Knowing how to read a Champagne label can help you make the right choice of Champagne for your next meal or for a gift during the holiday season. Here are 7 tips from our just published Report #34 Champagne Revisited
1. This may seem obvious, but the first thing to look for is the name Champagne, and the fact that it is produced in France. Although Champagne is a protected name throughout much of the world, some producers in the U.S. continue to use this designation. Anything produced in France, bearing the name Champagne will be the real thing. Not all producers, however, are equal, and not all Champagne is good.
2. Look for the name of certain producers. Our tasting guide will help you find the top producers. In general, the name of the producer, house, or grower is very important in selecting Champagne. The name Champagne itself is not a guarantee of quality, just authenticity. Learn who are the top producers in Champagne in Report #34 Champagne Revisited.
3. What is the sweetness level, or grade? Is the Champagne really dry, medium dry, or sweet? Look for terms such as Brut, Extra Dry/Zero Dosage, or Demi-Sec. Our chart in Annex I of Report #34 explains the range. The most popular styles in the U.S. are Brut, and Extra Dry (Extra Sec). Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux can be too sweet as aperitifs or with food other than dessert.
4. Is the wine vintage or non-vintage? If the label does not show a vintage year, the Champagne is a non-vintage. This simply means the Champagne has wine from at least two or more vintages. Almost all non-vintages contain at least 5-10% of a reserve wine from a previous vintage. The better non-vintages can have up to 50% reserve wine from 7 or 8 vintages going back 10-15 years. Non-Vintage Champagne was created to off set the difficulties and lack of ripeness during poor years. This is not to say, however, that NV Champagne is of a lesser quality than vintage Champagnes Some of the best Champagnes made are multi vintage wines that do not bear a vintage date. Vintage Champagne comes from a single year and by law it must be 100% from the year indicated.
5. The back label may tell you the grapes used for the Champagne. If not, it is probably a blend. Blanc de Blancs indicates it is all Chardonnay; Blanc de Noirs indicates it is only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
6. Look for initials at the bottom of the label to determine the type of producer that made the Champagne. A two letter initial, in front of a number, reveals a lot about who made the wine. Below are the initials of the major types of producers:
Producers or companies that buy grapes from growers, blend finished
wine and produce large quantities of
These are Growers who make and sell their own Champagne. They may buy and sell grapes. This includes many
artisan Champagne producers.
These growers pool their grapes and sell them to houses on behalf of their members. They also make and sell Champagne.
RC is a type of grower who sells Champagne and grapes to negotiants. The grower sells champagne under his own label but produces it at a cooperative.
7. See if the Champagne has the date of disgorgement on the back label. While it is not required (although it should be), not all producers put the date of disgorgement on the back label. This date may help you determine the condition of the Champagne. Some people prefer to drink Champagne as fresh as possible, while others like lots of bottle age. Some producers, such as Bollinger, produce recently disgorged vintage wines. Many artisan producers now provide the date of disgorgement on the back label.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler
International Wine Review