When I got engaged last year, it was a bottle of 2002 Dom Pérignon we bought to celebrate with our best friends. I'd never drank DP before. I'd never drank Champagne more than a decade old before. But I knew – given the magnitude of the celebration – old, vintage Champagne was the only way to do it.
Champagne has played a minor part in my drinking life. Throughout my 20s, I drank Prosecco until I got sick of it. I dipped my toe in with Cava - knowing it was made 'using the Champagne method' - more for effect than pleasure. And then every now and again, if I had a promotion, or a birthday, or Christmas, I'd buy a bottle of Bollinger or Veuve to celebrate.
I was never a big fan. It was never a wine I would find myself wanting. It wasn't after all, a wine – it was Champagne. Capital C, with the glitz and glamour that surrounds it.
Over the last year or so that has started to change.
Drinking 19 year old DP that reminded me more of white Burgundy than it did of sparkling wine was definitely one part.
But getting into grower Champagne played a bigger role.
Grower Champagne is sparkling wine made in Champagne, where the grower is also the producer. That might seem like an odd thing to point out, until you realise it's not the norm for almost all Champagne.
The grower Champagne movement began in the early 80s. Its place in popular wine drinking culture is still pretty small, but it’s here that my interest in Champagne piqued.
It turns out that I am not the only one. Robert Walters, Australian wine importer and writer, had a similar epiphany with grower Champagne. His book, Bursting Bubbles, is a history of Champagne through the lens of the grower movement.
Bursting Bubbles weaves the history of Champagne well, so I want to touch on some of its best bits – in hope you might read the book and embark on your own grower journey.
The history of Champagne
Context is important in Champagne. What is the current state of play? What are the growers up against? When did grower Champagne appear on the scene and what happened?
First, we must consider the grand marques - these are the large Champagne houses we know by name. Moët & Chandon. Tattinger. Bollinger. Veuve Cliquot.
What's interesting about Champagne is it’s one of the only wine regions in the world where the brand name leads supreme. In neighbouring Burgundy, the village is most important. While in Bordeaux, despite the huge focus on Châteaux, it’s the ancient classification system that dictates the ‘best’ wines.
In Champagne, we buy brands. But pick up a bottle of Moët and you’ll be stuck for information on where the grapes are grown. Or much about the terroir.
To understand why we ended up here, we must look back.
There are many myths about Champagne -- one is that Dom Pérignon invented Champagne. While poetic, it's sadly untrue. In reality, the invention of Champagne was accidental. Rather, the fluctuating climate in Champagne contributed to winemaking accidents.
Relatively cold temperatures meant that wine yeasts became dormant during natural fermentation. They'd stop consuming sugars, the wines looked fermented, and they'd be bottled. As temperatures rose, fermentation started again and the residual sugar was consumed by yeast. The wines became fizzy, cloudy and caused bottles to explode. The Champenois hated this at the time. (Today, we drink these styles of wines freely, known under the moniker of pet-nat.)
In the 19th century, the French scientist Louis Pasteur started to understand the chemistry of fermentation. Meanwhile in Britain, we had started to like these fizzy accidents. The first deliberate Champagnes were, in fact, made in Britain - thanks to access to more advanced technology, stronger glass and better suited corks
To make Champagne, you must first ferment an initial base wine which is high in acidity. You then add sugar and some yeast to it, bottle it, and allow a second fermentation to happen in bottle. That wine is then aged on the yeast before being disgorged (the process of removing the yeasty bits). At this stage, it has a new cork inserted and, depending on the bottle, aged again in bottle.
This process, known as the ‘Champagne method’, is time-consuming and expensive. It takes a lot more to create a bottle of Champagne than it does a still white wine.
But, centuries ago, these were the commercial requirements that came to define Champagne. Many of the first Champagne houses were set up by former silk traders; businessmen, rather than farmers.
As a result, there was an instant market for grapes. You didn’t need to bother making wine, just sell the grapes to these new Champagne houses. Grape-growers were incentivised by high yields as they were paid by the kilo. The rest is history.
