Grower Champagne Goes Mainstream

Amid the interest in all things artisanal, the niche segment generates excitement.

Fat Cork in Seattle exclusively imports and sells grower Champagne (pictured). The category appeals to knowledgeable consumers and serious connoisseurs.
Fat Cork in Seattle exclusively imports and sells grower Champagne (pictured). The category appeals to knowledgeable consumers and serious connoisseurs.

Chicago’s RM Champagne Salon lists about 20 grower Champagnes on its menu. The sparkler-centric restaurant and bar also offers a broad selection of grandes marques Champagnes, Proseccos, Cavas and other bubblies. But grower Champagnes in particular are resonating with customers.

“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in sales,” says RM director of operations Jay Schuster. “It’s more about the artisanal nature of grower Champagne. People equate it with our menu, where we partner with local farmers and put enormous care into our products. With grower Champagne, it’s not about marketing. It’s the farmers, their land, their grapes, and the heart and soul they put into it. It’s an easy sell.” Rick Anderson, owner of Minneapolis-based France 44 Wines & Spirits, has been bullish on grower Champagne for years. “We’re seeing more interest in these offerings,” he says. “People are starting to discover that they’re farm-to-table wines.”

Grower Champagne volumes are minuscule compared to the overall category. These wines are denoted with the letters “RM,” which stands for récoltant-manipulant. The term indicates wine that is made by the person who grew the grapes. Despite limited availability, grower Champagne sales have been on the rise. According to Impact Databank, exports to the United States numbered just over 83,300 cases in 2015, compared to roughly 55,400 cases in 2011.

The unique qualities of grower Champagnes—small-batch, artisanal, connected to the growers and the land—increasingly appeal to consumers. “We emphasize these characteristics through our concierge program, which targets customers who are more interested in the stories,” says Melissa Devore, vice president of wine buying for Total Wine & More. She says the RM label resonates with shoppers. “People see it as a statement of source, and that information is important to them,” she explains. “They feel it validates the product.”

Bryan Maletis and his wife, Abigail, exclusively import and sell grower Champagnes at Fat Cork in Seattle. Maletis says the stories behind the wines appeal to knowledgeable and adventurous consumers. “Champagne drinkers are learning about the value represented by grower Champagne,” Maletis says. “It’s not to say that the grandes marques Champagnes don’t have a value—they just have a different value. They’re much more about luxury marketing and branding, whereas the growers represent historical family vineyards and reflect terroir, provenance and production methods.”

Grower Champagne pricing can vary widely, but these wines are generally a bit more expensive than the grandes marques. The gap was once much wider, however, and the closer price parity today helps smaller-volume brands. “In the past, grower Champagnes always had a price premium, so most people went with the brands they knew,” France 44’s Anderson notes. A few years ago, the big Champagne houses began raising prices, opening the door to alternatives. “Marketing grower Champagne became much easier,” he says. At France 44, the top-selling Champagne is Veuve Clicquot Brut ($54.99 a 750-ml. bottle), but two grower Champagnes, Marc Hébrart Brut Reserve ($53.99) and Marc Hébrart Brut Rosé ($59.99), rank second and third respectively.

Schuster of RM Champagne Salon admits that pricing can be challenging for grower Champagnes, but says the effort to stay at par with other wines from the region is paying off. “We try to keep them reasonably priced,” he says. “We’ve got two in the $300 range, but about 18 of the 20 are between $115 and $160 a bottle.” One of RM Champagne Salon’s biggest sellers is Ayala Brut Majeur ($115 a 750-ml. bottle; $25 a glass). Schuster says he expects grower Champagnes to continue gaining volume in his restaurant. Total Wine’s Devore is also optimistic about growth prospects. “Telling a story about a wine is key,” she says. “Any time you can share the background behind a product, people will be interested in buying.”