June 3, 2021

It was early December in the Aube region of Champagne and the weather forecast was registering a bleak zero degrees Celsius. The sound of silence was quickly interrupted by a familiar clinking of champagne flutes, one I would get to know well after three days of thorough immersion into the young grower’s culture. In the same pandemic-ridden circumstances back home, I cannot fathom having a flute of French crème de la crème in hand to cheer my spirits. Most grand marques are too expensive for my “shallow pockets” and the emergence of grower champagnes in the market is still underappreciated. 

Here to change the game is Bonjour Bubbles—Singapore’s first online boutique that specialises in sourcing directly from cult growers. Launched in November last year, the company boasts a well-manicured selection of grower champagnes handpicked personally for their extremely high quality. And each cuvée reflects the true temperament of its makers: fervent, ambitious and bounded by camaraderie.

This begs the question: What is grower champagne? It is champagne crafted by grape growers and their families. Think of it as the farm-to-table movement in the Champagne world with a rising trend of domaines making and marketing champagnes under their own labels with grapes sourced and processed on their own plots. Often, growers practise holistic viticulture and are less prone to employing a high dosage (of sugar) to mask imperfections. Instead, the focus is shifted to producing better fruit and showcasing the various terroirs in their portfolio using more tangible methods. The result is a more emotive drop that has just as much flavour as it is earnest and introspective.

Here, Pauline Tan, founder and curator of Bonjour Bubbles, shares with us how the idea came about, the passion and fervour of family-run vignerons and why you should be drinking grower champagne right now.

High Net Worth: How did your interest in champagne start?

Pauline Tan: I remember organising events when I was working in a private bank—that was my first foray into luxury wines and champagnes. That first taste of a Vintage Krug struck me as an amazing drink. A representative of the House was also present to explain the champagne-making process to the clients, and it was an eye-opener to learn all the intricacies. I have never looked back since.

Why are you particularly drawn to grower champagne?

As I started my journey drinking more wines and champagnes, I was often intrigued to find out more about the story behind the producer; these are the stories that would make me like a particular wine more than another. Their philosophy, way of life, vinification, farming techniques and even personal interests would often be reflected in the quality of work. Much like an artist who paints, a winemaker is very much the soul of the wines we drink—and that’s what really draws me to small producers who allow their personality to shine through their champagnes.

Do you share particular special relationships with some of the growers that you work with?

I visited Champagne for the first time in 2019, and really fell in love with the region. Most visitors would be familiar with the Reims, which is where most go to visit the Avenue d’Champagne and go from house to house for tastings. I spent a few weeks staying with a personal friend and also a champagne grower from the Maison Gamet family, right in the heart of Hautvillers where Dom Perignon was buried. We also visited some of their family friends which included other growers. The experience really cemented my interest in Champagne and the Champenois. They seemed to all share a great camaraderie and viewed each other as comrades in the region instead of “competitors,” which may be common in some wine regions.

Is there a particular focus when choosing the producers that you work with?

We choose to curate champagnes from small, family-run producers who produce excellent quality wines from a single grape varietal or single terroir. Most of them farm within Premier or Grand Cru areas, which are more recognised by local consumers. It is not a strict policy, but we tend to lean towards producers who use organic farming techniques and minimal intervention in the winemaking process.

I do cherish champagnes when they’re produced in extremely small quantities and with zero to no dosage. This really showcases the quality of the fruit and winemaking techniques of these producers who are often the best in their category.

What can customers expect from you?

At Bonjour Bubbles, our philosophy is to allow people to try a variety of champagnes across the five main regions. In order to facilitate this learning journey with our guests who are new to this, we curate each pack accordingly. For example, in the Couple Bubble which has two bottles, you will get to try two producers, both classic champagne blends from the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bars region. This allows our customers to explore the nuances and discover for themselves the unique profiles of the wine and terroir.

Do you think that the general impression of champagne has changed from the days of bottle service at clubs?

I think people are starting to notice grower champagnes slowly, although many are still more enamoured by the Grand Marques (Krug, Dom Perignon, Ruinart, etc.). Their huge marketing budgets have allowed these brands to dominate the market for a long period of time.

People are also starting to embrace the idea of treating champagne as a wine, and not just a fun fizzy drink. It will be some time before we completely disassociate the image of champagne with glitz and glamour, but we are slowly getting there.

How do you intend to raise more awareness and educate your customers about your offerings?

Education is key to the enjoyment of any wine, not just champagne. People are more exposed to Bordeaux, Burgundy wines because they seem a lot easier to understand—for example, what grapes go into making them. That’s why we like to craft our posts and provide snippets of information that are easy for our audience to understand and digest. In time to come, we hope to conduct virtual tastings, tours led by the growers and even possibly, a consumer-focused event where growers can interact with the local audience. 

Why is champagne so expensive?

Champagne is generally a premium product in the wine scene and it’s mainly because of the costs of production. First, champagne is produced off a relatively challenging terrain with harsh climate conditions. Second, champagne can only be produced via methode traditionelle, which dictates two rounds of fermentation (the second being the most important where the wine produces the bubbles/fizz). There is also a stipulated length of time for this ageing—minimum 15 months for non-vintage and 36 months for vintage champagnes. A lot of work is done by hand, including the harvest, disgorgement, which all contribute to the higher costs. Most growers also allow their wines to age for a longer period to let them develop more complex secondary flavour profiles.

What are your favourite occasions to enjoy champagne?

I could drink champagne every day! Even during the circuit breaker last year, I was living alone and would pop a bottle and drink it over 2-3 days. It’s a common misconception that champagne cannot be kept. I actually enjoy the wine a lot more after a day when the bubbles are soft and I get the full flavour profile much more clearly. Of course, any celebration, small or big, or even a troubling moment calls for champagne, which is the ultimate pick-me-up.

What are some of your recommended local food pairings that will go well with champagne?

Champagne, in my opinion, pairs well with most foods but especially rich, oily foods as the acidity and the fizz cuts through and refreshes your palate. I like it with local Singaporean food such as regular hawker fare, and even fried chicken and pizza! 

A typical Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) champagne is great as an aperitif; it complements well with lightly cooked seafood, like oysters. If you’re having something heavier like a creamy dish or white meat, you could go with a Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir), which is a little more full-bodied, with red fruit characteristics. Personally, I would drink champagne with everything.