Terry Theise and his merry band of small growers

LVMH, the global luxury goods company, has a 60 percent market share of champagne sales in the US according to the IMPACT databank 2005. Their brands include such names as Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Moet. They’re big.

Moet, like the other grandes marques, has been fabulously successful thanks to mostly buying other people’s grapes and then blending wine. In fact, the brand management has been so successful that the big champagne houses are among the most successful brands in the wine business: wide name recognition, relatively high volume, and selling at a high price point. They’ve hit the economic sweet spot. Moet sold 600,000 cases in 2005 in the US and the average retail price of each bottle was $43.50 according to Impact.

On the other end of the champagne continuum is a merry band of small growers. No, they’re not an elf-like 3’9″–they just don’t make a lot of bubbly. But that’s also a point of difference. Like a traditional “chateau,” they grow their own grapes and make their own wine.

Terry Theise, known for importing fine wines from Germany, Austria, and more recently, Champagne, spoke to a lunch of the Wine Media Guild last week about his “grower champagnes.” His spiel for grower champagne rests on three elements: value, ethics, and taste.

He argues that without the ad budgets to place products in James Bond movies, grower champagnes offer more attractive values. (But what about the economies of scale that the grandes marques employ?) And buying “farmer fizz” means supporting small family businesses. And they taste better he says.

While I was ready to be wowed, I thought that his range of champagnes was competently done but I couldn’t help but being a little disappointed. After all, I was starting to dig his logic. (My tasting notes to follow.) I should add that Theise is not the only importer of boutique, grower champagnes.

Apparently the economic sweet spot is not the only thing that is sweet about the big houses (Theise doesn’t like many of the grandes marques but he holds a lot of ire for one unnamed house in particular.) He reported to the Guild that he had done some market research and bought a bottle of the same label at shops in Paris, London and New York. All were freshly received in the shops. He sent them to the lab for chemical analysis. These were his findings, in his words:

They were different in acidity, they were different in sweetness, they were different in pH. They were not the same wine. It is an open secret in Champagne: the British get the oldest tasting stuff–not necessarily the oldest stuff. It’s because they usually put a little Spanish brandy in the dosage liqueur to give it that patina of antiquity…The French get the youngest stuff. The Americans get the sweetest stuff…We get the sweetest stuff over here that is pretty well known. Most of the big commercial brands have their dosage up tickling the legal limit.

“So what?” someone asked. The different bottlings for different markets is not inappropriate, Theise relented. “What’s inappropriate is to lie about it.”

For his merry band of growers, the trend is toward dry bringing down the sweetness, sometimes even bottling without dosage. (See my backgrounder on sweetness in champagne.) Theise and his growers occasionally argue about how dry to go. Apparently they are wanting to take the sugar levels down every year, while he tries to get them fractionally more. He said adding sugar in champagne, like salt in cooking, should not be perceptible itself but when it is present in enough quantity it makes the other aromas more pleasing or “awaken,” in his phraseology. “The issue is balance,” he said.

If you want more fighting words from Terry Theise, surf on over and read his provocative catalogue (pdf). And if you enjoy his wines, you are advised to buy them this month. Starting in January, Theise said, he’s raising his prices because his costs are going up thanks to the declining dollar.

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7 Responses to “Terry Theise and his merry band of small growers”

  1. These wines are more rare and should have more cachet than the grandes marques, given comparable quality. Moet is available at any grocery store; these Theise wines are not. Besides the sensory experience of drinking wine, one of the attractions is the people, places, and stories that are represented by the label on a bottle. Surely that is greater for a small producer than a large corporation. All the vitriol against multinationals is tiresome and unnecessary.

  2. Hi Tyler,

    As for being disappointed in Grower Champagne, you may have just had an off day. Or perhaps you’re up for a Lanson award and don’t want to put off any of the Grande Marques. . .

    I would give it another shot, Farmer Fizz side by side with a NV Moet or Clicquot – the difference is absolutely unbelievable. A 1999 Gimonnet Fleurons vs a NV Veuve Clicquot each cost about 40 bucks but even a newbie will be overwhelmingly convinced.

  3. Actually, Steve, Bollinger is going to sponsor my next action film so that’s why I don’t want to say anything bad about them…Just kidding!

    I wish that we had had one of the grandes marques there for comparison. Esp interesting, I imagine, would be the vintage – NV comparison you suggest.


  4. I am very surprised that there was not a blind tasting involved in this talk. While I have not had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Thesie himself, I have met his counter-part, Michael Skurnik of NY. In discussing these small growers, we did a blind tasting, and as another blogger said, the difference is disgustingly apparent. I use that word in particular; the unnamed large house Champagne was almost undrinkable in comparison.

    Mind you, I still feel there’s a place for the big houses (one of my favorites will probably always be Bolligner–action films or not), but it’d be nice to know that educated wine drinkers are also educated on what’s happening in Champagne (many are not).

  5. As a sommelier, I jumped on the grower bandwagon in search of something a bit out of the ordinary, something a little bit more special. Having done several tastings (some blind, some partially blind, others open) the grower fizz stands out head and shoulders above the grande marque stuff. It has more definition, more character, there is more nuance to the aromas and flavours. It is more typical to the region. Champagne is the only region in france that has a nifty get out clause allowing them to blend the product of many different vintages to create a consistent product. The key word there is consistent. When the big boys are producing somewhere between two and seven million bottles a year, what they are creating is a homegenised product. One bottle is exactly the same as the next (it was interesting to read the results of the chemical analysis. I was aware that wines are treated differently depending on where they are to be shipped, obviously wine travelling halfway around the world needs a different dose of SO2 than one travelling twenty clicks down the road, but I never really appreciated that the champagnes would get different dosages depending on which market they get sent to.).Grower champagnes, by their very limited production tend to have more variation in batch to batch, they may be subtle, they may be more obvious, but there are differences, which also adds to their appeal. This I think explains why many grower/producers tend to name the date of disgorgement on their bottles – Selosse, Egly-Ouriet, Aubry etc all practice this,very welcome additional information.
    They are lesser known because they lack the immense marketing budgets of the big brands, but if you think about it, who is paying for all that sponsorship of sporting events, glossy page advertising in premium publications, big brand presence in retailers etc. Thats right, Joe Punter pays for it all when he buys a bottle. I would be happier knowing that the £20 I spend on a bottle of champagne is going to the grower (after the retailers profit obviously!) rather than being parceled off to marketing departments, accountants etc etc, with what little remains going back to the grapes. So give it another shot and let the wines do the talking. If at the end you prefer Bollinger to Selosse, Pol Roger to Aubry, Veuve Clicquot to Jacquesson then thats fine, thats the beauty of wines, its all horses for courses.

  6. […] Grower champagnes: a lunch with importer Terry Theise […]

  7. I personally prefer Veuve Clicquot, i like it more that moet or dom perignon. A week ago I tried the Veuve Clicquot rose, and i must say that it doesn´t as good as the original, but thats what the different champagne brand are for, to fit everybodys taste in a different way.


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