The rise of the grower
There are a few key players in the grower movement. Jérôme Prévost, Francis Egly, Jacques Selosse are just some of those who helped create it. Each had their own motivation. Some visited Burgundy where small parcels of land are king, and making wines that reflect the expression of that terroir are tantamount. Others had a love for organics and hated the environmental impact that the rest of Champagne had. Others still were motivated by the fact that Champagne, when made slowly and carefully, is a wine first, and Champagne second.
Bursting Bubbles by Robert Walters
Robert tells the story of Champagne and grower Champagne beautifully. It's incredibly readable – which shouldn't be a compliment, but sadly compared to many wine books, it is. I'm quite particular about the types of books I read – I hate lengthy, academic stuff. Which means that a lot of wine books I pick up are quickly put down.
Bursting Bubbles is one of the good ones. Chapters alternate between history essays, and grower profiles. Both are as captivating as each other. Each chapter builds momentum and pace, whether learning about the propaganda of Champagne's tourism board, or exploring some of the growers' greatest Champagnes.
Though Walters addresses Champagne myths (a spoon doesn’t keep the fizz), there are other parts of the book that are more surprising - or shocking, even.
Perhaps the most egregious discovery is around gadoues or boues de ville as it’s also known.
Take a walk around many traditional Champagne vineyards and the ground will appear to sparkle. Romantic vision? Sadly not.
The reason is something more sinister. Up until it was banned in 1998, gadoues was the fertiliser of choice for Champagne producers.
The ingredients of that fertiliser? Ground up city rubbish, including crushed glass, plastic and more. Walk around and you'll see shampoo bottles, doll's heads, batteries, scraps of metal and shimmering bits of blue plastic from bags uses to transport the fertiliser.
"Today, wood chips have replaced rubbish as the dominant soil addition," he says. Perhaps less shocking, until you realise that wood chips smother the soil, change the nitrogen balance and bring new fungi to the vineyard. So why do it? Because the soils are too weak to withstand the mass-scale tractors. And why is it too weak? The gadoues.
Another revelation by Walters focuses on the typical Champagne aromas. Ask anyone what they are, and I'd bet you'd be told "bready, toasty, yeasty". These aromas are supposed driven by the yeast (autolysis in wine speak).
But these aromas, when naturally occurring, traditionally fade in the bottle after a few years. What’s more, these aromas didn’t occur through autolysis in the first place. They were made by the Maillard reaction – the process that browns bread to toast. And this reaction occurs when excess sugar is added during the winemaking process
Using cheap grapes and needed a consistent flavour, so the big Champagne houses just kept adding sugar. This is what we know Champagne to be.
Walters could have written two good books. One interviewing his heroes, a narrative-led book exploring people. The other, a more academic but deeply interesting history. Bursting Bubbles is the best of both.
It's immensely enjoyable and readable, but most of all it's an inspiring read.
Big Champagne isn't evil by any stretch. But it is a hugely manufactured product, that tastes not of the ground or the grape, but of a manipulated process.
Bursting Bubbles is an inspiring if subtle call-to-arms. It's a fantastic lesson in why we should question things which are a given. And, personally, it’s opened my eyes to the world of growers.
Over the coming months, we will continue to stock more grower Champagnes as we discover them.
Until then, here are a few we love.
The best grower Champagne we stock
This can't technically be called a Champagne as it's made just outside of the region. Domaine Alice Beaufort is named after winemaker, Quentin's wife. Quentin follows in the footsteps of his father, a pioneer of grower Champagne in the 1970s. This is a supple drink, with the high percentage of pinot noir noticeable.
Made by Jean-Pierre and Ophélie Lamiable, they are based in Tours-sur-Marne. The vines are 45 years old which is rare in Champagne. Pinot noir here is light, and low dosage means the mousse is delicate. A vegan Champagne which we find delicious.
Aurélien Suenen is fast becoming one of Champagnes hottest prospects, despite an early wish for a career in basketball. Aurélien Suenen has narrowed the vineyard's traditional focuses and now operates just three parcels. He lets malolactic happen, but ferments wildly, but ages carefully in a selection of ways. The wines are textural and mineral, but also offer a weight and richness you might love. We find them particularly buttery in a wonderful way.
Michel Gonet, 3 Terroirs, 2010 (sold out)
The first grower Champagne we stocked and it was a triumph. Made from three parcels of land owned by Michel Gonet, this was a beautiful Champagne.