It's not all good...
I'm having mixed emotions watching the sudden increase in Grower Champagnes that are coming into the US at an increasingly rapid pace. On one hand I'm thrilled - I'm a huge supporter of what we affectionately call "farmer fizz", and have been a very vocal champion of the genre for many years. I, and all of us who do what we do, owe a huge debt to importer Thierry Thiese for being the first to blaze the Grower Champagne trail back in the 90s. It is truly gratifying to see these wines now getting the attention they deserve. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Champagne now knows that there is more to life than Moët or Clicquot, thankfully!
However, as any category of consumer product gets "hot", we tend to see a lot of mediocre product start to hit the market under that "hot new" banner. When I worked at Epic Records in 1991, we had just signed a new band called Pearl Jam. Geffen had just signed Nirvana. They both become global superstars in short order, and by the next year every record label on the planet had signed and was hyping their own "grunge band from Seattle" - virtually none of which went on to have meaningful or lasting careers, of course. What they didn't understand was that Pearl Jam and Nirvana's success had nothing to do with their being "grungy" or from the Pacific Northwest - they were huge because they wrote great SONGS and had uniquely talented personalities fronting the show. The PRODUCT was amazing, not the genre.
So now we have dozens and dozens of new Grower Champagnes arriving in the US on virtually a daily basis. Every importer, every wine club is on the bandwagon it seems. I see some of these wines coming in and I say to myself "Really? Did anyone taste that first?" Because in many cases I have tasted the wines in question, and I found them decidedly mediocre or worse. I try to taste as much as I possibly can. What ultimately makes it into the Caveau portfolio is drop in the bucket of what's out there.
There are over 5,000 small grower-producers in Champagne. 5,000. I don't purport to have tasted all of them, far from it, but I can tell you this - no more than 5% of them are making wine that is superior in quality and worthy of your attention. The vast majority of Grower-Champagnes fall somewhere between "average" and "poor". Just because someone is making wine from their own grapes doesn't make it good. One needs to be a vigilant farmer and a talented winemaker to create something special, and by my estimation some 95% of them are falling short. I am certainly not the arbiter of what's good and what's not, and one man's "flawed wine" is another man's treasure, I get that. But there's just an awful lot of wine flowing in under the "Grower" banner these days that leaves a lot to be desired in my view.
I've often said that only about 10% of Burgundy is really interesting or special. That works out to be about 350 producers out of the 3,500 or so in the Côte d'Or, which is about the number of Burgundy producers available in the US these days. If you're ever in Burgundy, go taste at a small estate you've never heard of or seen in the US - you'll quickly know why. The same goes for Champagne, but I'm saying the percentage may be even smaller there, maybe as low as 5%. This is probably due to the fact that making Champagne involves so many more decisions and so many more steps and requires so much more time to do it well. Unless a small grower is truly and passionately dedicated to producing something special, the odds are they'll be making something fairly standardized and acceptable, but nothing more.
Now more than ever it is important to know who your wines are coming from. If a producer is new to you, know who vetted that wine and decided to jump through all of the regulatory hoops and endless red tape to get it here for you. You of course won't always like everything in someone's portfolio, but you can know how your palate, and likes and dislikes, correlate with a given importer or retailer or wine club selector. Me, I'm incredibly picky, I admit it. That's my job.