Choosing a bottle of Champagne might be difficult if you aren’t sure what to look for. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are shopping at a small boutique wine shop, someone there would be delighted to help you and will probably know way more than what is listed on the label, such as fun facts about the winemaker, disgorgement dates, and how to pair with food.
However, there is ton’s of information right on the label and we are here to help you decode. Here are some tips to help you know more about what’s in the bottle just by looking at the label(s). Let’s break it down!
All Champagne is sparkling wine, but all sparkling wine is not Champagne.
Even though bubbles are made all over the world, true Champagne is only made in France and a bottle must be labeled as such. If you see the word “Champagne” on the label you know it is the real deal. Many folks generally refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne, but non! that’s not correct! If this is the only thing you know about Champagne then kudos to you—you are ahead of the rest.
In order for a winemaker to print “Champagne,” on their label, their bubbles must be produced in Champagne France. This signifies that the wine in the bottle was created by a house that abides by the strict rules and regulations outlined by the laws of the Champagne wine region. Aka, it’s real quality stuff.
At fatcork this will be easy. You won’t find any bottle here without seeing “Champagne” on the label.
2.) The Producer or Champagne House
Look for the name of the Champagne house. You’ll find that this is usually the largest text on the label - front and center as you will see for Moet & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot.
With grower Champagne, hyphenated names such as Didier-Ducos commonly indicate the merging of two families and vineyards. For example, Didier is the last name of winemaker, Nicholas’ grandfather and Ducos is the last name of his grandmother.
3.) The Village
On the front label, the village is usually posted somewhere at the bottom, below the producer and the cuvée name. You can also typically find the address of the producer on the back label down to their street address! Très cool.
Sometimes winemaker’s even name their cuvées based on their location, such as Levasseur’s Rue du Sorbier. This is the street where David Levasseur and his family have lived and produced wines for generations.
Knowing the specific village may seem like minutiae. However, it is important because it zooms in on a sense of place, and can help tell you a lot about what style to expect.
For example, David Levasseur’s cuvées are all printed with “à Cuchery”. With a quick google search, you will see that the village of Cuchery is in the Vallée de la Marne sub region, known for soils rich in clay, chalk and limestone soil and their production of pinot meunier. That means that you can probably expect these cuvées to be pinot meunier dominant with lots of ripe fruit notes.
Sometimes there is a name of a cuvée given by the winemaker that is of some kind of personal significance. Other times there is no cuvée name, but just additional information about the style.
- Premier vs. Grand Cru - a mark of quality designated by grapes grown in certain prestigious villages. Grand Cru is considered to be the best tier, and premier cru is the second best tier of Champagne. More here.
- Prestige - means that the winemaker considers this to be their top wine or an exceptional cuvée either due to the vintage, because it’s from a specific plot, old vines, particularly well-exposed slopes etc.
- Réserve - this means that some or all of the wine in the cuvée has been aged or stored from previous harvests, and are usually found in NV cuvées. Réserve wine helps to enhance finesse and complexity in a blend.
- Millésime - French for vintage, meaning that all the wine in this cuvée must be harvested from a single year. Winemakers only deem a cuvee a millésime when it is an exceptionally good vintage. These bubs need to rest and mature for at least three years in the cellars before it can be enjoyed. Vintage cuvees tend to have well integrated flavors, and delicate finesse.
- NV - an abbreviation for non-vintage. You will see this on the label if the Champagne is a blend of grapes from different harvests during different years. Sometimes NV is not listed at all. Non-vintage bubbles have to age for at least 15 months and fruit flavors are a bit more expressive than their vintage counterparts.
- Blancs de Blancs - “white of whites” in French, meaning Champagne that is made of 100% chardonnay.
- Blanc de Noirs - bubbles that are exclusively pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
- Rosé - you can expect the bubbles to be pink in color from one of two techniques during the winemaking process. Color is imparted from the skins of red grapes or from blending red still wine and white still wine together before fermentation.
