Trying to master the terminology of Champagne is like learning an entirely new language.
What does brut mean? Is that different from brut nature? What’s the difference between Spumonte and Champagne? What do the little tiny initials on a Champagne label, like NM, mean?
Let’s take a look.
The word Champagne can be used only on sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region in France. In 1891 the Treaty of Madrid was signed, declaring that only wines made in that region could legally be called Champagne, and this was later reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles. There are a few U.S. producers who use “Champagne” on their labels, because the U.S. never signed that treaty. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, in the midst of Prohibition, and apparently lawmakers didn’t feel signing an agreement like that was necessary, thus allowing some producers to take advantage of the loophole.
As a result the wine is known elsewhere by different names. In Italy it’s Prosecco or Spumonte, in Spain it’s known as Cava, in Germany it’s called sekt, and in the U. S. we know it as sparkling wine. But inside the bottle, it’s the same basic product, although the quality range is significant. It can cost from $2 or so up to a few hundred dollars for a current release, and much more for past releases.
The French word for dry is “sec,” but if you see “sec” on a bottle of Champagne, the wine inside is likely to be on the sweeter side. Confusing?
There are many variations on the amounts of residual sugar in Champagne. “Brut nature” is the driest, with fewer than 3 grams of residual sugar per liter, and next is “extra brut” with residual sugar levels of 0 to 6 grams per liter.
“Brut,” one of the most popular styles, has less than 15 grams per liter, then comes “extra dry,” at 12 to 20 grams, “dry” or “sec” at 17 to 35 grams, “demi sec,” at 33 to 50 grams, and finally, the sweetest, “doux,” at more than 50 grams.
You’ll often see “blanc de blancs” on a label, which means the Champagne in that bottle was made entirely from chardonnay grapes, or “blanc de noirs,” indicating that it was made from either pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes, although the juice was taken from the skins very quickly. There are some “rosé” Champagnes, which can be made from all three grapes, but the color obviously comes from the reds.
Most Champagnes are non-vintage, meaning that they a blend, or “cuvee,” from wines of different vintages, usually at least three but often more. This allows the “chef du caves,” or cellarmaster and winemaker, more flexibility in choosing wines to create a consistent product. But occasionally you’ll see “vintage Champagne” on the label, which indicates all the juice came from the same harvest.
The label also contains much more information: The name of the producer and where it was made, alcoholic content, bottle volume and the type of producer. The latter can become complicated, because there are several producer types, which are identified by initials in tiny print, followed by a number which identifies the brand owner.
NM signifies it’s a Négociant Manipulant, or a firm or person who buys grapes or juice or finished wine and makes Champagne on its premises.
RM is a Récoltant Manipulant who grows grapes and produces Champagne from those grapes on its own premises.
RC is a Récoltant Coopérateur who grows grapes as part of a cooperative, then sells the wine.
CM is a Coopérative de Manipulation, a cooperative that makes wine from the grapes of its members.
SR is a Société de Recoltants, a family business that makes wine solely from grapes grown by members of the family.
ND is a Négociant Distributeur, who buys finished Champagne and labels it himself.
MA is a Marque d’Acheteur. The producer’s name appears on the label, but the brand name belongs to a restaurant, wine shop or other re-seller — in other words, a private brand.
R is a Récoltant, a grower whose grapes are made into Champagne by someone else, usually a Négociant Manipulant who then returns the bottled wine to the grower.
The bottom line, though, is to find a Champagne or sparkling wine that you like, pop the cork and enjoy it. No need for a special occasion — sparkling wine is good anytime. Natalie MacLean, a wine writer whose Web site, nataliemaclean.com, features a Food & Wine Matcher pairing guide, indicates that sparkling wine can go with just about anything — even potato chips and nachos.