Understanding the enigmatic fundamentals of Champagne is an overwhelming and stressful experience. Although there are the standard bearer houses such as Moët & Chandon, it can be difficult to choose something a little more obscure.
Furthermore, celebrated brands that guarantee quality require heavy financial investment. Branding is everything in Champagne and they are fully aware that the public will rely on them.
Therefore, learning the basics and being able to identify what experience lesser-known Champagnes offer can save you money. French wines are infamous for their mysterious jargon and their defence of language. Although this can be interpreted as pretentious stubbornness, remember that Champagne tradition is an old and heavily protected culture.
Finally, Champagne is unique. Its techniques and traditions often differentiate it from other traditional wine-making regions both in France and abroad. Therefore even the most seasoned enthusiasts can get lost among the many varieties of Champagne.
In the following guide, you will discover the various types of Champagne and how to identify them by simply reading the label.
How To Identify A Bottle Of Champagne
- Know The Region’s Grapes & Geography
- Check The Vineyard Classification
- What Are The Different Bottle Sizes?
- Consider Its Maturity & Vintage
- Be Aware Of The Sugar Content
- Remember The Blending Styles
- Choosing The Producer Identifier
As illustrated below, all of the above information can simply be obtained by reading a Champagne bottle’s label. Whilst some of these details are clearly labelled, others can be deduced with a little basic knowledge. Either click on one of the chapters above to jump straight to it or scroll down to read it all.
1. Know The Grape Varieties & Region Layout
Firstly, you absolutely need know the grapes that are produced in the Champagne region to get an idea of what you’re choosing. They are produced in roughly equal quantities throughout the region but tend to be favoured more in different areas.
You can easily break this down into two red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and one white (Chardonnay). Note that there are other obscure ones like Arbane or Pinot Gris. However, these are extremely rare so it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter them unless you’re a seasoned enthusiast.
Furthermore, Champagne is often a blended wine, which can consist of a combination of one, two or even the three grapes. Each grape is grown in distinctive conditions and matures differently. Therefore, the way that they’re blended will have an impact on the resulting taste. Choosing according to their balance or ratios is always a fair start.
You can learn all about the different grapes as well as their resulting tastes with our dedicated Champagne geography guide.
2. Check The Vineyard Classification
Similarly, unlike other French wine-producing regions that use terroirs (vineyards recognised for their quality), Champagne uses crus. However, crus are attributed to entire villages rather than simply a plot within it. In many ways, this links back to Champagne’s geography but on a much smaller scale.
This Échelle (scale) des Crus was originally created for grape pricing by weight but is commonly used today as an identifier for quality. The cru is usually clearly mentioned on the bottle and consist of a Grand Cru or Premier Cru.
If nothing is mentioned at all, then it’s likely just a Cru, which means that it is legally allowed to use the Champagne name. However, some French wines enjoy being mysterious and may expect you to have some prior knowledge.
Champagne itself hosts a total of 17 grands crus, which represent 14% of Champagne’s total surface area. Premiers crus account for nearly 18% of the land and finally, crus account for the remaining 69% of the region.
Choosing your Champagne according to Cru may have an impact on its price but it also suggests that you can expect superior quality. The aforementioned guide on Champagne grapes and geography covers this extensively. Furthermore, it lists out every Grand and Premier cru village according to sub-region, which you can use as a reference for choosing or even visiting!
3. What Are The Different Bottle Sizes?
There are many well-known bottle sizes that are available for purchase as well as more elusive ones. For example, Huitièmes were sample bottles given to American soldiers and Quarts that were served on commercial flights. Today, these are highly sort for by collectors. Another small bottle is the Chopine, which is the traditional French unit of volume at 25 cl.
- Contents: 37.5 cl (12.7 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 0.5
- Servings: 2-3
Fillettes or “half-bottles” are a relatively recent addition to the Champagne family. Catering to people on smaller budgets or drinking in small numbers, they’re ideal for a quick aperitif.
However, due to their small volume, they age badly and shouldn’t be kept long. Furthermore, they are much more expensive per litre and are sold at only a fraction cheaper than standard bottles.
- Contents: 47 cl (16 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 0.62
- Servings: 3-4
The Imperial Pint used to be Britain’s favourite measure of Champagne. It was especially famous for its association with Winston Churchill. Pol Roger would supply him with Imperial Pints that he would have for breakfast.
