Insider Wine Secrets: How to Read Champagne Wine Labels
Have you ever looked at the label on a Champagne bottle? Or do you just grab a bottle, take it home, and drink it?
Yes, the wine tastes good even though you don’t understand the label.
BUT . . .
You can increase your Champagne drinking pleasure by knowing how to read the labels. And once you do, you’ll know what to look for to get the quality and experience you want, at the price you want to pay.
Our motto: Drink better Champagne and drink Champagne better!
What to Look For on the Champagne Label
(For those interested in the sticky details, jump to the legal label requirements.)
Let’s start with Appellation.
If it doesn’t say Champagne, it isn’t from the Champagne region of France. Yes, California has a few grandfathered wineries using the term California Champagne, but your drinking experience won’t be enhanced buying these.
You may not care about a brand (Cristal), a producer (Roederer), or a location (Montagne de Reims,) but understanding these indicators helps when buying Champagne.
Most large Champagne houses and global brands have long-standing reputations to protect. You can be confident of the quality when buying these wines.
Choosing a wine from a region, such as Reims or Épernay, can indicate the style of wine: Pinot Noir thrives in Montagne de Reims, where Chardonnay prefers the Côte des Blancs.
Grape Varieties & Styles
Think about the type or grape variety of wines you like.
Most Champagnes are blended from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. If you like Chardonnay, you might like Blanc de Blancs Champagne. If you prefer Pinot Noir, go for Blanc de Noirs.
Champagne producers use two methods to produce Rosé:
- Blending some red wine into white wine. Producers have more control using this process.
- In the saignée method, the color comes from skin maceration. Look for a careful winemaker with this method.
For rosé, you won’t see the production method on the label. You may or may not see grape variety. If you want to know, you have to ask.
Have a Sweet Tooth? Avoiding Sugar?
Another consideration in determining what you like is the sweetness level, which ranges from very dry to very sweet. You will find these designations on the label.
- Brut Nature – no dosage added, no sugar. DRY, DRY, DRY
- Extra Brut – up to 6 grams/liter residual sugar (g/l RS), still very dry
- Brut – up to 12 g/l RS, the standard for most Champagne
- Extra-Dry - 12 to 20 g/l RS
- Dry – 20 to 32 g/l RS
- Demi-Sec – 32 to 50 g/l RS
- Doux – over 50 g/l RS
People drank Doux during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, Brut is the largest seller.
Non-Vintage vs. Vintage
Non-vintage (NV) makes up most of the Champagne sold around the world. Non-vintage means the wine is blended from several years of vintages, including the current one.
Because most Champagne houses strive to maintain a house-style for their NV wines, they use 2-3 years of “reserve” or older wines in their NV blends. Some, like Charles Heidsieck, use up to 20 years.
Because vintages can vary radically from year to year in Champagne, winemakers blend wines from several years to smooth out significant impacts.
A vintage designation means the grapes must come from only one year. A producer’s top wines tend to be vintage wines from extraordinary years. French law requires longer aging, and because producers can only use grapes from one year, supply is limited.
Vintage wines tend to be more expensive.
The Insider Code to Champagne Wine Labels
The Producer category designation offers information about the people who make the wines. It’s like an insider code. Look for the letters.
- NM = Négociant-Manipulant. Indicates producers who buy grapes, but don’t grow them. Most large Champagne houses have NM designations. Be careful when buying from unknown producers. Quality can vary widely.
- RM = Récoltant Manipulant. Also known as grower Champagne. Made by growers from their estate vineyards. You’ll find intriguing wines and good value, but quality can vary widely.
Cooperatives play a huge role in Champagne. Most of the wine produced by co-ops is sold to négociants.
- CM = Coopérative de Manipulation. Wines are made from the vineyards of the co-op’s members and sold under the co-op’s name. (example: Mailly Grand Cru, Jacquart.)
- RC = Récoltant-Coopérateur. Wines are made from co-op vineyards but sold under the names of individual members.
Lesser known and used designations.
- SR = Société de Récoltants. A group of winegrowers from the same family working together to produce and market their wines.
- ND = Négociant Distributeur. A négociant who buys finished wine which sells under the négociants label.
- MA = Marque d’Acheteur. Private label/store brands.
A New Label Trend
A new trend is to include the disgorgement date on the label.
Recently disgorged Champagne (Récemment Dégorgé, RD) began with Bollinger. In 1967, they released Grande Année, disgorging it after long aging on the lees.
By disgorging after long aging, producers can allow wines to develop more complexity, then release them in perfect condition.
The disgorgement date would be listed on the back of the bottle, but most producers don’t disclose it.
Another Term to Know
Mise en cave (M.e.C.): started with the Champagne house, Charles Heidsieck. It indicates the year of bottling for the second fermentation.
Subtracting the M.e.C. date from the disgorgement date tells you how long the wine has been aging on the lees.
Champagne Wine Label Expert - You
Congratulations! You now have more knowledge about Champagne than most people, including some self-proclaimed experts.
But if you haven’t tasted a lot of Champagne, it’s best to talk to someone who has.
Because Champagne comes in so many variations, there is a Champagne for everyone. Finding the ones you like is the hard part. It takes time and money.
Look for a good local or online wine retailer who knows Champagne well to guide you.
A Note for the Curious
On April 1, 2020, April Fool’s Day, the producers of Faire La Fête Crémant de Limoux, issued a press release:
France Lifts EU Law for Champagne Wine Labeling Regulation and Concedes Credit to Limoux France as Original Creators of Sparkling Wine
Tongue in cheek or deliberate provocation? Perhaps both.
The truth is Limoux produced the first sparkling wines, 100 years before Champagne, in 1531.
Drink better Champagne and drink Champagne better!
But not only Champagne.
Try sparkling wines from everywhere. Most regions in France produce sparkling wines including Crémant d ‘Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Blanquette de Limoux, and sparkling wines from the Loire Valley.
Outside France, Prosecco is a huge hit, but try Cava from Spain, the Trentodoc sparkling wines from Italy, California sparkling wines, sparkling wines from England, and the Méthod Cap Classique (MCC) wines from South Africa.
You’ll define your palate by tasting a wide range of Champagnes and sparkling wines.
Champagne Wine Label Legal Requirements
For those interested in the sticky details, here are the legal label requirements in France. US legal requirements are designated by (US).
- Appellation: designation of origin, in this case, Champagne (US)
- Vintage or non-vintage designation: year or “NV”
- Type of wine: Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, etc. (US)
- Sweetness level: indication of style
- From Brut Nature to Sec/Doux
- Brand name (US)
- Producer name, location, and address (US)
- Country of Origin: in this case, France (US)
- Percentage of alcohol by volume (% vol) (US)
- Weight/contents: using metric measures (liters, centiliters, milliliters) (US w/US measures)
- Health warning: for pregnancy in France (US pregnancy/impairment)
- Producer category:
- Category initials: NM, RM, CM, RC, SR, ND, MA
- Comité Champagne issued registration and code number: appended to the category initials
- Batch code: for traceability, could be anywhere on the bottle
- Ingredients and amounts considered allergens: could be on the back label (US – sulfite only declaration)
- Green Dot symbol: packaging waste management
Producers can add other information as desired. Some of what you might see:
- grape varieties
- tasting descriptors
- sustainable/organic/biodynamic indications
- estate-bottled designations
- food pairings
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