Champagne co-operative wineries: strength in numbers
By Alain Echalier - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 26 June 2023
Producing your own wine is a challenging task where seemingly trivial choices can rapidly become consequential. Winegrowers’ character traits can come into sharper focus and before Champagne becomes an art form, it requires technical skills. Joining forces to produce it may seem like a tall order, but the reality belies this assumption. Co-operative wineries account for a sizeable chunk of production and have met with significant success. To find out more, we questioned six co-operatives producing different styles of Champagne from different areas.
Vineyards at the Colombé co-operative winery.
The Champagne region covers over 34,000 hectares under vine and embraces a huge number of grape growers. Whilst all of them grow vines, they don’t all make and market their wines themselves. One of the reasons for this is because Champagne is tricky to produce – it requires very gentle pressing, subtle blending and a gradual build-up of bubbles. This calls for a specific skill set combined with expensive infrastructures and a lot of cash-flow. Also, land ownership can be very fragmented and some growers only own diminutive vineyard blocks. As a rule of thumb, it is said that it takes at least two or three hectares of vine to be able produce one’s own Champagne and become a ‘Récoltant Manipulant’ or RM on labels.
Consequently, the industry has two types of operators, the first of which are the Champagne houses or negociants who can also own their own vineyards and buy in grapes or juice, make their Champagne and market it. These are known as the ‘Négociants-Manipulants’ (NM), and they include the large household brands with a varied range of distribution channels, including supermarkets.
As with all forms of agriculture, there are also co-operatives that vineyard owners can join. Each of them owns their own land and farms it as they see fit, provided they comply with the appellation’s specifications on top of the often more restrictive standards applied by the co-operative they belong to. At harvest time, the grapes are taken to the co-operative which handles Champagne production. The wine can subsequently be sold by the vine grower – the ‘Récoltant coopérateur’ (RC) – under his or her own name, or by the co-operative itself, the ‘Coopérative de Manipulation’ (CM) under one of the brands it owns. The category of producer in Champagne is featured on the bottle and the label must specify the codes RM, NM, RC or CM.
Modern winemaking facilities at UVCB.
A collective, multi-faceted approach
Historically, wine is the product of collaboration between people. The gigantic mediaeval presses, some of which have survived through to this day, offer a good illustration of the monastery-driven wine industry of bygone days. The bigger the press, the higher the acreage owned by the abbey and number of winegrowing monks!
More recently, the dramatic consequences of phylloxera led winegrowers who had become independent after the French Revolution to once again band together to combat the destructive pest. The first co-operative was established in Champagne in 1921 but the wineries truly began to burgeon after the Second World War, which had wrought destruction and encouraged many winegrowers to group together and pool costs. Currently, the region has 130 co-operatives and over 14,000 member winegrowers who farm almost half the vineyard acreage in the Champagne appellation.
Co-operatives were often established at local level, within the village. Growers would partner initially with their neighbour, then the neighbour’s neighbour. Some of them, however, have grown considerably and morphed into groups of co-operatives.
Champagnes marketed directly by co-operatives now total 30 million bottles out of just under 300 million produced annually in the region. In addition to this, co-operatives can also sell their wines to the Champagne houses, and grape growers are often directly recruited by the houses themselves. Across the region, divergent interests often end up converging, but the balance can be a fine one and stems from the fact that whilst fruit is generally in short supply, the wines sell well. We took a closer look at the lesser-known side of the Champagne wine industry through six wineries that epitomise the region’s diversity. What follows is the result of our journey.
UVCM, Champagne G. Gruet et fils
The spirit of Sézannais
Magali Midena introduces us to L’Union Viticole des Coteaux de Bethon, where she is an employee. The winery was founded in 1967 on the initiative of Gilbert Gruet, a winegrower in the village of Bethon who grew his own grapes and produced his own wine. This small local co-operative now has around 100 members and receives supplies from 115 hectares of vines.
Union viticole of Coteaux De Bethon.
“Bethon is located in the southern part of Champagne referred to as the Sézannais. The soils are mostly chalky and therefore the vast majority of vines are Chardonnay”, explains Midena. The climate here is slightly warmer and calls for slightly earlier harvesting than in the rest of Champagne. Here the member growers are not exclusively linked to the co-operative and many of them have very small vineyards. 70% of production is sold as juice or still winesthrough partnership arrangements to the major houses who look for the minerality in the region’s excellent fruit.
