Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Champagne the Most Famous Sparkling Wine in the World. Reading the Label and Choosing Your Sweetness Preferences.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated June 2019

Weddings, Graduation, a New Job, New Year’s Eve, Anniversaries, the Cup Final,  and the NASCAR Winners Circle;  those and a myriad other reasons will bring Champagne to the celebration. This post tells the Champagne story along with what the dates and initials on a Champagne bottle's label mean. Then there is more about Champagne on French menus, and most importantly: choosing the Champagne that meets your sweetness preferences and budget.
Before Champagne New Year’s Eve parties were never like this.

The Champagne story.
Champagne began with a Benedictine monk named Dom (Brother) Pérignon (1639-1715); the cellar master at the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers in the old French province of Champagne.
The Champagne area

According to tradition, Dom Perignon was checking wines that had already been fermented in barrels and transferred to bottles. Then, to Dom Pérignon’s surprise, the wine started fermenting all over again in the bottles; it had failed to complete the full fermentation before being bottled. 

Now with fermentation taking place a second time inside the bottles, they began exploding or firing off their corks. Dom Perignon could do nothing to stop this, and so he kept out of the way until peace had returned. Then when Dom Perignon and his fellow monks opened the remaining bottles, they were greeted by a new and unique sparkling wine. These monks were the first in the world to taste Champagne.
Bottle of Moët et Chandon Champagne on ice.
As the Abbey's cellar master Dom Perignon had years of experience, he immediately realized that during the second fermentation, carbon dioxide had been trapped within the wine and that created the bubbles. Dom Perignon was also responsible for selling the Abbey's wines, and he realized that he was onto something big. Though how big it would become, he never could have imagined. Moreover, in the 1600s, bottles were costly as they were all hand-blown with nearly all the different wines being delivered in barrels.

Only the wealthy could afford wines in glass bottles. Nevertheless, Dom Perignon realized that his most affluent customers would be ready to pay for this new wine, and thicker glass bottles were brought, and Dom Perignon's brother monks repeated the original accidental process.  The thicker glass bottles solved part of the problem, and finally, to prevent the corks from flying off, Dom Perignon used a specially shaped cork that was tied to the bottle with string. (The string would later become metal and is called a muselet). 

The moral of this story.

Drinking enough Champagne and sweeping enough floors covered in glass and swimming in bubbly wine is the mother of invention.
Choosing the sweetness, or dryness,
of Champagnes and other sparkling wines.
During the second fermentation wine escapes and must be replaced. Topping up the bottle is called the dosage, and to replace the wine lost a limited mixture of white wine, and sugar may be added. That addition is carefully adjusted to control the alcohol level and sweetness of the wine in the bottle. The bottle is then corked and wired down, only then may it be sent off to market or the cellars for aging.

Champagnes can be ordered in five degrees of sweetness:

Most other sparkling wines, around the world and other French sparkling, and  ciders have copied the terminology used for the sweetness grades of Champagne.

To order your bottle of Champagne or other sparkling wine use the terms on the list below. Read carefully before ordering.

Brut Nature or Brut Zero - A very, very dry Champagne, a wine that is as dry as a piece of slate. For this Champagne, during the dosage, the filling up of the bottle, no sugar will be added. Despite being reminded by certain Champagne aficionados that it is wonderful, one Champagne glass was enough for me. I leave these bottles for others who know more than I do. Naturally less than three grams of sugar per liter,

Ultra Brut This is a very dry Champagne, a Champagne with a delightful bone dry taste. I think that "Ultra-Brut Champagne," along with the "Brut Champagne" listed below, shows the best in Champagne. From zero to 6 grams of sugar per liter.      

Brut – A dry, Champagne. Not as dry as the ultra-brut, but for many considered the best for sparkling wines; this is an enjoyable dry wine. From my experience, other French sparkling wines like the Crémants or the Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco are also at their best with a Brut bubbly wine in the bottle. That's certainly true if you are using Champagne or Prosecco with Aperol or possibly a Kir Royale. Less than 12 grams of sugar per liter

Extra-dry - Despite the name extra-dry is sweeter than brut (dry). More than 12-17 grams of sugar per liter.                     

