Think of Champagne and the first thing that comes to mind is the product. It’s generally believed to be the highest quality, most complex and expensive sparkling wine in the world.
The French region of Champagne is very particular about its product, and who and what can be counted among their clubhouse. The main grapes grown are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, along with two historic vine stocks, Arbanne and Petit Meslier. The vast majority are used to create sparkling wine called Champagne, but it’s only classified as Champagne if it comes from the right region and is made by méthode Champenoise.
These days, there are roughly 260 Champagne houses in existence, which are responsible for around 70 per cent of production and 90 per cent of exports. However, very few houses produce their own grapes, with the majority sourced from a broad network of growers across the region.
For hundreds of years, growers produced grapes and the Champagne houses blended,
processed and bottled them; with the exception of a select handful of growers who made limited releases for their own consumption or for local wine bars.
However, a few decades ago, things began to change, and we are now starting
to see waves in the Australian market. The result is referred to as grower Champagne,
which as the name suggests, is Champagne made by grape growers.
Sydney’s P+V Wine + Liquor Merchants was one of the early adopters of the product, with owners Mike Bennie and Lou Dowling both long-time fans. Bennie says he first encountered grower Champagne almost 20 years ago when he was working at Best Cellars.
Due to the nature of commercial Champagne, independent liquor stores were competing against the market forces of larger supermarket-style stores at the time, which meant independents had to look to alternatives to bolster Champagne sections in their stores.
For Bennie, the world of grower Champagne was unlocked. “The idiosyncrasies of grower Champagne are often about giving drinkers more transparency in terms of the place they’re grown because they’re not necessarily bolstering their Champagnes with reserve materials in an effort to try to make them more complex,” he says.
“They’re inherently the personality of the place they come from and that’s really exciting to me.”
In terms of adopting grower Champagne as a ‘trend’, Bennie says Australia has been
leading the charge due to our high consumption of Champagne per capita combined with a relatively well-educated wine market.
“You would mention Australia in the same breath as Tokyo, Copenhagen, Paris, London and New York as being absolutely at the forefront of embracing the innovative, smaller and more contemporary approaches to wine and winemaking,” he says.
Despite a fluid market, wine lists at the majority of bars and restaurants in the country still prioritise established Champagne houses over independent grower Champagne. But it’s good news for venues with them on the menu — they automatically stand out from the crowd.
Take Bistrot 916, for example. The wine list at the French-style bistro in Sydney’s Potts Point is headed up by Sommelier Andy Tyson, who has compiled a list that comprises 85 per cent grower Champagne.
“It’s still a bit of a niche, but a lot of people have been talking about it,” he says.
“People are now interested in looking deeper into wine and for brands they don’t know about.”
One of the more exciting aspects about grower Champagne is the chance to venture beyond tried and tested profiles such as Champagne brut, blanc de blancs, blancs de noir, demi-sec and Champagne millésime. Grower Champagne benefits from the autonomy and creativity of the individual grower.
“You get more single-vineyard modellings, so more of an expression of the vineyard as opposed to a village or a region,” says Tyson.
“Within that, you get a much broader stylistic difference from grower to grower as opposed to Champagne house to Champagne house. The big point is you’re buying an artisanal product from a family or an individual who has really cared for the grapes and cared for the product. It’s a much smaller production, but there’s a hugely varied
selection you can drink.”
Consuming grower Champagne provides an opportunity to experience a true
expression of terroir. For Bennie, the appeal lies with the manifold diversity you can find in a grower Champagne along with supporting artisanal, hands-on and largely organic producers.
“I like the fact grower Champagne producers have more contact with the growing and production of their wines,” he says. “They’re by and large organic-focused and more quality-focused in terms of elevated quality rather than meeting a [certain] level for a mass-market product. The wines can be more reflective of the place they’re grown and
you can see the nuance and detail in those wines from estate to estate and sub-region to sub-region.”
Choosing grower Champagne is a way of exploring the Champagne region in a purer way teamed with an appreciation for growers and their patches of earth. It’s more idiosyncratic, and certainly sometimes a little more wild — but it’s the only way to experience a singular winemaker’s vision when it comes to Champagne.
But as a restaurateur or sommelier, how do you go about selecting grower Champagnes to include on your wine list?
The advice from both Bennie and Tyson is to follow the importers. If you have a good importer, they will generally lead you to good wine.
“With the European wines, we’re lucky to have very good importers in Australia,” says Tyson. “They shape the Australian market more than anything.”
Bennie and Tyson agree importer Robert Walters from Bibendum Wine Co. is a key figure responsible for the rise of the grower Champagne market in Australia. Tyson also lists Andrew Guard, Tim Stock and David Burkett.
“It’s impossible not to namecheck Rob Walters from Bibendum Wine Co. in the mix of this conversation because he was so formidably important in advocating for grower Champagne and doing a lot of work around grower Champagne,” says Bennie.
“But of course, other importers have followed suit, and are bringing
incredible products into Australia, so we’re sort of blessed.”
The ‘gamble’ at Bistrot 916 has paid off for Tyson and his team. The sommelier says the vast majority of customers opt to try something they have not experienced before, and forego the Champagne houses in favour of grower Champagne — even if it sometimes requires a little explaining.
“I think the shift in focus is based on the commercial reality of fighting mass-market Champagne’s price points and engagement in the market, and perhaps a fatigue with the familiar and wanting to explore something more diverse,” adds Bennie.
“And, of course, being able to offer drinkers something that engages for a variety of different reasons [beyond the fact] the product is recognisable. A lot of people will drink Veuve Cliquot and Moët because they sense it’s a luxury product … but I think people are moving away from that and are trying to support the smaller, the grower–producer and those doing things a little bit differently.”