5. Dry vs. Sweet - Dosage
Although you wont find dosage specifically on the label as dosage. It is listed by name; brut nature, brut, etc, which suggests the level of sugar based on that category.
Dosage is what we like to think of as the seasoning. Each wine has a certain amount of natural sugar from the grapes, but in Champagne, dosage is added at the last step of the winemaking process to balance out flavors in a wine. The spectrum of dry vs sweet begins at super dry; 0 g/l, sometimes called brut nature or brut zero, to the sweetest, 50g/l “doux.”
All fatcork Champagne dry and is in the Brut umbrella, 0-12 g/l. Most of our cuvées fall below 7 g/l.
6.) Type of Producer
How do you know who makes the Champagne? Is it a large Maison, a grower producer or something in between?
It’s all in the small letters. All labels will have two small letters that indicate the type of producer. There are seven types of possible producers. These two small letters are sometimes found on the front label, and sometimes on the back label. For fatcork cuvées it is most often on the back label and will be part of the registration number. In the case that it is a grower producer, they typically also write something like famille de vignerons, family of winemakers, or Artisan vigneron on the front label.
Aka big houses or large Champagne houses that are the most recognized producers of Champagne. You’ve probably heard of Veuve Clicquot, Dom Pérignon, Bollinger? Yah, these guys.
Larger houses tend to blend for consistency. Most of their cuvées are made the same each time, so when you open a bottle it tastes relatively the same each time. Maisons source their grapes from all over Champagne from the smaller growers and they sometimes grow some of the grapes themselves. Maisons account for 87% of Champagne imported to the US.
- ND (Négociant-Distributeur) is a company that sells a finished Champagne that they did not produce or grow themselves.
- NM (Négociant Manipulant) is a house that buys all or some of their grapes from other growers. Anything less than 94% estate fruit must be labeled NM.
MA (Marque d’Archeteur) is “A brand of the buyer” and is a finished Champagne that is bought by a larger retailer that sells it under their name.
The folks who grow the grapes also make the wine. These bubbles are terroir specific, are a bit more niche, and sometimes harder to find. They happen to be our specialty at fatcork!
- RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) refers to small family run grower-producers who are make bubbles that are made of grapes 100% from their own vineyards.
- SR (Société de Récoltants) when two or more growers share a common production site. Some winemakers often don’t have room or the resources to have all their own equipment and it is more ecological to share resources.
- RC (Récoltant-Coopérateur) is a grower that has a coop make their Champagne for them from the grapes that they grow.
Champagne brands, usually of a particular village, who pool resources to make their bubbles so they don’t have to have all of their own equipment. There is a chief winemaker that makes all the Champagne.
CM (Coopérative-Manipulant) are groups of winemakers that pool their grapes and together at one production facility to make Champagne. They then can sell it respectively under their own names.
7.) Bottle Size
The size will be apparent in person, and will be listed on the label, but if you are shopping online here is what to look for.
375mL = half bottle, or a little more than two 5 oz. glasses.
750 mL = standard/regular sized bottle a regular, or 5, 5 oz. pours.
1.5L = A magnum is the size of 2 standard/regular bottles, or 10, 5 oz. pours. Great for larger groups. Woohoo!
3L = Jeroboam is the size of two magnums or four standard/regular sized bottles; 20, 5oz pours. Yowza! Great for a party!
More about large format bottles here.
8.) The Back Label
At fatcork, and many bottles of Champagne you will find at restaurants will have information about the importer and or the distributor - who imports and distributes these beautiful bubbles for your enjoyment.
Other times, if you are in France and buying directly from the producer, the back label will most likely include facts about the wine, and or a story of the producer as well as any other facts they feel like adding or are required by law.
Phew, that’s a lot of information, but now you are armed with everything you need to pick out the perfect bottle of Champagne. Also remember, never be afraid to ask questions, it’s all in the never ending process of learning. Happy choosing!