Saturday, January 3, 2009

LeDomduVin: Champagnes and other sparkling wines, what to buy?

Champagne(s) by @ledomduvin 2023 (v2)

Champagnes and other sparkling wines, 

what to buy?

The last 3 months and a half were full of good surprises and especially loaded with bubbles. Think about it: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Inauguration Day, Valentine's Day, the new season series of "Lost" and "Heroes", the Super-bowl, a few birthdays and many more other reasons to open and drink bubbly.

For nearly three months straight, the customers and the rest of the staff at the store asked me the same questions repeatedly: What sparkling wine should I buy? Which kind? Brut? Extra Brut? Dry? Medium dry? Sweet? Rosé? Champagne or Cava or Prosecco or else? I like to drink or to offer a bubbly, but I have no clue? How much should I spend? Big brands or small independent growers?

It is funny to realize that many of us have no idea what to buy when Christmas' and New Year's eve call for a bubbly. I think that this post will have been more helpful at the beginning of December, however you may refer to it all year long. After all, bubblies suit any and every festive occasions.

But first, let me remind you about the different styles of sparkling wines that you will surely encounter in fine retail stores and especially about these two little letters (i.e. RM or NM) on the champagne label.

I tried to make it simple and straightforward for everybody to understand.

These four factors: Origins, Styles, Vinification Process (or Production) and for Champagne, the two small letters on the label; they may appear insignificant to you and for most people, but they are a great quality indicator and will surely help you to make a better choice in your champagne and other sparkling wine selections.

Here is a little chart for you to better understand what I'm talking about and eventually make a better purchase:

Champagne and other sparkling wines


  • Origin (a): only sparkling wines coming from the region of Champagne (France) can be called and labelled "Champagne". Other sparkling wines produced in other wine regions of France made with the "Methode Traditionnelle" (also known as "Methode Champenoise") exist, but by law must carry a different name like: Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy), Cremant d'Alsace, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Bordeaux, etc.

  • Origin (b): There are also other great sparkling wines in France made with the "Methode Ancestrale" (similar to Champagne but without disgorgement resulting in rounder, fruitier style) like Blanquette de Limoux (Languedoc), Cerdon du Bugey (central eastern part of France), etc...

  • Origin (c): In other countries too, great sparkling wines of various styles, colors and tastes are produced:

  • Italy: Prosecco (Veneto), Moscato d'Asti and Brachetto (Piedmont), Lambrusco (Emilia-Romagna), and other Brachetto, Spumante and Frizzante, etc.

  • Spain: Cava (Penedes)

  • Germany and Austria: Sekt

  • South Africa: Cap Classique

  • Other countries like Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Hungary and of course USA, (California, New Mexico, etc), just to mention the most well known, also produce sparkling wines specified on the label by "Brut", "Methode Tradionnelle", "Methode Ancestrale", "Charmat Method", or just "Sparkling Wine", "Sec", etc...

I hope that the reading about the origins gave you a better idea about where some of the most famous sparkling wines come from. Now let's try to understand the different styles.


  • Brut: a dry style of sparkling wine or Champagne (less than 15 grams of sugar per liter).

  • Extra Brut: an even dryer (the driest) style of sparkling wine or Champagne (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter).

  • Nature (Brut Nature or Zero Dosage): means that no sugar has been added (no dosage, so less than 3 grams of sugar per liter) with the "Liqueur d'Expedition" after disgorgement, resulting in a dryer, more acidic style of sparkling wine or Champagne.

  • Extra Dry: is not dry at all, it usually refers to a sweeter style of sparkling wine or Champagne (between 12 and 20 grams of sugar per liter).

  • Sec: means Dry in French, but here again it is quite noticeably sweet (between 17 and 35 grams of sugar per liter). BTW: remember that Brut usually refers to "Dry" but "Sec" doesn't mean dry (because it is not as dry as the "Brut",.... like "Extra Dry" doesn't mean very dry (or extra sec) but the opposite, it is sweeter than Dry or Brut.... anyhow, the British invented all these terms, so go figure....).

  • Demi-sec (semi-dry): sweeter than the previous one (33 and 50 grams of sugar per liter).

  • Doux (semi-sweet to sweet): usually the sweetest (more than 50 grams of sugar per liter).

  • Brut: (again) refers also (in general) to a dry sparkling wine or Champagne white or rose (but also red in some countries) that can be made with both red and white grapes (i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir for Champagne).

  • Blanc de Blancs: usually a Champagne white or sparkling white wine made exclusively with white grapes, in most cases: Chardonnay.

