Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

Last week I was speaking with Caroline Milan, of Champagne Jean Milan, about her relatively new négociant status. While in the past this six-hectare estate was registered as an RM, or récoltant-manipulant, they made the decision several years ago to become an NM, or négociant-manipulant. The reason for this was that they wanted to grow in production, but also wanted their wines to remain exclusively from Oger. Vineyard land in a Côte des Blancs grand cru is simply not available for purchase, and even if it were, it would be incredibly expensive. (People in Champagne often estimate a price of between 1.2 and 1.5 million euros per hectare, although in today’s financial climate that seems suspiciously low to me.) The Milans had some family friends who owned very good land in Oger but who were selling their grapes to a co-operative, and a logical solution seemed to be to purchase those grapes for Milan champagne instead.

The change has worked out very well for the Milans, and the wine they’re making today is better than ever, but Caroline admits to having had some concerns in the beginning. The NM designation can be a sort of stigma, both here in the region and abroad, and the new designation meant that Milan had to leave the Syndicat Général des Vignerons, a major trade organization here in Champagne. Naturally the last thing the Milans wanted was to damage their reputation as an artisanal, family-run estate. “It made people talk,” she says. “Our friends would ask us, ‘Aren’t you afraid about your image?’” It did raise questions among some clients, although the overwhelming majority are satisfied with the explanations and continue to support the estate. And why not? It’s difficult to imagine Milan being any more artisanal than it already is. Caroline takes care of the business side of things, while her brother Jean-Charles works the cellar and vineyards. They have a few employees to help them with the estate’s operations, and while their parents are officially retired, they are still involved with the winery and continue to live on the property. Nothing has changed in the Milans’ outlook or their pursuit of quality simply because they buy a few hectares’ worth of grapes from their friends.

But really, is there anything significant about the designation NM or RM? An NM can refer to a huge array of vastly different operations, from small houses like Milan, who makes 85,000 bottles a year, to giants like Moët & Chandon, who produces, ahem... considerably more. Many young growers, in fact, are turning to the NM option, often to be able to work vines belonging to other members of the family due to inheritance laws, or else simply because, as the Milans found, vineyard land is extremely difficult to purchase.

Also, it’s hardly a meaningful designation in terms of ideas such as artisanality, expression or quality. I am a rabid fan of artisanal, site-expressive, handcrafted champagne, and I supported grower champagne well before it was fashionable to do so. Yet just because a champagne is estate-grown and -bottled doesn’t mean that it’s automatically of higher quality (or, in fact, that it’s any good at all). Nor do RMs have a monopoly on artisanality, even if many of the greatest artisanal-minded producers in Champagne are, in fact, registered as RM.

Jacquesson, for example, is highly artisanal in its outlook, isolating and bottling individual vineyards, separating parcels for vinification, preserving vintage identity in their brut sans année rather than seeking to dominate or erase the character of the year. There are plenty of récoltant-manipulants who don’t work nearly as diligently or as thoughtfully, and in fact, among Champagne’s 3,000 or so growers who produce wine under their own labels, you’ll find much wine that is indifferently made and carelessly grown. It’s true that in the United States and some other export markets the selection of grower champagne is of particularly exceptional quality, thanks to the discriminating palates of outstanding importers such as Terry Theise, Jon-David Headrick or Martine Saunier. That makes it fun, and relatively safe, to buy grower champagne. But it’s important to remember that the quality of these RM wines is due to the commitment and excellence of those particular growers, not to a couple of letters on a label. It’s inane to say, “RM on the label is a sign of quality,” or to proclaim, “I only drink RMs.” Look for the name of a producer that you know and trust — that’s the surest sign of quality that there is.

3 comments:

Louise said...

I know your list wasn't meant to be exhaustive, but for those of us on the West Coast, we also have Gary Westby at K&L to thank!

Peter Liem said...

No question, Gary has done great things at K&L, and he's a terrific promoter of grower champagne.

Charles said...

Just another example of the uselessness of dogma when it comes to assessing potential in wine. The recent happening in Burgundy of small "garagiste" type negociant houses popping up using lompoc ghetto type facilities to make tiny batches of exquisite wines from growers who are paid to adhere to their high viticultural principles in 1er and even gr. Cru vineyard areas is another. Question: Do you know of the existence of anything like this in Champagne where small scale independent negoc are inventing themselves and buying grapes by HT and not tonnage, making great wine by the thimbleful? Who's to say this is not the next step in the evolution of Champagne? It's been said that a certain volume is necessary to make great Champagne. Does this have to be so? Why not small batch Champagne?