“UVCM is a marketing co-operative”, stresses Midena, adding that the winery aims to relaunch its brand under the founder’s name. With this in mind, the facilities have been modernised and young female winemaker Delphine Gruet, belonging to the same family as the founder, has joined the team. Only the finest, ‘first-press’ juice is used.
The Champagnes are sold equally in France and in export markets, to Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States. Average dosage is in the range of 8g/litre.
Vineyards in the summer in Bethon.
Colombé-le-sec co-operative winery, Champagne Charles Clément
This small co-operative founded in 1956 has a present-day membership of 60 growers farming 120 hectares. It is located in the south-eastern part of the Champagne appellation, in Aube, within the Côte des Bar. The name of the village alludes to the fact that rocks are just below the surface and there is no nearby water table. Georges Rognon, who has run the winery for around a decade, explains that obviously Pinot noir accounts for 80% of the varietal range. Half the volumes are sold as still wines, 40% is returned to member growers and the balance is turned into Champagne and marketed by the co-operative.
Co-operative members at Colombé-Le-Sec.
Rognon admits that he is pretty happy to be located in the Côte des Bar, which enthusiasts are very familiar with. “It’s good to be different”, he explains. “This is the most continental part of Champagne with the most pronounced differences between winter and summer. Admittedly, alcohol content is on the increase, following a series of very hot years, but strategies like avoiding malolactic fermentation retain freshness”. Although he likes rounded, vinous wines, he is not particularly aiming for red fruit flavours but rather a sensation of white fruits on the palate.
Having a small, manageably-sized winery also means the wines can be fine-tuned. Rognon can tap into reserve wines dating back to 2016 and the bottles stay on their lees for around four years. This is a lot more than the minimum 15 months required by appellation rules, which is often the time Brut Champagnes produced by the leading houses age for! Small groups of people with differing opinions are convened to decide on dosage. The co-operative mirrors the widespread trend towards Brut and Extra Brut dosage but it also produces a medium dry offering. “There is a following for it and it can provide for some interesting pairings with certain types of foods”, adds Rognon.
Vincelles co-operative, Champagne H. Blin
The home of Pinot Meunier
Vincelles is a village located in the Marne Valley, which is prone to frost. The co-operative’s managing director Daniel Falala explains that Meunier, which is better equipped to withstand frost, therefore accounts for 70% of the 110 hectares farmed by 115 member growers. Here, all the grapes come from within a 5km radius. On average, growers own 1 hectare, increasing to 6 for the largest grower. The figures speak volumes about the need to pool resources.
The co-operative was founded in 1947 by 29 winegrowers, including Henri Blin. His grandson Simon Blin is its current chairman. He belongs to a family that has grown wine in Vincelles for 12 generations.
HB roas Simon Blin Chairman, Sébasten Barbier head winemaker, Daniel Falala director at the Vincelles Co-operative Winery.
Sébastien Barbier, the head winemaker since 2011, is a Meunier specialist. The variety was long the ugly duckling of Champagne, even though it accounts for one third of all the grapes. But for the past 10 to 12 years, it has become a talking point. In Vincelles, the topology of the land helps. The South-South-East aspects help the fruit achieve peak ripeness. Also, winegrowers prune shorter here than in other areas and lower yields promote quality. Winemaking techniques, often involving single vineyards vinted in small tanks, differentiate between heavy and light soils and are more precise, even before blending.
Waiting for the press at Champgane H.Blin.
The co-operative is proud to have blazed the trail for organic winegrowing and for a long time was the only organic practitioner, despite the fact that it is more challenging with Meunier than Chardonnay. These challenges are compounded by the constraints of a co-operative winery and the wines have to be hived off into a dedicated press and small tanks. Currently, 12 hectares are farmed organically and one member is even biodynamic – this is precision viticulture at its finest. “Organic Champagnes sell in Scandinavia and the USA, often in export markets”, explains Falala.
The Landion Co-operative Winery has the Benefit of a modern building.
Members of the Landion Co-operative Winery.
Union Auboise, Champagne Devaux
A recognised name
Union Auboise is a co-operative of co-operatives. When we got in touch with Elodie Chevriot, head of communications and marketing, she told us that the group had just incorporated six new co-operatives, all of them in the Côte des Bar, covering three brands. This brings the group’s membership up to 520 growers farming 1,060 hectares. “You have to grow to survive”, explains Chevriot. Although the presses and tanks will remain in their respective wineries – the distance covered by the grapes has to be kept to a minimum in order to preserve quality – bottling and labelling operations can be pooled. In an era when the price of glass and packaging has surged, this is important. Another advantage is that all the brands will be kept – Champagnes Devaux, Charles Collin, Clerambault and Marquis de Pomereuil – and can be marketed jointly.