Although today the Imperial Pint is more-or-less extinct, campaigners are pushing for its return.
- Contents: 75 cl (25 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 1
- Servings: 5-6
The traditional name for the classic Champagne bottle, they have existed in one form or another since the 1st Century. However, it wasn’t until the 18th Century that it earned its name.
The form has changed slightly since then with a thicker neck and cork. Furthermore, the glass used has become much thicker over the centuries in order to withstand the pressure within.
- Contents: 1.5 l (50 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 2
- Servings: 10
Magnums are the better known larger bottle variants. Their usage dates back to 1788 in England and an abbreviation of Magnum Bonum (large and good). Although they’re associated with decadence, they’re considered by professionals as an ideal size for ageing Champagne.
- Contents: 3 l (101 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 4
- Servings: 20
The first to sport an Old Testament namesake, the Jéroboam was named after the Kingdom of Israel’s founder. It is sometimes referred to as the Double Magnum.
- Contents: 4.5 l (152 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 6
- Servings: 30
The Réhoboam is named after the first king of separate Judea.
- Contents: 6 l (203 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 8
- Servings: 40
In Bordeaux, the Mathasalem is referred to as the Imperial. It is named after the oldest person recorded in Old Testament.
- Contents: 9 l (304 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 12
- Servings: 60
The Salmanazar is named after five Biblical Assyrian King of the same surname.
- Contents: 12 l (406 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 16
- Servings: 80
Balthazar is noted as one of the three wise men who visited Jesus after his birth. Another Biblical Balthazar was the last king of Babylon who was killed by Cyrus in 539 BC.
- Contents: 15 l (507 Oz)
- Number of Standard Bottles: 30
- Servings: 100
Named after Nebuchadnezzar, the bottle was created back in 1897. Nebuchadnezzar was the infamous king who conquered Jerusalem and turned Babylon into a beautiful city.
Other extreme bottle sizes exist such as the Salomon (18 litres), Souverain (26 litres), Primat and Melchisedec (27 and 30 litres respectively). However, they are younger having been introduced as recently as 2002.
Furthermore, they are exceedingly rare and often appear only as fanciful creations. Usually, they appear only for events or out of competition between houses to create the largest possible bottles. Therefore, it will be unlikely that you’ll be choosing from anything larger than a Jéroboam.
4. Consider Maturity & Vintage Varieties
Firstly, remember that Champagne is aged in a two-part process as is detailed in the introductory champagne guide. The first takes places in a cask of vat. However, the second fermentation, which also creates the bubbles, is the key to creating Champagne.
Once the grapes have properly aged in vats, they are then assembled into the blend. This blend can consist of a variety of factors such as different grapes. Most importantly, they can be from different years unlike any other French wine.
A special liqueur is added that consists of sugar, yeast and a “reserved” blend. The wine is then bottled with a special stopper cap. This process is known as the “tirage”.
The cap is not perfectly airtight and a chemical process begins where the yeast and sugar react to create carbon dioxide. The bottle is at first kept on its side but is then turned over time for the neck to face downwards. Residue gathers at the neck known as lies (“lees” in English) hence why the process is known as maturation “on lees”.
Champagne producers must follow very strict regulations when it comes to respecting this maturation process. The time on lees must be at least 12 months of a total 15 months minimum maturation before being corked. This is upheld by law. However, the longer a Champagne spends on lees, the more time it matures to produce a complex and high quality wine.
Therefore, wine producers will indicate to some degree how long the Champagne has been matured if it is exceptional.
What Are Non-Vintage Champagnes?
- Minimum Maturation: 15 months
- Typical Maturation: 2-3 Years
Non-vintage (NV) are the standard bearers of most Champagne houses. They are blends that can feature different grapes but especially different harvests. Unlike other wine-growing regions, Champagne leads by the brand rather than following the land.
A Bordeaux can have good years and bad years but must always indicate its vintage. However, Champagne is not only exempt from this rule but prides itself in the art of blending harmony. In other words, theoretically every bottle from a Champagne house’s particular range must consistently have the same taste every time.
Although the minimum maturation consists of 15 months, better NV Champagnes are aged longer before corking. As a year can’t be written across the front, this is sometimes indicated on the back of the bottle.
What Are Vintage Champagnes?
