Champagne, in all its celebratory glory, is the de facto way to mark the new year. Hailing from the Champagne region in France, this classic tipple is used to mark momentous occasions — new ships are actually christened by smashing a bottle of Champagne against their sides.
While sparkling wine is made all over the world, it’s this classic French fizz that captures our attention when the clock strikes midnight. But labels can be mysterious. Why do some bottles have a vintage while others don’t? What does that tiny “RM” mean? How is brut different from extra brut? Here, experts help us decode labels so you can pick a better bottle of Champagne for the holiday season.
Why can’t I find a vintage on most bottles?
Unlike still wines, the majority of Champagne bottles don’t note a vintage year. “NV” — non-vintage — is a more common sight.
“Due to Champagne’s northerly latitude and cool climate, the blending of different vintages has been a way to guarantee consistency of quality,” said Peter Liem of ChampagneGuide.net. “Today the warmer climate assures more consistent ripeness, but what the Champenois have found over the years (centuries, really) is that blending can also result in a wine of greater complexity and character.”
However, in what are deemed exceptional years, winemakers will choose to declare the vintage — aka the millésime — and put it on the label.
What’s the difference between premier cru and grand cru?
Originally, an old system called échelle des crus ranked the 320 villages in the Champagne region based on the quality of their grapes as a way to determine the fruit’s price. Seventeen villages were rated as what is now known as “grand cru” and 42 earned the lesser “premier cru” status.
“Think of premier cru as the gold to grand cru’s platinum,” said Blaine Ashley, bubbly brand consultant and founder of The Fizz Is Female. However, Liem noted, “within each village there are exceptional parcels and mediocre ones, and top parcels in a premier cru village are certainly of better quality than lousy ones in a grand cru village.” So, differences in quality can be negligible.
So then what is prestige cuvée?
Although not an official term, “it’s literally the top Champagne a house produces. It’s their best wine,” Ashley said.
What makes extra brut so much more extra than regular brut?
Beyond different markers for quality, Champagne is classified by the varying levels of dosage — sugar — that are added to the wine after disgorgement (more on that below).
While sweetness does vary, “dosage is the most widely misunderstood element of Champagne,” Liem explained. “It’s commonly said that dosage balances Champagne’s high acidity, which is true. But the real function of dosage is to expand and complete the flavors in a Champagne. Think of dosage like salt: When we use salt, it’s not necessarily to make a dish overtly salty but rather to enhance and elaborate other components and flavors.”
Dosage categories are as follows:
- brut nature (also seen as brut zero or non-dosé): no added sugar, maximum of 3 grams of sugar left over from fermentation
- extra brut: 0-6 grams of sugar per liter
- brut: 0-12 grams of sugar per liter
- extra dry: 12-17 grams of sugar per liter
- sec (or dry): 17-32 grams of sugar per liter
- demi-sec: 32-50 grams of sugar per liter
- doux: 50-plus grams of sugar per liter
What is a disgorgement date? Does it matter when buying Champagne?
“Disgorgement is the process of removing the lees, or dead yeast cells, left over from the second fermentation in the bottle that produces Champagne’s sparkle,” Liem said. “This is done just a few months before the wine is shipped. For most wine consumers, the date of disgorgement really doesn’t matter. The majority of Champagne is drunk young, upon release, and the disgorgement date only matters if you are putting a bottle down in your cellar for further aging.”
How does blanc de blancs differ from blanc de noir?
Blanc de blancs is a wine made with white grapes, which in Champagne, nearly always means chardonnay. At the other end of the spectrum is blanc de noir, which is made with red grapes — pinot noir, pinot meunier or a blend of both. Stylistically, blanc de blancs has “pronounced acidity and a certain finesse and silkiness of texture” with “citrus, stone fruits, orchard fruits or even tropical fruit in warmer areas,” Liem said. Blanc de noir, on the other hand, can be a little fuller bodied and showcase “more berry fruits, especially for pinot noir, whereas pinot meunier can have more funky mushroom or floral notes,” Ashley explained.
What do “NM” and RM” mean?
These itty-bitty letters are actually at the epicenter of a big debate among wine professionals. NM stands for negociant-manipulant, which means a house purchases grapes from growers for their wines (they may own vineyards as well). RM, on the other hand, stands for récoltant-manipulant, which means that the house produces wine from grapes it grows itself.
Some professionals, like Ashley, feel the quality is higher for RM wines. “I hate to say it, but the quality far exceeds when it’s an RM because it’s the literal grower of the grapes making Champagne; it’s not being blended with grapes from their neighbor that may be of lesser value.”
Liem, on the other hand, vehemently disagrees. “Honestly, there is too much attention paid to these codes, and what’s more important is the quality of a particular producer,” he argued. “Not all houses are big, and not all growers are good. A trend today, too, is that many of the best growers are becoming NM in order to purchase grapes ― vineyard land in Champagne has become difficult to obtain and prohibitively expensive, and purchasing grapes is another way to expand your business.”
Experts ultimately agree that the best way to find a good bottle of wine is to learn about different producers and their styles through trial and tasting. Now that’s a resolution worth keeping.