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Sep 3, 2009 04:16 AM

Corks at dawn - A row in the champagne industry

Here is an interesting article in NYT about how the Chamapgne Houses are responding to the economic crisis and the drop in sales ( which has also been picked up by The Economist ( and finally (

As a customer of this fine yet expensive and non-essential product (especially in these cash-strapped times), there are some aspects of this whole issue which make me very uncomfortable, actually I feel somewhat cheated (...and I HATE getting cheated):

Is it the idea that yeilds can be played around with so brutally without substantial impact on quality? Surely you'll get a better wine with low harvest.

Is it the idea that I got screwed on the price when demand was higher than supply but they would rather let excess production rot than give their loyal customers discounted prices in tough economic times?

Is my belief in capitalistics market forces feeling insulted at being tied to this monopolistic supply source who can manipulate the markets to their pleasing? ie." any which way, the customer is screwed".

Should I vote with my wallet? and how?


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  1. Drink Schramsberg instead (or any other superb quality Cali sparklers). Cavas from Spain are an amazing value for daily sippers, too. I firmly believe that bubbles should be enjoyed regularly not rarely. However I do admit to the occasional expensive Champagne, such as 1985 Krug on my wedding night and that bottle of 1973 Dom for my wife's 40th birthday that she doesn't know about.

    4 Replies
    1. re: bogie

      Bogie, you don't seem so p..... o.... as I am about the whole market economics being distorted by Rich Monopolistic Champagne Houses......

      1. re: Aosta

        I'm used to their behavior by now, not that I agree with it. Remember the great Champagne "shortage" of 1999? Apart from such special occasion wines as I mentioned above, I usually drink the Champagnes of lesser known small houses that have better prices and would never manipulate their product in such a way.

        1. re: bogie

          When you refer to "Champagnes of lesser known small houses" do you mean bubbly or real French Champagne?
          if you mean the latter, then my impression is that this decision (to let the grapes rot rather than risk a downturn in prices) cover all French Champagne producers (like an OPEC of Champagne).

          Somehow I get more emotionnal about champagne prices than gas prices ...though I did install solar power on my roof as counter measure to the speculative oil prices in 2008 (remember those days of 150 US$/Barrel of crude)?

          I wonder if can do something similar with my champagne conundrum?

          1. re: Aosta

            Perfect analogy to oil prices! But bogie's right. Schramsberga (and Roederer, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrere) all make superior quality sparkling wines that rival much of what France has to offer. There are also lots of lesser quality producers in California and even one in New Mexico (Gruet). One of my favorites in the <$10 range is Tobin James Dreamweaver.

    2. The large Champagne houses are negociant-manipulants (NM). With the exception of their top cuvees, they grower little or no fruit of their own. They are--nearly without exception--owned by publicly held corporations (e.g. LVMH). Their goal is to create a branded product and sell lots of it. Much of what they sell is wine they didn't even make or grow, but bottles they threw their fancy label on (sur latte-supposedly banned by the French government but still widespread). Quality varies, from plonk (e.g. Chandon White Star) to very good (e.g. Gosset) but this is a product, first and foremost.

      At the other end of the spectrum are the recoltant-manipulants (RM), grower champagne houses. They grow their own grapes, make their own wines, and then bottle and sell them. These wines are a reflection of place and person and style. They do not vary production according to market forces; they also do not adjust blends for different markets, as do the large NMs. There is an amazing spectrum of styles and prices. Best of all, they are no more expensive than the "wines" made by the NMs.

      The importers who specialize in these wines feels strongly about these wines (as you can guess, I do as well). I love Thierry Theise's catalog, which is equal parts information and manifesto:

      So, I vote with my wallet, my palate and my soul. I don't buy yellow labels filled with mediocre fizz or any other corporate entity's lifestyle offering. Just a few of my favorites: Diebolt-Vallois, Dereche, Delavenne, Egly-Ouriet, Thierry Triolet, and Gaston Chiquet.

      3 Replies
      1. re: chefdilettante

        Well....all this Champagne talk made me want to taste again so I bought a few NV which I understand are made along the principles of the Recoltant Manipulateur or at least are privately owned (though correct me if I am wrong): Drappier , Billecart Salmon, Bollinger and Deutz.

        ....started with the Deutz...and was very pleased....

        This is a bittersweet situation......

        1. re: Aosta

          Actually, the producers you mention are actually (granted, fine ones, but...) negociant-manipulants (NM's), not recoltant-manipulants (RM's). There are good Champagnes being made by producers in both categories, but they are qualitatively very different things.

          If anyone would like to get a very quick and vivid education about RM's, download Terry Theise's Champagne Catalog, as chefdilettante very astutely suggests above.

          Then, of course... the matter is further complicated by producers who, while technically NM's, operate essentially (save purchasing usually just barely more than 5% of their fruit) as RM's - e.g. Diebolt-Vallois, Jean Milan, André Clouet (all superb producers).

        2. re: chefdilettante

          i hate to nitpick, but...

          milan (who is now, as of recently technically an NM but still very much an RM at heart) did in fact make different blends for different markets. i'm specifically referring to the carte blanche that they produced specifically for the american market. interestingly, they discontinued it about the same time they had to reclassify as an NM. (had an discussion with them about this when i visited the winery last year)

          so, i would just echo what others have said: i prefer RM for many reasons, but NM's are not all corporate giants making soulless wine, and even the RM's at times do things that are thought to be NM-type tactics. just drink as much of both types (and the other designations as well) as you can and you're bound to find some in all categories you like.

        3. What are you upset about? Of course there are market forces determining the price of the commodities you buy. If for whatever reason the fact that there's a market between the négociants and the growers makes you angry, don't buy wines produced by négociants. There are plenty of nice champagnes produced by growers themselves.

          3 Replies
          1. re: tmso

            My understanding of economics is that, if pure market forces were free to work with the laws of supply and demand , then the current excess production and inventory would result in a substantial drop in prices.

            As it turns out, these market forces are being artifcially distorted and the customer is getting screwed.

            1. re: Aosta

              I still don't know what you're upset about. It seems that either you're upset that the producer-négociant market is not some textbook "pure" market of free, independant actors (which, btw, do not exist anywhere in the real world); or you don't understand how these negotiations are being done (collectively, in advance, with both sides trying to hedge their bets).

              In any case, if this upsets you, the answer is simple: BUY GROWER PRODUCED CHAMPAGNE. They're selling their wine more than their brand, in comparison to the big négociant houses, anyhow, so they tend to be a better deal.

              1. re: Aosta

                I'm not so sure this would really affect the prices of the finer wines produced in Champagne. While the CIVC establishes a "maximum" yield, it does not specify a minimum yield, and most growers whose grapes end up in the better wines are harvesting at much lower yields than the maximum specified by the CIVC.