There has been a lot of debate in the Champagne world the past few years on the issue of which is preferable: the traditional Grand Marque producers' wines or the increasing number of grower wines now available in the US. Much of the emphasis on the grower side has been supported by Thierry Thiese, who imports an array of wines including a number of grower Champagne. On the flip side is the camp which supports the traditionally available wines from well established houses. These names are not uncommon to any in the industry and are fashionable brands known by the consumer segment.
So, which is better?? I have always believed that it is really up to the individual to decide the "better" question, but this would be a boring read if an opinion was not expressed, I suppose. My personal feeling, which is based on actually experience of tasting these wines (I do have a longer and more thorough experience level with wines from Grand Marque houses such as Taittinger, Roederer, Billinger, Moet and the like), tends to lead me back to the established producers, a lot. I find the complexity in these wines to be superior to just about anything that I have ever tasted from the grower groups. I would agree that the differences in the wines from grower groups is distinct, but I find distinctive differences in the established houses as well. My palate enjoys the differences but it also enjoys the depth of the character in many of the producers such as Taittinger and Bollinger more so than I have ever found in any of the grower wines.
These established houses have many vineyard sources scattered throughout the Champagne region, and this allows them to draw from a wide variety of fruit styles, which can build complexity in the wines. Thiese argues that complexity in Champagne can be achieved just as complexity and distinctiveness can be achieved by Chave from small parcels on the hill of Hermitage. True, but I think that what I look for in the wines of Champagne is perhaps a different depth of complexity than what I am looking for in Hermitage. A superior level of Champagne's nuance to me is derived when there is a good amount of blending being used. Blending not only of vineyard sources across an area, but also across vintages. Producers such as Roederer will use a significant level of wines from multiple vintages to achieve dramatic levels of complexity in their wines. This is the edge that I think these houses have over the small grower/producer, who simply cannot bring to the blend the diversity of components to routinely get the complexity of a Roederer.
I am a realist, and I firmly believe that there are smaller houses which do have the ability to make great wines and even wines with complexity. But, unless you are a regular drinker of Champagne, which means you are shelling out a good bit of cake these days for a typical bottle, you simply may not have the opportunity or the patience to figure out the nuances of the various Champagnes available on today's market. For the average consumer, I would suggest that finding a wine from a premium, well established producer, is going to be the safer bet investment. For those who are more adventurous, and willing to bet a bit more, discovering the pleasures of the various Champagnes can be quite fun.
The place that I really believe Americans are missing the boat on Champagne is, is not whether you prefer grower or Grand Marque, but in the mid-priced range vintage dated wines, which get almost no attention by most retailers or restaurateurs. But that is a blog for another day...