Vineyards & Wine

In the Bubble: The Exclusive World of R.M. Champagnes

Artisan champagne brands are combining fresh approaches with long-held tradition to create a new wave of delicious and valuable bottlings—here’s what you need to know

Champagne, as a region, brand, and symbol of luxury is changing. While the area remains something of a spiritual home for bons vivants in France and beyond, it has transformed itself. Previously dominated by traditional, household-name producers, it’s now a more dynamic appellation, with a newly diverse yield—including artisanal offerings made by small grower-producers or récoltants-manipulants, known as R.M. champagnes.

The shift has taken place as casual drinkers, collectors, and the Champenoise themselves have looked away from the bubbles streaming up in their flutes and turned their attention to the soil. It’s a move that, over the last 20 years, has led to a seismic shift in the way champagne is produced—much to the delight of drinkers worldwide. As a result, a variety of artisanal grower champagnes (those grown, harvested and produced by a single vineyard) are setting the region on a delicious and valuable trajectory.

Small Successes

Today, many of the 19,000 small growers that once supplied the region’s stalwart brands, or Grandes Marques, have upended the status quo by returning to their lands and crafting their own wines in small batches—many of which rival luxury brands in value and prestige.

The town of Montagne de Reims in the distance beyond grape vines
The picturesque town of Montagne de Reims in Champagne, France, is one of the region’s five wine-producing districts and has historically been considered as the commercial center of the area. Image: Getty Images

“The top growers definitely compete with the Grandes Marques,” says Tim Tiptree, Master of Wine and Christie’s International Director of Wine & Spirits. “I’m a big fan of grower champagnes, and they produce some really characterful, stunning wines.”

Top champagne is extraordinary. It’s not just a drink for celebration, but a serious wine on its own—Tim Tiptree

Bottles from these small, artisanal brands carry the letters “R.M.” on the label. This specifies that the winemaker is also in control of the vineyards, truly growing the grapes and crafting the wine, rather than operating within the historical négociant model.

For the majority of Champagne’s multicentury history, the winemakers and grape growers operated in separate sectors. The appellation’s thousands of small grape growers traditionally sold their produce to the established champagne houses—such as Krug, Bollinger, and Veuve Clicquot. Then, the purchased Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes were fermented and blended into the final cuvées by these Grandes Marques. The powerhouse brands purchased from across the region, crafting wines that showed a house style or regional terroir stamp, which dominated nearly every cork popping and wedding toast worldwide.

A close up of a bottle of R.M. Champagne
Take a close look: Grower champagnes sport the initials R.M. (Récoltant-Manipulant), while N.M. (Négociant-Manipulant) may appear on the labels of larger houses that source the majority of their grapes.

In recent decades, the growers, or vignerons, toiling on Champagne’s chalky, limestone slopes have started to go into business themselves. The success of pioneers like Anselme Selosse and Pierre Péters inspired others, and innovative importers like Kermit Lynch and Terry Theise helped launch artisanal champagnes on the international stage.

“I think these small grower-producers needed small companies to help sell their brands,” explains Tiptree. “The shift towards organics also helped R.M. champagnes. People are much more aware of the environment, and the meticulous care these producers take in the vineyards is the driving force behind their success.”

Generations of Knowledge

Traditionally, vineyards in Champagne have been passed down for generations within French families. This means that seemingly “upstart” brands often have intricate knowledge of the land, which allows them to craft stunning, expressive wines.

A bottle of Pierre Péters champagne
Champagne grower-producer Pierre Péters has been a family house for six generations. Operating 47 acres (19 ha) in the Côte des Blancs district of Champagne, all the house's wines come exclusively from its own vineyards. Image: Pierre Péters

One such brand, Champagne Frerejean Frères, was founded in 2005 by descendants of the Taittinger family. With a century-long history in the region, its small-production wines are now crafted using the family’s established traditions and knowledge. Similarly, Champagne Pierre Péters has six generations of experience in Mesnil Sur Oger. And while Champagne Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, and Champagne Eric Rodez may all have relatively short histories as winemaking houses, they bring generations of knowledge to the fore.

New Approaches

As more vigernons begin producing their own, terroir-distinctive bottlings from small parcels, Champagne is beginning to mirror other French regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy that are ranked and evaluated by their multidimensional expressions of terroir, rather than by brand names.

In fact, this shift is literally visible in how top champagnes are now enjoyed—in traditional white wine glasses rather than flutes. Unlike narrow flutes, designed to show of champagne’s signature bubbles, wide glasses allow the wine’s aromatics and shimmering flavors to be fully evaluated and enjoyed.

Champagne served in white wine glasses
White wine or tulip-shaped glasses are the optimum shape from which to drink champagne, says Tiptree—explaining that a traditional flute shape is too narrow and can trap the wine’s aromatics. Image: Alamy

“Get rid of the flutes,” says Tiptree. “Top champagne is extraordinary and should be treated like that and served in a wine glass. It’s not just a drink for celebration, champagne is a serious wine on its own.”

The meticulous care these producers take in the vineyards is the driving force behind their success—Tim Tiptree

Rare Investments

Like the world’s finest wines, artisan champagnes also offer incredible opportunities for investment, often at a value price. While less popular at auction than stalwarts such as Dom Pérignon and Roederer, Tiptree points out that grower champagnes remain challenging to discover, not because of their quality but as a result of supply and demand.

Champagne barrels
Grandes Marques typically produce tens of million of bottles a year, with enough champagne for several million more aging in cellars. Artisan champagnes appear in far smaller batches, making a bottle at auction a rare find. Image: Getty Images

Récoltant-Manipulant establishments—even those with significant vineyard holdings—produce minute amounts of champagne in comparison to the large, historic houses that produce millions of bottles per year, and many thousand bottles of their prestige cuvées, such as Dom Pérignon’s La Grande Dame. The smaller houses, however, often produce a few hundred or thousand bottles in total, which means they rarely surface on the secondary market, according to Tiptree.

“They don’t appear that regularly but it’s certainly increasing,” he says. “Whenever Selosse appears at auction it does extremely well, but the grower-producers don’t produce the volumes that the Grandes Marques do, so there’s always less on the secondary market.”

Tiptree recommends wine lovers of all stripes explore the region adventurously since the volume of R.M. champagnes has exploded over time. “Buy some mixed cases and discover ones you really like. There are some fantastic growers producing stunning wines.”

Banner image: Getty Images