  • Blanc de Noirs: usually a Champagne white or sparkling white wine made exclusively with red grapes (the skin being removed before fermentation to avoid coloration), in most cases: Pinot Noir

  • Rosé: usually a Champagne rosé or sparkling rosé wine made from a blend of both red and white grapes (i.e. X% Chardonnay + X% Pinot Noir, etc..).

  • Red sparkling: usually refers to a sparkling red wine which is not and can not be a Champagne, in most cases made with any red local appropriate grapes depending of the region and country of origin (i.e. Shiraz in Australia, Lambrusco in Italy)

  • Tête de Cuvée: refers to the best champagne that a Champagne house can produce. It can be millésime (meaning from a specific vintage) or not. (i.e. "Dom Perignon" is the "Tête de Cuvée" Champagne of Moët & Chandon; "Cristal" of Louis Roederer; "La Grande Dame" of Veuve Clicquot; etc..).

  • R.D: means "Recemment Dégorgé" ("Recently Disgorged" in English). It means that the Champagne R.D, usually an excellent vintage, was left for a longer ageing period in the underground limestone cellar of the Champagne House and was just disgorged then bottled recently (usually when the winemaker decides that the produce is at its best and was aged long enough to obtain the wanted style with the desired combination of style, flavors and balance). If you visit a Champagne House, ask to see how the disgorgement is done and ask them if you can taste the Chamapgne before they add the "Liqueur d'Expedition" and put the final cork. Bollinger has one of the best R.D in the market (in my opinion).

  • NV (non Vintage): means that the Champagne or sparkling wine is a blend of different vintage. Often, a touch of the same vintage or a different vintage (also call reserve) is added with the "Liqueur d'Expedition" to complete the bottle and replace the small amount of Champagne lost during disgorgement. But usually, the blend happen before bottling. Most sparkling wine and Champagne are NV. A Non-Vintage must be aged for at least a year and a half before released.

In most case, blending the Champagne made out of the latest harvest with a bit of reserve Champagne allows consistency, reliability and very similar taste from one year to the next (especially true with the big Champagne house). That is why a bottle of Veuve always taste the same and that is another reason why people in general prefer to buy brands instead of venturing in the smaller world of the lesser known Champagne house. Blending is an art and consistency insures sales. Irregularity between batches may happen, but, somewhat due to new techniques, methods and skills, it is far less common now than it used to be 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

  • Vintage: Before (more than 20 years ago), Vintage Champagne and sparkling wine were only made in the best vintage with the most adequate climatic condition, ripeness, acidity, balance, structure and ageing potential which only happened 2 to 3 times max per decade. Unfortunately, new markets in emerging countries, luxury products market and constantly increasing demand transformed this myth. Nowadays, vintage Champagne are nearly produced every year or every other year, and in my opinion the quality of some of the most prestigious brand tremendously decreased over the last 10-15 years. Amongst some of the best Vintage Champagne that I tasted over the past 17 years, the vintage 79,82, 85, 88, 90, 96, 97 and 99 seems to have extremely please my palate.

That should give you a better idea about the different styles produced around the world and should guide you in your choice (I hope...). Now let's try to understand how they are produced.

Production & Vinification Process

There are at least 4 different main methods to produce sparkling wine and Champagne.

  • Methode Traditionnelle (previously known as "Methode Champenoise"): the most used and surely the most well known around the globe. After primary fermentation, the wine is bottled with an addition of several grams of yeast and sugar (known as "Liqueur de Tirage") which will induce the second fermentation in the bottle, thus the production of bubbles. The bottle is capped with a crown cap (like for for beer), then stored horizontally and slowly and constantly rotated (or riddled) for a minimum of 1.5 years (NV) up to 3 years and more for the vintage. Rotating the bottles slowly redirect the lees (yeast, residual sugar, etc..) toward the neck of the bottle where they settle and remain. At the end of the ageing process, the cap and the upper part of the neck are then frozen and the crown cap is removed (also known as disgorgement). The pressure in the bottle forces out the frozen lees, and the bottle is quickly corked with the addition of the Liqueur d'Expedition: a blend of Champagne of the same year or reserve Champagne to top up and complete the bottle + several grams of sugar to balance the acidity. Once corked with the final cork topped with its metallic plaque (Champagne house brand logo or name) maintained securely to the bottle by the musellet (or cage), the bottle is usually stored for another 3 to 6 months (or more depending of the house) before bottling and releasing (sometimes even longer for the most prestigious Champagne).

  • Charmat Method (also known as Méthode Charmat, Metodo Charmat-Martinotti or bulk process): invented in the early 1900 by a frenchman, Eugene Charmat, to mass produce sparkling wine in a minimum of time (usually about 90 days from harvesting to bottling). The major difference with the Méthode Traditionnelle (aka Champenoise) is that the secondary fermentation occur in pressurized stainless steel tank (in bulk) where the wine remains under constant pressure through the filtering and bottling process. Although, the resulting sparkling wine may be more consistent from bottle to bottle compare to Champagne, it is not as refined or elegant, and the bubbles are also larger and slower which often indicate lesser quality. It is one of the most used methods through out the world, after the Traditional Method.

