But the last few years have also seen the rise of smaller-scale producers, who take pride in doing things differently from their big rivals, and often make a Champagne that is full of character and sometimes cheaper than the big brands. TIME found some of the best.
Most of Champagne's more than 15,000 growers have only tiny plots of land with a few vines, and there's a strong tradition of grouping together in cooperatives. Palmer in Reims, tel: (33-326) 07 35 07, is one of the biggest. It dates back 60 years and has an annual production of over 4 million bottles, but it has deliberately kept a low profile. "We never tried to become well-known," says director Jean-Claude Colson. Palmer makes a Blanc de Blancs (100% pure Chardonnay) Champagne for Sainsbury's in the U.K., but otherwise sells mainly to restaurants and a roster of regular clients who include locals looking for a reasonably priced, high-quality bottle.
Closer to Epernay is Beaumont des Crayères, www.champagne-beaumont.com, described by British wine writer Hugh Johnson as "a small outstanding cooperative." It has been on an export drive for more than a decade, particularly with its biggest-selling bottle, a nonvintage Grande Réserve Champagne, made of 60% Pinot Meunier.
THE SPECIALIST GROWERS
A young new generation of small growers is making a name for itself by challenging conventional wisdom about how to make Champagne. These vignerons reject the use of pesticides, borrow winemaking techniques from Burgundy and produce small-batch cuvées that seek to reflect the particular character of the vines they lovingly tend.
At Larmandier-Bernier in Vertus, www.larmandier.com, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier stunned their relativesand turned their back on a 200-year family tradition when they stopped using herbicides a decade ago and cut back on grape yields. "It was a radical change, and some people thought we were mad," Pierre says.
Francis Egly in Ambonnay is one of the most successful of these new producers; his Pinot Noir-based Blanc des Noirs caught the attention of American wine guru Robert Parker, who lists Egly-Ouriet, tel: (33-326) 57 00 70, as one of the top Champagne houses.
Like Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse, tel: (33-326) 57 53 56, in Avize, Egly is struggling to keep up with demand; he only produces 100,000 bottles a year. Making Champagne, he says, "is a personal business." We'll drink to that.