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Unlike most wine regions, Champagne does not really celebrate the vigneron. Fully 87% of Champagne is produced by large ‘houses’ which buy much of (sometimes all of) their grapes from many thousands of small growers. There are 19,000 + growers in Champagne. Less than 5,000 of these make any wine at all. Any way you do that math, there are a lot of grapes flowing into the big houses. Today, although growers and negociants may haggle a bit over price and quality, it’s largely peaceful. That was not always the case.
In the early years of the twentieth century, phylloxera (the grape louse which decimated European vineyards), increasing popularity of Champagne, and efficient new rail lines combined to disastrous effect for the small growers of Champagne. Faced with grape shortages and rising prices, the large houses engaged in price fixing. They also started bringing in ‘foreign’ grapes, first from other regions of France but eventually from Germany, Italy, or even Algeria. And the growers? Not fans. In January, 1911, the region erupted in violent riots.
Farmers waylaid trucks carrying ‘foreign’ grapes, dumping the grapes-and occasionally whole trucks-into the Marne. Mobs smashed bottles, set fire to warehouses and residences, and threatened Champagne owners and workers. 40,000 troops had to be called in to restore the peace. Once cooler heads prevailed, regulations were put into place delimiting just where and from what Champagne could be made. The guidelines weren’t completely implemented until 1927-World War I and the influenza epidemic intervened-but they changed the world of Champagne forever.
Today, Champagne must be madfe from grapes grown in Champagne. Period. This ensures a better life for the growers, but also a reliably authentic and stylistically ‘true’ beverage for you, whether you’re drinking grower Champagne or a Grand Marque.
We carry both types-some major houses and small growers-but we do love to champion those making their own wine from just a few hectares of vines. If you agree, consider pouring some grower Champagne this Labor Day. On a holiday dedicated to workers, toast a farmer with some Farmer’s Fizz.