By Brian Mitchell
Champagne has always been considered a luxury item, but a luxury that many look to for celebrations during the holidays. The question, however, is with so many options to choose from, which is best? In the industry, there are often two camps, those who would select traditional “Marques” and those who prefer smaller, estate-based productions, often referred to as “Grower” Champagnes.
There are about 19,000 vineyard owners in Champagne, and regionally approximately 300 million bottles are produced annually. Major houses such as Moët and Veuve combine for nearly 36 million bottles, with the top 17 producers making about 100m, overall. The remaining 200m bottles are produced by nearly 5,000 smaller “houses” and grower-producers, often identified on the bottle by the symbol RM, which stands for Récoltant-Manipulant.
So which is better? Much of this comes down to personal preference, but there are some factors that drive sales and come into play for building wine lists or making selections for store shelves. Here are some pros and cons for making the decision for your list:
The biggest argument often put forward by major brands is that consumers demand their wines – essentially this is the argument that branding and marketing drive sales, and retailers have to have their wines.
Consistency – both in availability and style – many larger producers work very hard to maintain their style from vintage to vintage or cuvee to cuvee. For consumers appreciating these styles, this is a definite benefit.
- Price – at least at the entry level – can be 10-20% less for comparable wines – this means lower retail and wine list prices for consumers.
- Diversity – Terroir comes into play with smaller vineyard sourcing. This could be argued on both sides as a pro or con, but the ability to discover the regional diversity of what the Champagne growing region has to offer is perhaps one of the biggest arguments for farmer-juice.
- Price – Often these wines are elevated in price at the wholesale level, with limited buying periods for best prices. Off-premise is forced to buy and hold; on-premise has to work on shorter margins.
- Quality and Freshness – Age is not always a wine’s best friend, and rotation of stock is key for large producers; understanding the base-age of the cuvee is critical.
- Diversity in style – You may not know exactly what a wine is going to taste like, and sometimes can be a detraction to sales.
- Less consumer awareness and recognition of names – this means a retailer must pay more attention and guide the consumer, and it gives us the opportunity to engage.
Style and Service
Champagne is one of my favorite wine styles and I continue to pay attention annually to what is available. The biggest change over the past 20 years is simply the spectrum of wines has increased dramatically.
This gives us the ability to create diverse wine programs, where a balance between larger and smaller producer wines can provide balance, of both styles and price points. I look to grower houses for my entry level price points, dip into more quality oriented Marques for mid-level wines and often look for one or two vintage wines for the most expensive levels. This tends to satisfy the price and quality demand of consumers looking to buy Champagnes.
The final word about Champagne is service. The common perception is that all sparkling wine must be served in flutes, which are pretty and definitely set the wine apart from other styles when set on a table. But most proponents of Champagne feel the wine is best enjoyed in a regular wine glass; I prefer what most would consider a white wine glass – about 14 oz. or so. This gives the ability to swirl the wine, release the aromatics that develop during the lengthy production process, and enjoy more of the subtle nuances often associated with this style. It might sound strange, and the evolution of thought is sometimes slow, but keep in mind that just a few generations ago much Champagne was served in coupes – yes, those funny glasses that many cocktails now come in.
Champagne is wine, treat it so and enjoy!
Brian Mitchell is the Corporate Beverage Director for the Max Restaurant Group. He has been in the Beverage Industry for over 20 years, specializing in sales, service and training. Follow him on Twitter @VintageVino and VintageVino.net.