Wine Education

Behind The Label: Champagne

Written by Simone Popov · 6 min read >
Champagne label

Or any Méthode Champenoise Wine

Champagne is fantastic; a great celebration drink, a pop-culture icon, and an excellent pairing for chips and oysters. But somewhere between poppin’ bottles off a yacht and toasting the coming new year, we may have misplaced a slight detail.

That Champagne is a serious, high-quality wine that needs to be understood to make the right choice. As more and more unique offerings of small-production Champagne hit wine-store shelves, let’s talk about how to interpret what is written on the label and make a good “educated guess” on what the wine will be like.

First, to understand how “Traditional Method” wine is made, check out this previous post.

Note: Some things described here are optional on a Champagne label, and most producers won’t have them. In my opinion, the more information there is, the better. This opinion is not upheld by most big Champagne houses, as they believe their brand name is enough to generate sales (and they are not wrong)

Brand Name

A brand name is important to any label because it indicates who made the wine. For Champagne, it is even more critical because brands tend to have “house styles,” so a brand name will be a better indicator of how a wine has been made and even what grapes were used (especially when grapes are not noted on the label). For instance, Champagne Bollinger makes nearly 100% Pinot Noir blends and is thus a bigger style of Champagne, while Champagne Ayala is 100% Chardonnay and is lighter and more elegant.

Producer Category 

These designations are rarely on the front label but must feature on the back label, all-be-it in tiny print. These categories are:  

Récoltant Manipulant (RM)

“RM’s are grower-producers, who grow all their grapes, make the wine out of them, and market their wines. RMs have become very “in vogue” as they bring a more artisan, family-owned winery approach to Champagne.

Négociant Manipulant (NM)

“NM’s” include the big houses, Moët,  Tattinger, Bollinger, Krug, etc. They buy the grapes and make the wine on premises under their label. NMs contribute hugely to Champagne’s recognition abroad, as they are giant corporations with mass marketing prowess and worldwide appeal.

Coopérative de manipulation (CM)

“CM’s” are co-ops where members contribute their grapes and vote on the final product. As someone based out of the USA, I have always found Co-ops odd. However, with 16,000 grape growers in Champagne and only 320 producer houses, Co-ops are a viable option for many growers who don’t just want to sell to “N.M.s” but also can’t execute their own marketing and sales like “R.M.s.”

Note: Historically, Champagne has always been a marginal wine region, where grapes struggled to ripen. Co-op membership guaranteed some revenue to members, as part-owners, even if their grapes didn’t successfully ripen.

Other Categories

The three categories above define most Champagne wine businesses, but they are not the only categories available. For a more detailed list, check out this link.

If you want to see if your favorite producer is an “R.M.,” “N.M.,” or “C.M.,” check this link from Champagne’s official website.

Premier/Grand Cru Wines

In some unique cases, Champagne producers may include the terms “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru,” sometimes preceded by the village’s name. Unlike, say, Burgundy, Champagne gives quality rankings to the villages instead of specific vineyards. Such ranking is suspect, as there can be significant diversity in quality within vineyards of a Grand Cru or Premier Cru village. However, if the name of the village appears on the label, it does indicate a more limited geographic focus, which can be beneficial to the wine’s quality.

The 17 Grand Cru villages that may appear on a Champagne label are: Ambonnay, Avize, Ay, Beaumont sur Vesle, Bouzy, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Louvois, Mailly Champagne, Oger, Oiry, Puisieux, Sillery, Tours sur Marne, Verzenay and Verzy.

There are currently 43 Premier Cru Villages.

If a village name appears on the label, grapes must be entirely from the said village. If just the words Premier/Grand Cru appear on the label, grapes must be entirely sourced from Premier/Grand Cru villages.

Regionality

There are five main subregions of Champagne: Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims (Pronounced Rance, as the French would pronounce “France”), Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Bar and Côte de Sézanne. Although these subzones are optional on a bottle of Champagne, they can indicate the type of grape used. For the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the main grape is Chardonnay. Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar is for Pinot Noir. Vallée de la Marne is for Meunier. Usually, bigger houses blend the five subregions, looking for the best house styles. Smaller wineries will be more regionally focused to highlight their local villages and subzone.

Champagne Regions. Credit: WineFollyhttps://winefolly.com/wines/champagne/

Vintage

As noted in “The Champagne Method” article, most Champagnes are non-vintage, a blend of many years. Traditionally, bigger houses had made “Vintage Champagne” from the best years when the grapes were all able to ripen and produce quality wine. However, with global warming allowing for better ripening in Champagne, more houses are experimenting with Vintage wines yearly.  

