For most people, Champagne is a drink they pick for special occasions, and for the few who drink Champagne more regularly, it probably means that their whole life is a special one anyway! Whatever the reason is, it’s often associated with a day you’d like to remember, so you’d rather pick the right bottle for it. There are a few things on a Champagne label that will help you to differentiate an OK Champagne from an excellent one, and unlike what most people tend to think, it’s got nothing to do with the price tag…
For a start, you can relax about buying Champagne… Based on the very high minimum requirements of this small French appellation, we can assume that all Champagne are at least above average, if not good already. Some of them will reach perfection, others might seem a wee bit light in aromas for what you’d expect, but rarely would Champagne let you down, if ever…
Behind this capacity to always deliver, there is a complex set of rules that guarantee that only the best fruits end up in the bottle. For a full guide on the Champagne region, check out our “Wines from Europe” section, but if you don’t want to spend too much time reading and want to go straight to the point, here is the essential information you need to know when buying Champagne.
Cracking the Champagne Code…
From small families to big corporate wineries, Champagne has a wide range of producers and not all of them focus on the same thing. If making money always seems to be the ultimate goal of any entrepreneur, the quality of the produce itself isn’t always the main focus.
To make a difference between those who grow their grapes all year round and make wine from it, those who buy other people’s fruits to make wine & those who literally just stick their label on an existing bottle, a range of codes has been created, that is displayed on ANY bottle of Champagne. Look at the label closely, front or back, you will eventually see two letters followed by a serial number. The number is the producer’s registration number, the letters give you an idea of the type of producer it is:
NM for “Négociant Manipulant”: Translating into “Handling Merchant”, these are Houses that make wine (“handling”) from grapes and/or base wines they have purchased from other growers and other smaller houses (“merchant”). Most of the “Big Name” houses operate like that, in order to produce large quantities of Champagne, they need to buy fruits or base wine from other smaller growers. Cheap NM wines aren’t usually of a good quality, but big houses tend to buy the grapes at a higher price to make sure they get only the best!
RM for “Récoltant Manipulant”: which translates into “Handling Grower”. These are the small guys who look after everything, the champagne has been made by the grower himself, from his own estate-grown grapes.
CM for “Coopérative de Manipulants”: Pretty transparent, the word refers to small producers who joined their efforts through a co-op, in order to split the production costs and produce a Champagne UNDER A SINGLE BRAND.
RC for “Récoltant-Coopérateur”: Sometimes, while growers are part of a co-op, they still want to produce a Champagne of their own. That’s what these RC are about… Member-growers bring their grapes to be vinified in the co-op, but sold under the grower’s label. Quite often, growers will pick the best of their grapes to produce a Champagne of their own.
MA for « Marque d’Acheteur »: Meaning “Buyer’s Brand”. With that one, you don’t really know what you are getting… Often made for supermarket chains, these are wines that were bought once made, and then labelled by the buyer with his own brand.
How Sweet are You?
All Champagne & other sparkling wine labels display the sweetness level of the wine, which ranges from “Brut Nature” to “Doux” (very unusual in Champagne). And one thing we are lucky for within the EU, is that although we can’t find an agreement on many important stuff, we did agree on the terms we should use for describing the sweetness level of sparkling wines. Here is the common lexicon we use within the EU:
“Brut Nature” or “Non Dosé”: becoming more and more common, this is the DRIEST style of sparkling wine (as in not sweet) & Champagne. It contains between 0 and 3 grams of sugar per litre and more importantly, no sugar has been added after fermentation, with the liqueur de dosage (check out this post for more info).
Wines with less than 3 grams of residual sugar per litre can be labelled either as “Brut Nature”, “Non Dosé”, “Extra Brut” or “Brut”, the final choice is down to the producer.
Although most Champagne are dry (as in not sweet) and are rarely found in other categories, some houses still produce off-dry and semi-sweet styles. So, the classification doesn’t stop here, and the following part is where it really gets confusing:
Extra Dry: Even though they are called “Extra Dry”, which sounds like they aren’t sweet, these sparkling wines contain between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per litre. In the case of Champagne, grapes being produced in the most Northerly wine region of France can’t always reach full maturity on the vine (too cold and not sunny enough) and tend to keep a very high acidity. Sweetness being offset by acidity (click here for more info), they don’t necessarily feel sweet, even though they are. A lot of Prosecco are in that zone, without the acidity of Champagne, they can actually taste slightly sweet.
“Sec” or “Secco”: Which normally stands for “dry”, even though the wines aren’t… I told you it was gonna be complicated… These wines contain between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per litre, which is a lot, the mouthfeel is usually on the sweeter side…
“Demi-Sec” or “Semi-Secco”: It translates into « half dry », but a bit like the old question “is the glass half empty or half full”, it usually refers to the other half, the sweet one. These wines range between 32 & 50 grams of sugar per litre, they’re sweet! You can try a Clairette de Die Methode Ancestrale to see what it tastes like (minimum 35 g/l RS).
“Doux” or “Dulce” or “Amabile”: refers to the sweetest styles of sparkling wines, with over 50 grams per litre. The most famous example is probably Moscato d’Asti from Italy, and its fully sparkling counterpart, Asti Spumante, with sometimes up to 120 g/l RS.
That’s a couple of things that should help you to pick the right bottle in the shop. Enjoy your next glass of bubbles!
Certified Sommelier (CMS)