Champagne Devaux is one of Union Auboise’s long-standing brands, with production in excess of 1 million bottles in 2022. One of the Champagne’s distinctive features is its extended ageing on the lees – lasting around five years or even seven for the magnums. This develops complex aromas of brioche. In fact the age is specified on the neck tag of bottles in the range. The policy bucks the general trend in a region that lacks wines and many of the prestigious houses have lowered their ageing durations. Some of them are even starting to sell their wines on allocation, as in neighbouring Burgundy. But Union Auboise is adamant that it wants to maintain the style and quality of Champagne Devaux and therefore time spent on the lees must remain unchanged. Dosage is delicately judged – the Extra Brut for example is around 2 to 3g/litre.
The group also markets Rosé des Riceys, the famous, deeply coloured Champagne rosé made from 100% Pinot noir. This is one of only very few rosés that can be enjoyed after some bottle time, and the Union is currently marketing the 2018 vintage.
The Barrel Cellar at Union Auboise.
Landion Co-operative, Champagne Gaston Cheq
Winegrowers on every rung of the ladder
When we called the Landion co-operative’s chair, Cecile Taperet, she answeredfrom the middle of the vineyard she was in the process of pruning! One of the requisites for managing this small co-operative with its 80 members from 12 villages farming 180 ha of vineyards is to be a winegrower oneself. And just like her parents and grand-parents before her, Taperet grows vines.
The Landion is a stream that criss-crosses the landscape. Gaston Cheq is the face behind the co-operative’s brand and was a prime mover in the region. He was the one who brought Aube back into the boundaries of the Champagne wine region in 1927. Here, the soils are Kimmeridgian limestone and the Pinot noir vines that grow there deliver notes of pear and blackberry. Obviously harvesting begins early – in 2022, that meant as early as August 21, making it the 7th harvest in ten to start in the middle of summer.
For its chair, the co-operative is a decent size – it has one press and small tanks, but more importantly it is where ideas are shared and different generations of member growers mix. Many young members have gone to college to study viticulture and oenology and some of them have graduated as winemakers. To sustain their interest in the co-operative, they have to be given the possibility to crush the fruit, hive off their own grapes and produce specific lines. Ensuring vineyard acreage remains unchanged is the priority. In 2011, the co-operative launched a single varietal Pinot noir and a natural Champagne with under 3g/litre of dosage under its own brand.
Cecile Taperet, Chair of The Landion Co-opeative Winery.
Nicolas Robert, Head Winemaker for Champagne Sanger.
Co-operative of alumni from the Avize viticulture college, Champagne Sanger
The ‘old boys’ club
Director Régis Thibert and head winemaker Nicolas Robert, along with sales manager May-Christelle Siong answer our questions as befitting of a ‘real’ co-operative. And yet, this company is not your average co-operative but more of an ‘old boys’ club – you have to be an alumnus of the Avize viticulture college to become one of the 86 members.
The mindset here is also unique because although members only supply the required minimum of 300kg of grapes, the fruit is generally their finest because everyone wants to show that they have been properly trained and are also acting out of solidarity for the upcoming generation. The co-operative also allows students from the Avize viticulture college to learn how to make wine. “But the two structures are independent”, stresses Thibert, and Champagne Sanger is a full-fledged co-operative with sales targets.
Co-Operative members at champagne Sanger, The "Alumni" Club.
The grapes come from over 50 villages and are fermented in 60 temperature-controlled tanks, with many barrels also used. “The facilities are modern”, says Robert with obvious pride, and the range embraces every style of Champagne – non-vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Pinot noir, rosé, high-end labels and ratafia, for example. A Coteau Champenois is also in the making. Do they have to use tartaric acid to correct acidity levels? Whoa, there’s none of that here! Is the hasty response by the head winemaker – blocking malolactic fermentation and reductive ageing compensate for global warming.
Fifty-nine percent of the Champagnes are exported to the USA, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore for example. Precision dosage in small quantities – a ‘delicatessen-like’ approach – caters to specific demands. The USA, for instance, now tends to favour lower dosages than in Europe.
Students and teachers at the avize viticulture college.
An important local role
In an era when economic concentration has a tendency to wipe out small players and, by extension, diversity, the co-operatives offer a genuine alternative even in an industry as concentrated as Champagne. They safeguard the region’s rich heritage and the local economic fabric, but also from a purely oenophile perspective, they offer a virtually endless range of styles, often in the more affordable price brackets.
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