Champagne… deciphering the wine label

So here you are at the Champagne section of your local wine shop surrounded by an array of bottles.  You pick one up and look at it, then go to the next.  What’s difference between the two?  You can tell a lot about a Champagne just based on what is on the label.  Let’s take a look!

This is the second post in our Sparkling Series and here we will be deciphering a Champagne label.

First thing, make sure this is a true Champagne – see our previous post on the name ChampagneWhat’s in a name?  Bubbly, Sparkling, Champagne… .

Deciphering a Champagne Label

WHO MAKES IT?

The Champagne house or producer (also known as winery) is prominently displayed front and center on the label.  Each Champagne house does have it’s own style, so once you find one you like you may want to try their entire line-up or look for other producers with a similar style.

Additionally, producers can range from large Champagne houses who buy their grapes from many different sources, to smaller grower-producers who grow their own grapes and make their own Champagne, to co-operative producers, and some other variations.

Examples of larger Champagne houses who buy their grapes from many sources include Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon, Laurent-Perrier, G.H. Mumm and Louis Roederer.  They are easily found everywhere due to their large production.  Smaller grower-producers may be a little harder to find since their production is limited to the size of their own vineyard capacity.  However, they are worth seeking out – they may be family owned and operated, having been in the family for generations, their Champagne is made with soulfulness, passion and pride and although their price point may be lower than the large Champagne houses (all those marketing ads cost money), their quality can equal if not exceed for the price.

So, now the question is: how can you tell which is which?  There is a miniscule 2 letter abbreviation listed on every front label and here’s what they all mean (the first 3 are the most commonly seen):

  • NM (Négociant Manipulant) – A négociant buys grapes from other growers to use in making their wine.  They may also grow their own grapes, however, if most of the grapes they use are from other sources, they still are characterized as NV.
  • RM (Récoltant Manipulant)RM on the label means that this is a grower-producer that  produces its own Champagne from at least 95% of their own estate grapes.
  • CM (Coopérative Manipulant)CM signifies that a co-operative group of growers are producing the Champagne together under the brand on the label.
  • RC (Récoltant Coopérateur)RC indicates a grower whose Champagne is made at a co-operative, but sells the Champagne under their own label.
  • SR (Société de Récoltants) – Instead of co-operative, this is a family firm of growers making and marketing their Champagne under one label.  The grapes are sourced from the families’ vineyards.
  • ND (Négociant Distributeur) – A distributor who buys already-made, unlabeled Champagne and labels it themselves for distribution.
  • MA (Marque d’Acheter) – A Champagne produced exclusively for a buyer to put on their own label – ex. supermarket, restaurant, celebrity, etc.

HOW IS THE CHAMPAGNE MADE?

  • Méthode Champenoise – translation: Champagne Method.  This tells you how the Champagne is made, using a method that starts a second fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles.  This is one of the highest quality methods to produce a sparkling wine.  ALL Champagne must be made using this method.  You may also see the terms Méthode Traditionelle, Traditional Method or Classic Method – they are all the same method, however, only a Champagne should be using the term Méthode Champenoise.

WHAT TYPE OF GRAPES?

There are 7 grape varieties that are permitted to be used in making Champagne.  The 3 most commonly used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  The other 4 are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier.  Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the only red wine grapes, the rest are white.

  • Blanc de Blancs – translation: White from White (Grapes) – meaning only white grapes are permitted.  The most widely used white grape is Chardonnay, however, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier may also be in the blend.  Blanc de Blancs tend to be bright (with acidity), light (yet has a steely quality) and elegant.  The acidity is one of the factors that allows it to also be age-worthy, allowing the Champagne to mature with even more complex aromas and flavors.
  • Blanc de Noirs – translation: White from Black (Grapes) – meaning only red grapes are permitted: Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.  Blanc de Noirs tend to be bigger, weightier and bolder than Blanc de Blancs.
  • Rosé – The pink color of this Champagne may come from extended skin contact with red grapes or a small amount of red wine blended in before the second fermentation begins.  Don’t let the delicate color fool you, either the extended skin contact or addition of red wine will cause the Rosé Champagne to have more oomph (and possibly higher alcohol if red wine was added to the blend) than the non-rosé version.  However, they also typically have some beautiful red fruit aroma and flavor causing it to be both feminine and masculine all at once.
  • None of the above – The Champagne was made with a mix of white and red grape varieties.  Here the Champagne house and winemaker are able to produce a blend in the style that they want to express.

More to come on deciphering a Champagne label… non-vintage vs. vintage, dry / off-dry / sweet levels and rating designations (Grand Cru and Premier Cru)

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