In general, those of you who drink Champagne are probably most familiar with the big house negociant names like Veuve Cliquot, Moet Chandon, Taittinger and Perrier Jouet, to name a few. Those houses produce perfectly delicious wines with fruit that they mainly purchase from small growers throughout the region. Historically, these Champagne houses have a defined style and flavor profile that they want to maintain year after, bottle after bottle, so that each time you pick up a Veuve Cliquot it tastes the same. Everytime - no matter what happened in the vineyard the year it was bottled. And there is comfort in that knowledge that wines like Taittinger La Francais will taste as you know it, no matter when, where and how you purchase it.
Think of grower Champagnes as you do from wine anywhere else in the world - they tend to express the place and the base vintage from where they came. For instance, you expect a 2013 bottle of Napa Valley Howell Mountain Cabernet to carry the signature of the soils and quality of the vintage; just as you know that purchasing a 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir may wear the signature of the unpredictable rains at harvest. Grower Champagnes are made by those farmers who sell much of their grapes to the big houses. They keep a portion for themselves to make wine under their own label. To qualify as a grower or recoltant (vs. a negotiant) they must use a minimum of 95% of fruit from their own vineyards. Because their sparkling wines are crafted with grapes from specific parcels of land and blended in small lots, they tend to taste very distinct and different every year.
It is a personal choice but sometimes just a habitual one. If a bottle of Mumm Grand Cru Cramant is sitting beside a bottle of Voirin-Jumel Grand Cru Cramant, chances are you'll go for the more familiar name - and miss out on a delicious grower Champagne. The trend in the wine world today is moving toward growers and less big house bottlings with the notion that small is better, big is bad. But as Michael Knisley always says, grower doesn't always mean good! Eric Asimov did a great New York Times article addressing this issue last month and is an insightful look and this trend and consequences, Big Can be Beautiful.
At Swirl, we recognize the value of both and carry a mix of big house negociants and small growers. My personal preference tends toward grower Champagnes, but I thoroughly enjoy a well made, quality wine from any producer.