Style

We can categorize Méthode Champenoise wines(of which Champagne is a pioneer) by “the dosage” or the amount of sugar added to balance out the acidity of the final wine before it is corked and sold. Below is a nice visual chart from WineFolly:

Differing levels of sugar added by Champagne style (Credit: WineFolly)

You will likely see the “Brut” style on most non-vintage house wines, especially those made by NMs. Brut Nature and Extra Brut wines are gaining favor among sommeliers for their freshness and bracing acidity.” Any categories beyond “Brut” are exceedingly rare, as the demand for sweeter wines is in freefall. But if you have a bit of a sweet tooth, these might be good wines to seek out. You may also notice that the “Brut” category has a wide range of sweetness. Sometimes producers will use “Brut” for a wine that has 0-6 g/L sugar added to make it more confusing for us. Oh, how fun.

Other Styles

Sometimes, the producer will label their wines as “Blanc de Blancs,” “Blanc de Noirs,” or Rosé. This labeling indicates the style and grape used (if the exact grapes used are not on the label). “Blanc de Blancs” is a wine made of 100% white grapes. In practice, that means almost always 100% Chardonnay (for an exception, check out Michel Drappier’s(NM) “Quattuor” produced from Chardonnay, Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc. As you can see, it is a premium-priced wine.

Blanc de Noirs”: is produced from 100% black grapes (aka Pinot Noir and Meunier).These wines tend to be broader and richer on the palate, while Blanc de Blancs tend to be far more elegant.

Rosé can be produced in various styles, including blending a finished white ‘vin clair’  with a little bit of red ‘vin clair.’ Rosé de Saignee may be on the label indicating that the wine was made with free-run juice from a tank of red wine (this style is less and less popular, although Lelarge-Peugeot makes a good one). Best Rosé of Champagne is made using the direct press method, from black grapes being pressed softly like a white wine to creating a pale pink/gray ‘vin clair.’ You should be able to distinguish this style from Rosé de Saignee by a deeper pink color, not by the label.

Dosage/ Sugar added

Entirely optional and depends on the producer. You can deduce dosage by understanding the “style names” like “Brut” (0-12g/L sugar added) or “Brut Zero” (0-3g/L of sugar added). Sugar additions in Champagne are significant in balancing the rip-roaring acid in the wine. As temperatures rise and grapes ripen more efficiently, the sugar additions in Champagne will likely go lower. Soon, we may see “Extra-Brut” (0-6 g/L added) become the de-facto category.

Cepage/ Grape Variety

It is entirely optional as well. You can deduce grapes used in Blanc de Blancs/Noirs style or know the producer and their house style. As previously mentioned, Chardonnay generally adds finesse and elegance to a blend, Pinot Noir adds depth and roundness, and Meunier adds softness and fruitiness.

Tirage/Degorgement

Tirage is when the wine goes into the bottle first with the additional yeast and sugar to create bubbles. Degorgement is when the dead yeast is launched from the bottle, and the bottle is sealed with a cork stopper. (see more info here) We know Champagne must be aged on lees in bottle for at least three years. The disgorgement is the end of that “lees aging.” So if a wine (vintage or non-vintage) was bottled in 2014 and disgorged in 2018, it had four years to develop the toasty, bready flavors prized in Champagne. The more time on lees, the more pronounced the yeasty flavors.

Late-Disgorged Champagne

RD, or “Recently Disgorged.” is a Champagne style we directly associate with disgorgement. Sometimes these wines can spend decades on the lees. Once disgorged, there is an ingress of oxygen into the bottle developing nutty, oxidative flavors to add to the complexity. These wines are not cheap because of the extended aging in the cellar. For a good example, I recommend Bollinger R.D Extra-Brut Reserve.

Alcohol

Out of all the legalese required on the label, alcohol is the primary information needed to ascertain style. Champagne’s base wine (vin clair) is 11-12% abv, and the second bottle ferment adds +/- 1% abv. So usually, the max we see in Champagne is 13%. The rule (for all still dry wines, not just Champagne) is the higher the abv, the riper the grapes become, and therefore the more fruity the flavors will be.

Container size/ Other legal mumbo-jumbo

Not as crucial to the consumer but necessary for the producer. To see the full list of Champagne label requirements, check out this link.

So there you have it

A detailed, hopefully not too complex, description of what may be on a Champagne label and what that might tell you about the style of the wine. Hopefully, the information will help you make a more informed decision when buying Champagne.

If I missed anything, don’t hesitate to let me know, and I will annotate/update the blog.

Cheers

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