The opening line of David White’s classic 2016 book But First, Champagne declares that “Life is worth celebrating!” and he’s right. And it’s very likely that, because of those celebrations, everyone knows the famous names of the region, titans like Krug, Dom Perignon, Pommery, Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon, and even Bollinger.
But the past decade has also brought us the age of the R.M.—the récoltant manipulant, an independent producer who grows and bottles his or her own wine. These wines from small producers may not come with the widespread prestige of a name-brand house, but they pack a punch when it comes to quality for the price. Grower juice, terroir-ist bubbles, farmer fizz: Call it what you want, but you owe it to your palate to explore the world of grower Champagne.
When it comes to understanding these delights, you should begin with the wine itself. Wines from Champagne are called blanc de blanc (made only from Chardonnay grapes), blanc de noirs (made only from dark skinned grapes like Pinot Noir), or rosé. Some producers make blends—called cuvées—combining juice from multiple plots, growers, and even years. The best Champagne years are deemed a vintage reserved only for the best quality harvest. Wines bearing a year are made only with grapes of that year. The rest are labeled NV—non-vintage—which means the grapes can be blended from a variety of growers, plots, and even years.
Like many regions in France, large producers or negociants purchase grapes from other growers, often from highly prized plots or vineyards. Wine from these negotiants, often recognizable names, are identified by N.M. on the label: négociant-manipulant. Growers who grow their own fruit and make their own wine, however, will have R.M.—récoltant-manipulant—on their labels.
To cover major segments of the marketplace, major houses usually make a variety of wines, from $40 entry level bottles to tête du cuvée offerings that can easily run to $150 or more. For growers, who make far less wine, the financial equation is a bit different. Growers often make only one or two wines, putting everything into their best cuvee. For the consumer, it means grower champagnes are often much more affordable, usually in the $40/bottle price range. Still, for consumers, a tension between the polished predictability of the grande marques and the uncertainties of discovery has remained.
In 1971, seeking a solution, a group of growers set out to create their own kind of tête du cuvée. Rather than battling the market might of Champagne’s Grande Dames, they formed an alliance that would come to be known as the Club Trésors de Champagne–or, as many savvy Champagne lovers know it, the Special Club.
The idea behind Special Club was that growers would bring their best wine to the group for approval. The wines would need to remain on the lees for three years and be produced solely at the grower’s estate. Each year, the committee would have to unanimously declare the previous harvest worthy of being called a vintage. Then, the best wine from each individual grower would go through a rigorous tasting process. If a wine passes the tests, it is deemed worth of the Special Club imprimatur, which includes a unique bell-shaped bottle with the group’s identifying mark.
Special Club bottles are individually boxed and carry a special label that notes the vintage, the grower, and the Special Club designation. Special Club wines can run $80 to $120 depending on the producer, pricing that makes them a perfect alternative to NM wines. Only 28 growers are part of the Special Club but they are names you might recognize today as some of the best—Marc Hebrart, Pierre Gimmonet, Gaston Chiquet and many more.
Think you’ve never seen these wines before in a shop? Ask your favorite purveyor and he or she will likely escort you promptly to their fine Champagne room. And they’re sure to be impressed simply because you asked.