- Minimum Maturation: 36 Months
- Typical Maturation: 5-10 Years
If a year’s grape harvest is exceptional, some Champagne producers will declare a millésime or “vintage”. Although their core objective is to maintain brand consistency, a portion of an exceptional harvest is kept aside during the ageing process. When it comes to the blend, it will solely use that year’s grapes.
A vintage Champagne is usually somewhat different to a house’s typical style. However, it is a prestigious and exceptional range released slowly in limited quantities. The wine is often more mature than their other ranges and offers a delicate, yeasty flavour.
5. Be Conscious Of The Sugar Content
Probably the easiest element to identify on a Champagne bottle is the sugar content. This is usually clearly indicated with a selection of terms that have evolved over the centuries along with Champagne production.
For example, there once was a time where sweeter Champagnes were particularly popular especially for the Tsars in Russia. However, the “British” taste for drier Champagne eventually won over and Champagnes tend to be less sweet.
The sweetness of a Champagne is usually determined following the second fermentation process on lees. Once the bottle stopper is removed, the wine is literally “dosed” with another liqueur consisting of sweet wine or sugar. However, these varieties are usually created to lower the Champagne’s initial acidity. Otherwise, it may be so sour that it’s undrinkable.
- Sugar Concentration: 0 grams per litre
- Calories: 0-2 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Very Dry
Although few houses specialise in Brut Natures, they are often particularly sought after. This is especially the case among people with drier tastes or even diabetics that can’t drink Champagne with higher sugar concentrations. The wine is often pure and bone dry, which brings out unique and natural notes.
- Sugar Concentration: 0-6 grams per litre
- Calories: 0-5 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Very Dry
Also something of a rarity, Extra Bruts are an ideal go-between for those that find Brut Nature too acidic.
- Sugar Concentration: 0-12 grams per litre
- Calories: 5-7 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Dry
Even if Bruts are the most common concentrations of Champagne, they are by no means the lowest quality. Some of the finest Champagnes are often Bruts, which consist of a slight touch of sugar to creates a more rounded body against the acidity.
- Sugar Concentration: 12-17 grams per litre
- Calories: 7-10 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Mildly Fruity
Despite a higher sugar level, the Champagne remains mildly acidic. However, there are signs of fruitiness that breaks through the tart backdrop.
- Sugar Concentration: 17-32 grams per litre
- Calories: 10-20 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Fruity
Although Sec means “dry” in French, the Champagne is now considerably fruitier. The name derived from a time when the tastes for Champagne was considerably sweeter and somewhat less refined.
- Sugar Concentration: 32-50 grams per litre
- Calories: 20-30 per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Sweet
Up to this point, Champagnes still consisted of some acidity. However, by now the Champagne is decidedly sweet. Demi-Sec Champagnes are ideal to accompany desserts or even foie gras.
- Sugar Concentration: 50+ grams per litre
- Calories: 30+ per 150 ml (5 Oz) serving
- Taste: Very Sweet
Doux Champagne experienced its prime during the reign of the Tsars who supposedly had a very sweet tooth. Nevertheless, its popularity has waned and is now a particularly rare Champagne to find.
6. Remember The Blending Styles
Now that you are aware of the grape varieties, vintages and cru concept, it’ll be easier to understand the meaning behind blending styles. Although there may be a great many labels and names given to Champagnes by their houses, choosing one is easy when they’re familiar.
This term often implies the use of older, “reserved” grapes for the blend. However, many houses such as Pol Roger or Taittinger may label their most basic Bruts as Réserve.
The term isn’t standardised. However, it usually suggests a blend of exclusive quality compared to a regular Brut. Each house will have its own préstige, which may confusingly go by entirely different names.
Nevertheless, it can generally be inferred that the blend is considered superior compared to standard bottles. These can be made from the most refined juice from the press, which is the first obtained when applying pressure. Furthermore, it may be indicated that the maturation process was considerably longer than the minimum 15 months.
Blanc de Blancs
Essentially “white from whites” in English. These are blends of Champagne derived 100% from Chardonnay grapes. These can often come across as floral, delicate, fruity and even yeasty Champagnes. As a general rule, the grapes are sourced from the Côte des Blancs.
