local restaurants. In other cases, they depend on tourists to find their estate, do some tasting, and then take some wine home. Some estates have developed a loyal following, with customers making annual or more frequent sojourns to pick up their favorite cuvees.
Until just a few years ago, grower Champagnes amounted to less than 3 percent of all Champagne shipped to the United States. Now, that figure is “all the way up” to 4 percent. Other countries get even less.
And the exclusivity of grower Champagne is not expected to change, mainly because making Champagne is expensive. It requires more equipment than “regular” winemaking, and it also requires more cellar space for extended aging of wine. That’s where the large negociant houses have such an advantage.
What about the wine itself? Whereas the large houses typically blend to a “house style” that remains consistent from release to release, grower Champagnes are more likely to express their specific terroir — usually a single vineyard as compared to 50 or more parcels that may be tapped by the big houses.
If you’re looking for a special “wine of a place” to celebrate a special occasion, seek out a grower Champagne. The name may not be as familiar as the big houses, but the drinking experience will be unique, fun and memorable. Three terrific and unique sparklers are on sale together for a limited time so take advantage!