Sec - Sec means dry, and while that is true for still wines; in a Champagne (or another sparkling wine), it is not dry! A Champagne or other sparkling wine with "sec" on the label will be slightly sweet. If you usually prefer white or rose wine "demi-sec" that is semi-dry (or semi-sweet) and are looking for a similar degree of sweetness in a Champagne, choose "sec." More than 17-32 grams of sugar per liter.

Champagne and caviar

Demi-sec or Demi-sec – With regular wines, this means semi-dry; but in Champagne or another sparkling wine, a demi-sec or semi-sec will be a very sweet sparkling wine. A "demi-sec" Champagne will be as sweet as the sweetest dessert wines!    More than 32-50 grams of sugar per liter       

Doux -  A sickly sweet dessert Champagne or sparkling wine. When I tasted a "Champagne Doux," it was like drinking Champagne flavored with liquid sugar. More than 50 grams of sugar per liter.

These conflicting labeling terms confuse us all, but there's no one around to hang the blame on. If you want a somewhat sweet Champagne then, you must order it "sec," dry. Confusing as this may be, remember with Champagne and many other names from our inherited history is that tradition is tradition, and the confusing names will not be changed.

Non-Vintage Champagnes

An enjoyable non-vintage Champagne is what most of us buy for a celebration. These Champagnes have no year on the label, but the producers, the Champagne Houses' cellar masters, work to make the taste and smell consistent over many years. Customers of well-known Champagne Houses may choose a Champagne with the same taste and smell from year to year.

N.B. When you see a Champagne bottle with no year on the label, that is a non-vintage Champagne. When a Champagne comes from a selected year then that year will also be on the cork.

Millésimes - Vintage Champagnes

In the world of Champagne, most years are good years, but they are not great years. Only great Champagne years will have the year on the label and the cork.  Then, when the rain, the sun, the humidity, a particular vineyard, and the winter all work together they produce grapes that make a clearly distinct wine and a millésime, a vintage year will be declared. The Champagne of that particular year will be good enough to remember, and the cognoscenti do compare and write about the different vintage years.  As may be expected, vintage Champagnes cost more than non-vintage Champagnes and the best vintages cost a lot more.  At home, you may find wine tasting courses that specialize in Champagnes, and when traveling in the Champagne region of France, you may join a one-day or half-day Champagne appreciation course.

N.B. A vintage Champagne will have the year on the label and the cork.

Cuvee Champagnes

Champagne Cuvees are right up there among the best of the very best; they are made using the first pressing of the grapes alone. Among Champagne mavens, a "Cuvee Millésime," a Cuvee vintage from a reputable Champagne House's best years will be close to the nectar of the gods. 

Grand Crus and Premier Crus.
Grand Crus and Premier Crus are names that apply to the grapes grown in specific vineyards, those words are not describing age.  Only 61 villages among the Champagne region's 319 villages are entitled to the Premier Cru or Grand Cru designations. The soil, place in the sun, and other indefinable forces of nature have shown the Champagne world that grapes from these vineyards will make the finest Champagnes. 

Then, to retain the value of the house's name, there are rare but occasional changes:

Grand Cru or Premier Cru may be found on the label of a bottle of Non -Vintage, Vintage and Cuvee Champagnes.  Those two crus indicate the higher value of the grapes produced in those vineyards.

A "Cuvee Millesime Grand Cru" will be regarded as the very best that the Champagne House, who made it can offer, that coupled with a particularly great year, will not be inexpensive!

Réserve, Extra Reserve, Limited Edition, Grande Annee, and similar labels.

Caveat emptor: Réserve, Extra Réserve. Limited Edition, Grande Annee, and similar labels are names created in the marketing department of the different Champagne houses. They are their own opinions.

Using a book to buy Champagne

Read one of the many excellent books written by the Champagne experts and take a Champagne tasting course.  When visiting France, take a pocketbook on wine and champagne with you; without some direction, you're wasting a great opportunity to enjoy the best that your budget can buy. 
A 2005 Grand Cru “Brut”Champagne
Champagne on French menus:

Granité de Fraises au Champagne -  A granité is the French version of an Italian granite.  Like the Italian original, a granité is usually made with sugar, fruit, and water and served with crushed ice, but here the water has been replaced by Champagne and strawberries.  Fantastic on a hot day.  Many guide books translate a French granité as sludge, which the aperitif noted above definitely IS NOT. The granité above will be a delicious aperitif made with strawberries, Champagne, and crushed ice.
Filet de la Pintade Avec une Sauce au Champagne – Breast of Guinea fowl served in a Champagne flavored sauce.
Huîtres Gratinées au Champagne Oysters prepared with Champagne and browned under the grill before serving.
Les Médaillons de Lotte aux Petits Légumes au Champagne Round cuts from the tail of a monkfish served with young vegetables and cooked in Champagne. Monkfish is one of the tastiest saltwater fish with a firm texture and in the top ten popularity stakes in French fish restaurants. 
Magret de Canard au Champagne – Duck breast cooked in Champagne.
Back to Champagne in the bottle
The grapes that make Champagne.
Most Champagnes today are blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes, though seven different grapes are permitted. When wine is made with a single white wine grape, most often that will be a Chardonnay, then the Champagne is called a "Blanc de Blanc;" in English that translates as a white wine from white grapes.
Another label may read "Blanc de Noir," that's white wines from black grapes.  Blanc de Noir Champagnes are most often made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes either used together or separately.

Other grapes go back to earlier times, and they refer to different Champagne traditions, they use Arbane, Petit  Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris grapes. When a Champagne house makes a Champagne using a traditional grape it will offer a different taste that may be closer to the taste of Champagne from 50 or even 100 years ago. You may be sure that when these different Champagnes are advertised, the Champagne cognoscenti will be placing their orders.
A “Quaffing” Champagne.

When you enjoy a Champagne at a large celebration that will be a non-vintage Champagne, easily identified as there will be no year on the label.  Then, if it was good, make a note of the Champagne House and at your next home party, that’s the Champagne to choose. It will be enjoyable, not too expensive, and “quaffable,” meaning easy on the palate and the wallet.  When you want a Champagne to savor chose a vintage you know or is in the book. Look carefully at deep discounted Champagnes in the supermarket, they may have a year and an attractive label, but if it were a really good deal the Champagne mavens would have got there long before. In Champagne, like the rest of the world, there is no free lunch.
The Champagne Houses (The Producers)
There are approximately 15,000 vineyard owners in the Champagne growing areas; nevertheless, nearly 70% of the Champagne produced is made by the large Champagne Houses.  Vineyard owners may either sell their grapes to a large Champagne House, produce Champagne themselves or join with others and make Champagne through a cooperatively owned venture. Many growers will have tried their hand with all of these options.  Among the 15,000 vineyard owners, 5,000 also produce a finished Champagne under their own name or sell it to wholesalers who put their name on the bottle. That’s a lot of different Champagnes to choose from and to begin testing I suggest a three-month trip to Champagne land; then in over 90 days and nights from breakfast through dinner you may experience the best that Champagne has to offer.
The home of Maison Veuve Clicquot

Deciphering Champagne labels
Deciphering Champagne labels
Deciphering Champagne labels

The labels on Champagne bottles begin with the name of the producer; that may be a great Champagne House, an artisanal producer, a wholesaler who put his name on the bottle, or even your local supermarket that bought the bottled wine and sells it to you directly.  If you wish, some producers will sell you bottles with your name on the label.  Finally, back home there are champagne importers that offer private labels when buying two bottles or more. These labels will not be in the book!

Apart from the name, there is a great deal of information on the labels:
The year:  Only for vintage Champagnes. If the label has no year then the Champagne is a non-vintage.
Storing your favorite Champagne vintage?

The title for special wines:  Premier Crû or Grand Cru for a Champagne made with the top-rated grapes. A Special Cuvee with the year on the label means that not only did the grapes come from these special vineyards but the wine produced by them is also very special. N.B. Many Special Vintage Cuvees are considered superior to Premiers Crus.

The percentage of alcohol: 12% - 14%.

The volume of wine:  A standard bottle is 75cl
A Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin label
The arrow points at the two-letter code, in this case, RM.
For the RM look down the following list.
The two-letter codes:  
These codes are printed in very small print, usually on the lower left or lower right-hand side of the label; they indicate who really is behind the production of the Champagne.
CM: Coopérative de Manipulation. A co-operative which makes and sells wine from grapes grown by its members.
ND:   Négociant Distributeur. - A wholesaler who buys finished wines and sells those Champagnes under his or her own label. 

NM: Negociant-Manipulan – A Champagne producer who buys grapes and makes Champagne.
MA  Marque d’Acheteur – A Champagne sold with the buyer’s name, not the producer’s name.

RC: Recoltant-Cooperative – A wine made with grapes from a single grower, but blended and bottled for him at a co-operative; then sold under the grower’s own brand.

RM: Recoltant-Manipulant: Growers, who make and sell their own Champagne. They may also sell and or buy grapes from other growers.  

Gaston-Chiquet Champagne label.
SR  Société de Récoltants - A company set up to make Champagne from a number of vineyards that the company owns. A Société de Récoltants may also buy grapes from outside their own vineyards.
Champagne Glasses

Avoid horrifying the locals by using the wrong word for a Champagne glass!!!

 A Champagne glass in French is never a verre, a glass; rather there are two styles of  Champagne glasses that will be used when you are served  Champagne.

If the Champagne glass used is bowl-shaped  and it is called a coupe.
A Champagne coupe.
 If the Champagne glass used has a long thin shape or a slightly bulging tulip shape then it is called a flute.
Champagne flutes
Pink Champagne
Pink Champagne became popular ten or fifteen years ago or so, and is up there with Nouveau Beaujolais.  Congratulations are due to the marketing departments not to the grapes or the wineries' cellar masters. Pink Champagne is much the same as white Champagne and only receives its color by adding a small amount of red wine; you could make your own pink Champagne at home! The Champagne region of France is the only AOC/AOP wine-producing region in France allowed to mix white wine with red wine to give it its rosé color. Try that with any other wine elsewhere, and you'd get kicked out of France. The red wine used is usually a Pinot Noir.
Pink Champagne (Rosé) from the House of  Veuve Cliquot.
Photograph by courtesy of by Wesley Vieira Fonseca.
The Champagne method
and using the name méthode champenoise.
OOther excellent sparkling wines use the méthode champenoise, the Champagne method. However, the European Union bureaucrats have forbidden all Europeans to use the words méthode champenoise outside the area of Champagne, even when the process of production and the grapes used are exactly the same. The Champagne method is now called, outside of Champagne, the méthode traditionnelle. With one or two exceptions, the best sparkling wines are made with the méthode traditionnelle; then, with whatever grapes are chosen, they have a second fermentation within the bottle, precisely the same process that gives the sparkle to Champagne. Excellent sparkling wines may be made the same way all over the world. They may be made in France like the Crémants, in Spain like Cave, in Italy like Prosecco. Then in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, to the horror of the French, they sell many of their sparkling wines using the name Champagne.
Still wines from the Champagne growing areas.
There are still wines made in the Champagne growing areas. When you are in the area and have had enough sparkling wine, try the reds, roses, and whites from the Coteaux Champenois AOP wines.
Champagne Bottles.
Champagne bottles or copies of the Champagne type bottle are recognizable on sight; their official sizes begin from minuscule and reach to enormous.
Un Quart or a Quart Bouteille - A quarter bottle; the smallest Champagne bottle made, and it is only used in France for Champagne. The contents are one-quarter of a standard 750 ml bottle; that is 187.5 ml.

DemiBouteille - A half bottle 375ml

Bouteille – A standard bottle 750 ml
Magnum – Not a gun; instead, a double-sized bottle with the same name. Magnum bottles are made in different shapes for Bordeaux wines and Champagne. Magnum bottles contain 1.5 liters (2.6 UK pints or 3.17 USA pints). quotes Michel Drappier, a leading Champagne producer, as saying he has no doubt in his mind that the magnum is the ideal size; it has more finesse and less oxidation and shows more freshness. The proportion of oxygen that gets into the bottle during disgorgement is half that compared to a standard bottle.
Why size matters.
Jéroboam – Jeroboam; there are three differently shaped Jeroboam bottles. One Jeroboam is for Champagne, another for Port and yet another for Burgundy; they all hold the same 3.1 liters like the Bordeaux wine bottle that is called a  Marie-Jeanne. However, to complicate matters, a Jéroboam is also the name used for a 4.5-liter, a 6 bottle size used for Bordeaux wines. I have no idea why the same name is used for different sizes, and after checking around, it appears that no one seems to care too much either.

The name Jéroboam comes from the Old Testament. Then Jeroboam, a local revolutionary, became King of Israel after the Kingdom of Israel split into two in the 10th Century BCE. The division followed the death of King Solomon and created The Kingdom of Judah led by Rehoboam with two of the twelve tribes in the South and Jeroboam, King of Israel, with the other ten tribes in the North. At that time, wine, (though not Champagne), was plentiful, but the information on the standard amphora size that King Jeroboam preferred is scanty. Nevertheless, the website gives the dimensions of Roman amphoras at about 26.2 liters (27.70 USA quarts or 46 UK pints).
Melchizédech  - The largest bottle in commercial production.  The Melchizedek holds the contents of 40 regular bottles that a total of 30 liters. This bottle is a relatively new addition to the world of giant Champagne bottles; however, do not try and pick one up unprepared; Including the glass, a full Melchizedek bottle of Champagne will weigh over 100 kilos (220 lbs or 15 UK stones). 

The Champagne House Maison Drappier produces the Melchisédech in the Champagne city of Reims. I imagine that a Melchizedek is what you may be offered when you walk into Maison Drappier and ask to buy a regular size bottle of their Champagne. A salesman or saleslady will say, “can we jumbo size that for you?” For about 2,000 Euros, plus the cost of shipping, you may charge your credit card and have a bottle delivered overnight, or maybe try taking one home as a carry-on on EasyJet.
In the Old Testament, Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abraham; however, Maison Drappier, on their website, has Melchisédech as a King of Babylon. That is possible as, within the various traditions, there are several Melchizedeks, some were good, some were bad, though as far as the archeologists know none drank Champagne.

For all the other different French bottle shapes and sizes, Champagnes and others click here.

Now for the rest of the story.

One hundred years before Dom Perignon, another sparkling wine had been made with similar production methods, though it is quite likely that Dom Perignon had never heard of it. It is also a lightly sparkling wine, Clairette de Die is made with a different method, and has been around from at least the 1300s. Still, Dom Perignon had his own unique bubbly creation, and he added a great many, completely new, ideas. Dom Perignon, along the way, set the production methods for most of the modern sparkling wine industry. With the founding of such a remarkable product and the industry that it supports, Don Perignon deserves every bit of the fame he received.
Champagne goes global.
With the opening of the Marne-Rhine canal in 1853, bottled Champagne could reach the Paris wine market in quantity, and with little breakage. At the time, this wine market was the largest in the world and situated in the village of Bercy, now the 12th arrondissement of Paris. Twenty years later, around the 1870s came automated bottle production, and that saw Champagne’s price drop low enough to reach entirely new markets; since then, our celebrations have never been the same.
Where in France does Champagne come from?

The old French region of Champagne-Ardennes produces most of the Champagne grapes. That  old region since 1-1-2016 is included in the new super region of the Grande Est. However, wines and agriculture know no boundaries, and changes have been made. Some Champagne grapes now come from the departments of Aisne, Ardennes, Aube, Haute-Marne, Marne, Meuse, Seine-et-Marne, and Yonne. The Champagne purists find nothing wrong with that as most of these departments were once part of the traditional province of Champagne.


For the largest Champagne trading center visit Reims and its 13th century Notre Dame Cathedral, where most of the Kings and Queens of France were crowned. Reims is about 142 km (89 miles) and 1 1/2 hours by car from Paris, and 45 minutes by TGV fast trains. Reims is a beautiful city and the Reims Tourist Information Office offers a great deal of information. Their English language website is:
Reims Cathedral

Just 29 km (18  miles) away from Rheims is Epernay, this is the second most important Champagne trading center with many other Champagne Houses headquartered here.  For Champagne tours in Epernay see their French language website at:

Google or Bing translate will supply much of the information you may need to visit.

The Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers

Just 6 km (4 miles) away from Epernay is Hautvillers; just 5 minutes by car and 15 minutes by bus and 22 minutes by train to the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers where it all began.

The Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers was destroyed during the French revolution, but much of it has been rebuilt by the Champagne house of Moët and Chandon, which together with the Champagne House called Dom Perignon is part of the luxury product group LVMH.
The English language website for the Tourist Information Office in Hautvillers is: 

The English language web site for the whole of the old Champagne Ardennes region is:
When the party is over.


Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2012, 2016, 2019.

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman


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