That said, a small minority of houses will also use obscure regional grapes such as Petit Meslier and Arbane to create their Blanc de Blancs blends. These also often come from the Côte des Blancs area. However, there are territories towards the south-east known for their chalky soils, which specialise in this.
Blanc de Noirs
As the name suggests, Blanc de Noirs (white from blacks) are white wines made solely from black grapes. The blend can consist of either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a combination of both.
These blends are often characteristically strong with flavours reminiscent of red fruits.
Iconic Rosé Champagne accounts only for a small portion of yearly production yet enjoys niche popularity. The rosé colour in Champagne is achieved by two radically different methods .
The traditional method is to allow the black grape’s skin to briefly macerate with the juice during pressing. This is known as the saignée or “bled” technique. However, Veuve Clicquot is credited with the more popular method that was developed in 1775.
This technique is outlawed in any other wine-making region. In this case, it consists of adding no more than 10% of Pinot Noir red wine to the Champagne’s blend before the tirage. Critics often celebrate this method as it provides a facet of richness and maturity to a bottle. A Pinot Noir rosé, for example, can contain notes of red fruits and spices that are reminiscent of Bourgogne (Burgundy) wine.
7. Choosing The Producer Identifier
Finally, there’s a surprisingly obscure code on the side of a bottle, which indicates the Champagne producer’s status. This is particularly handy if you want to choose a Champagne from a big company, small producer or supermarket’s own brand.
Sometimes they can be hard to find. However, they begin with two letters. Simply look for one of the following varieties:
Additionally, each of these fall under three umbrella groups:
Négociants or Maisons are often the big houses that account for the majority of Champagnes on the market. For example, Bollinger, Moët & Chandon and Krug are all négociants. Furthermore, the name “Négociant” itself implies that they are merchants first and producers second.
NM: Négociant Manipulant
Usually, a Négociant Manipulant (Handling Merchant), sources grapes from selected vineyards rather than producing them. They then often assemble the grapes in-house themselves and create their own blends. As a general rule, these producers represent over half of the market and are based in Reims, Epernay or even Aÿ.
ND: Négociant Distributeur
MA: Marque Auxiliaire
Also known as “Marque d’acheteur”, they are essentially brands behind brands. These Buyer’s Brands consist of Champagnes grown and produced by someone else. Usually they consist of supermarket brands. However, they can also be special orders exclusive to restaurants, events or even celebrities.
As the name suggests, Récoltants are “harvesters”. In other words, they handle a large portion of the Champagne production themselves or group together. They often consist of smaller family-owned companies but can vary in size.
RM: Récoltant Manipulant
The most common form of a producer, Récoltant Manipulants or “Handling Growers” are involved with every step of the process. They will develop, assemble and commercialise their own wine from their own grapes. At least 95% of the wine in their bottles must be homegrown and not bought.
SR: Société de Récoltants
A rarer status, a Société de Récoltants (Company of Growers) usually consists of a union of wine-makers that pool resources to produce Champagne. Sometimes, they even are of the same family and work together in commercialising their wine. Occasionally, they may turn to a cooperative for support with some services.
Cooperatives are often the fruit of a union between very small landowners that individually produce small quantities of Champagne. Management and wine presses require heavy financial and time investment. Therefore, it’s not surprising that cooperatives are relatively common in Champagne.
CM: Coopérative Manipulant
These are usually a number of small landowners that join together to form a single cooperative. Harvests are pooled together and wine is produced at a shared press and released under a single label. These “Handling Cooperatives” can surprisingly get quite sizeable. For example, the most famous cooperative is Nicolas Feuillate, which often competes with big houses.
RC: Récoltant Coopérateur
A somewhat misleading yet rare concept, these are often landowners that will pool their grapes and share a press. However, once the Champagne has been bottled, they will sell it under their own individual labels. Therefore, you can expect to find several different labels that contain the same Champagne out there.
After having read through this guide, you should now be prepared to identify most Champagne bottles. While it may be true that there are many obscure houses and special bottles out there, most tend to follow the same labeling rules. With a little background knowledge and having tried a few, you’ll soon be familiar with what’s available out there. Eventually, you’ll be able to enjoy the perfect Champagne according to your tastes!
Now that you have learned the fundamentals to comfortably identify a bottle, learn how to properly serve Champagne too. Additionally, you might want to explore how to easily taste Champagne or go to our Champagne Homepage where we cover everything you need to know about bubbly.