Reign of Terroir: carving out a niche in the champagne market
How is a French word with no direct translation helping a small group of vineyard owners carve out a niche in the champagne market? Paul French investigates.
The way we celebrate good times is changing. Where once a bottle of Mumm, Veuve Clicqot or Dom Perrignon champagne may have been de rigeur, people are increasingly turning to Cava, Prosecco and, if they're more discerning, grower champagnes such as Guy Charlemagne and Pierre Paillard Grand Cru.
Grower champagnes are sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France that are produced by the vineyards the grapes come from. Of the 19,000 independent growers in the region, around 5,000 are currently producing grower champagne, which can be identified in shops and restaurants by the letters RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) on the label.
"While over the past few years premium champagne sales have been squeezed in the on-trade, there has been a rise in both awareness and demand for grower champagnes," says Ken Davey, founder and managing director of Smarter Grower Champagne, who import the vineyard-created drinks into the UK.
"This is particularly true among the independents and has seen the creation of a market in the gap between the higher quality and higher priced premium brands and the lower quality, lower priced mass market brands."
Terroir vision: small-scale grower champagnes
The appeal of grower champagne lies in the terroir. Without a direct translation, the French word basically refers to the mixture of weather, soil and vineyard position that give these champagnes a unique character unavailable to big brand champagnes that source their grapes from multiple vineyards.
"Terroir is a combination of many things," says Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, head honcho at family company Jacquniot et Fils, who have been producing grower champagne since 1947. "You need good terrain, good grapes and an emphasis on quality at every stage of the process.
"We sell our grapes to all the big champagne houses, including Moet. However, we keep the best seven hectares for ourselves. We only blend Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes and all our champagnes are aged for 36 months before we sell them. We've actually scaled back our operation from 100,000 bottles a year to 50,000, so we can remain a family business that produces the best possible champagne."
Taking over the menu: the rise of grower champagne
This attention to detail has seen grower champagne become steadily more popular in the UK. Now readily available in many restaurants and hotels, the drink is the star of the show at Bubbledogs in London, who have built a brand around pairing it with gourmet hotdogs.
"I'd noticed since I moved to England that everyone was drinking Moet and Veuve Cliquot," says restaurant manager Sandia Chang. "No one was drinking grower champagne and as a consequence, restaurants weren't stocking it.
"I wanted to change the way English consumers thought about food and wine. I wanted to raise awareness and promote guests to drink small producer champagnes and shy away from mass marketed wines. The only reason no one was drinking these grower champagnes was because these small producers don't have the budget like the big houses."
Since launching the restaurant in August 2012, Sandia has been impressed with the way her clientele has reacted to the niche champagne drinks.
"Our customers are impressed by our grower champagnes," she says. "A lot of our champagnes are either better made or from the Grand Cru range without costing as much as the big brands. We sell our champagne mostly by the glass because people are able to taste them first. We change our by the glass menu quite often so that when our guests come back, they can try different champagnes."
Looking forward: independent vineyards take control
In 2006, respected wine writer Andrew Jefford noted in The New France that: "champagne is on the verge of profound change. There is a growing realisation in the region that its viticulture has become slovenly and the subtleties of its terroir have been neglected. The era of great growers and great vineyards is just beginning."
Seven years on, it is clear that the big champagne houses need not fear independent competition. With established brand identities and huge marketing budgets, the likes of Moet and Veuve will always have a place in our refrigerators, despite a recession-driven sales drop-off.
What grower champagne offers is a bigger mark-up for suppliers and a taste that cannot be replicated by the big producers, a heady combination that should see the niche market grow considerably over the coming years.
"Both discerning restaurants and independent retailers now have chance to offer something that it is different, yet still good quality," explains Ken Davey. "At the same time, the consumer can not only enjoy champagne but also associate themselves with the individually distinctive flavours of these terroir-driven grower champagnes that are produced by 'farmers'. We have seen this happen with food, now it's beginning to happen with wine."