Why the rise of “grower Champagne” seems like the ultimate capitalist dream

Made by the people growing the grapes, does grower Champagne offer proof that the individual can flourish within a system tailored to big business?

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Looked at one way, the rise of “grower Champagne” is a sign of the decline of the Western world. Champagne is made from grapes, which must be grown: when the fact that the person doing the growing is also making the wine becomes a matter of excitement, something is very wrong. Still, looked at another way, Champagne is the ultimate capitalist dream, and grower Champagne the proof that the individual can flourish within a system tailored to big business. And if all this bottle-based politics is beginning to give you acid reflux, just look in your glass, instead.

You will see an ephemeral liquid that glorifies the human desire for an unending upward trajectory: optimism in a glass. At weddings, we raise a toast to undying love; promotions or birthdays are celebrated in defiance of gravity and mortality, as if what goes up need never come down. The bubbles rise towards the air, shower the inquisitive nose with infinitesimal kisses, then disappear. What’s left is flat, but if the Champagne is good, there won’t be any left. 

Through the centuries, bubbles ascended the social hierarchy. Once, small growers would drink their wine effervescing because they lacked the time and skills to get rid of fizz that formed when winter ended and fermentation restarted in the newly warming air. When bubbles became fashionable, it took wealth to keep quality consistent, and purchasers were obliged to bear the loss of bottles exploding from the pressurised liquid within.

So monks made the best wine and aristocrats bought it. The French Revolution wasn’t a leveller: private individuals took over and began to grow rich. They weathered the fluctuations of war and climate, and perfected the art of blending wines that, unlike most aspects of life, did not vary, in flavour or quality, at all.

The upshot was the grandes marques: big companies, often owned these days by multinationals, whose wines do not fluctuate as life or marriage or circumstances do. They couldn’t possibly grow the great quantities required, so buy from growers, who have a nice existence, weather permitting: tend grapes, sell grapes, go on holiday. However, not everyone wants an easy life, and some of those growers decided to find out what their terroir and its grapes actually tasted like.

Today you have a glittering array of choice, from supermarket-sold bottles through to the top grandes marques such as vintage Bollinger, Roederer or Dom Pérignon. But you also have grower Champagnes, with their more obscure labels and more variable but frequently wonderful contents. At Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia, Sandia Chang has created a temple to grower Champagnes, selling them by the glass or in bottles both reasonably priced and insanely expensive. This is where to do the research that the market won’t do for you.

Try Egly-Ouriet, Cédric Bouchard or Frédéric Savart. There are hotdogs accessorised with beef fat and caramelised onions or maple-glazed bacon chips; even the side dishes (tater tots, sweet potato fries) are lardy. Only one thing in this newly refurbished bar is good for you, and that is Champagne.

It will not prolong your life, nor guarantee your union. But it will improve your day and, if it’s grower Champagne, broaden your mind. Will it enhance the state of the Western world? Who knows. Only one thing is sure in this life, and that’s big-brand Champagne. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos