Champagne: a world beyond Grande Marque
Richard Siddle tells us why independent and grower Champagnes have all the personality and passion you need.
From FA Cup ‘giant killers’ and plucky sporting losers, to getting behind the worst contestants in Strictly Come Dancing, the Brits do love an underdog. Well, to be more accurate, we love supporting those who have to work so much harder for their success, be it in sport, music, film, dancing, and business.
In recent years that desire to back the underdog has extended into more discerning areas such as food and drink. The emergence of what we might term craft or authentic products really goes back to that desire to see someone willing to give something a go in a world dominated by bigger players and brands.
Which brings us to the heady world of Champagne. Now, there is arguably not a better, more sophisticated branded drinks category than Champagne. One that is so dominated by the major Champagne houses that Grande Marque Champagnes make up more than two-thirds of total Champagne sales, and 90% of the region’s exports.
They have also arguably earned that success with the work they have done around the world to build and invest in brands, and ensure that when we talk about Champagne we know we are going to get the very best sparkling wine in the world.
But while there is definitely a time and place when only a Grande Marque Champagne will do, consumers are increasingly looking for something new, different and independent to support.
The art of craft
Like with all those craft beers and spirits that have appeared along the back bar, the average drinker is looking to buy in to a story and discover a Champagne for themselves.
In recent years we have seen the emergence of an important, growing, separate market for what you might term craft Champagnes, made by both growers and independent Champagne businesses. They might only make up a fragment of the total Champagne category, but they are the Champagnes that can really make a big difference to a restaurant or bar’s overall offer.
Yes, it is important for any premium outlet to have a good selection of famous Grande Marques to choose from. Some customers will expect that. But, like the big household spirits brands, those global names bring their own image and baggage, if you like, with them.
Passion and personality
The beauty of a grower and independent Champagne brand is they can bring real personality and a point of difference to your Champagne range.
This is where Champagne gets its hands dirty with stories of small families and growers making their own way under the huge shadow of the big Champagne houses around them. Rather than give in and simply focus on having good enough grapes to sell on to the Grand Marques, these are the brave farmers and families willing to take that risk and go it alone. To make a living for themselves and their future generations.
These are also the Champagnes that the French themselves are increasingly turning to, wanting to support smaller, independent, local businesses.
They, along with the growing number of British restaurants and bars listing grower and independent Champagnes, feel like they can build personal relationships with these brands. Where they can actually go and knock on their door and be invited in for a tasting, or shake hands with the winemaker at a trade tasting.
One such producer is Champagne Palmer, with vineyards spanning 40 crus, most of them in the Montagne de Reims area. Champagne Palmer has worked with Bibendum over the last five years to build up a network of loyal trade customers, and a lot of their success has come down to the passion that Champagne Palmer has for the UK. “This is the place to be, to be seen. The UK is our priority. It is also a fantastic barometer to measure the global Champagne performance of the world,” says Arthur Camut, Champagne Palmer’s UK brand ambassador.
Champagne Palmer recognises and celebrates the fact there is now so much more competition from English sparkling wine – that’s a challenge it needs to live up to. Arthur explains: “The UK is a market of connoisseurs that understand what makes Champagne so unique. The increase in competition is a wonderful opportunity to show why your product is different from the other.”
It is why Champagne Palmer has pledged to only make its wines available in the premium On Trade. “People are more and more interested to have exclusive products,” adds Arthur. “It is essential for our customers to sell a product that can’t be found everywhere around the corner. They don’t want to sell the same things as their neighbours. Champagne Palmer offers a great opportunity to those who are looking for an alternative to the traditional Houses of Champagnes that can be found everywhere.”
It is also why they have a dedicated person working hand in hand in the market with Bibendum. “It is important to spend time in the market so that you can understand it and meet its demands. We need to be continuously active, offering wine dinners, staff training, tasting sessions and events, meeting with customers and sommeliers,” says Arthur.
“Making a great wine is very important, but it’s not enough anymore. You need a good distributor that makes it possible to introduce your wines to fantastic venues. Bibendum understands the DNA and philosophy of Champagne Palmer and is a brilliant partner to pursue our development in the UK.”
Champagne Palmer poured their Blanc de Blancs at our recent Fine Wine focused Cellar Tasting – hear what Arthur had to say.
*Richard is an award-winning business journalist. Former editor of Harpers Wine & Spirit, he now runs his own website (The-Buyer.net), looking at trends and analysis of the premium On Trade.