  • Transfer Method (or Process or Transversage): here again, like the Charmat method, it is less expensive and less time consuming than the Méthode Traditionnelle. Invented in Germany, it takes about 90 days to a year from picking to bottling, depending on the producer and the style. It roughly follows the same steps as in the Methode Traditionnelle up to the bottling. What differs is that immediately at the end of the secondary fermentation, the bottles are emptied under pressure, then the sparkling wine is quickly filtered and rebottled (which in fact, replaces the remuage, the riddling, the need of freezing the neck to entrap the lees and sediments, and the disgorgement process of the Methode Traditionnelle).

  • Methode Ancestrale: Here again, it follows the same first steps as in the Methode Traditionelle up until the end of the end of the primary fermentation. In fact there is no secondary fermentation and the sparkling wine is bottled without any addition of anything (no sugar, no yeast or else). It can also be slightly cloudy because it doesn't undergo any disgorgement or any filtration, and still contains the dead yeast matter in form of lees in the bottle. The resulting sparkling wine is usually fruitier, somewhat raw and earthy, and often sweeter than other sparklings.

The 4 methods above are the most used around the world, with the Methode Traditionnelle and the Charmat Method as the preferred method by most winemakers.

Sometimes bubbles in wine don't make the wine a sparkling wine. One may also found a natural touch of fizz on the tongue when tasting freshly bottled wines, especially white wines (like Txakoli, Albarhino, Muscadet, Penedes white, etc...); however, it usually dissipate after a few minutes in the glass, in contact with the air.

By now, I think that you should have a clearer idea of which bubbly you will buy for your next festive occasion. Only one thing remains, the two little letters on the bottle of Champagne that I was talking about earlier.

The Little Letters on the Champagne bottle

In fact, nobody really cares or even really tries to understand what they mean, but they are a significant quality factor, especially when one is looking (or should I say venturing or exploring) for a good to excellent unknown champagne at a better price than the usual brands.

In our world of consumption, nearly everybody is often tempted to fall into a good marketing trick: attractive packaging, colors, seen everywhere on TV, advertisement boards and luxury magazines, an easy name to remember, etc... However, most of the time, you end up buying an "ok to good" but not very often excellent Champagne, because you pay more for the brand and the marketing of it than for its quality.

Of course, the first names that come to mind (in the US) are: Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot ("passe-partout" or should I say "all purpose" in English) for those who don't want to think too much and like to rely on brands, and then Cristal (but rarely Louis Roederer, even it is the same house) and Dom Perignon (the Grand Cuvee of Moet & Chandon, which is - here again - rarely associated with the name of the Champagne House that produces it.... ask, you will see, many people don't even realize it...).

However, there are hundreds of other Champagne house names, that are also good to excellent but less marketed and in my opinion much more interesting, and often less pricey.

Here is a brief list of the 4 different categories of Champagnes that you can find on the market and how the little letters define these categories, and essentially characterize the quality of each Champagne House and their different Champagnes (NV, Vintage, etc...).

  • NM (Negociant Manipulant): It is the most common in Champagne. It usually designates a Champagne House that partly owns its own vineyards but especially sources and buys grapes from the growers, then vinified, aged the Champagne in their own underground cellar and bottled it under their own label(s). The grapes can come from many vineyards planted anywhere in Champagne, own by many growers. The grape prices depend on the provenance and origin of the grapes, depending on the Terroir (village, micro-climate, vineyard exposition, type of soil, etc..) which defines the quality of the vineyards (Grand Cru, Premier cru, etc...). Usually the big Champagne Houses have a tradition to negotiate and buy the grapes with the same Growers for generations (which also explain why some NM can be "Grand Cru" and "Premier Cru"). They sometimes buy to more than 80 growers (producers). However, over the past 5-8 years, connoisseurs and amateurs have developed a taste for Grower Champagnes which are becoming increasingly more popular.

NM category includes most of the major Champagne Houses: Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Pipper-Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck, Laurent-Perrier, Nicolas Feuillatte, Louis Roederer, Charles Lafitte, etc....

Here is a list of some of my favorites Champagne Houses: Salon Le Mesnil, Billecart Salmon rosé, Laurent Perrier Rosé, Krug NV, Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blanc, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle, Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill, Nicolas Feuillatte Palm D'Or, Moet & Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Lanson, etc...

  • RM (Recoltant Manipulant): Somewhat less consistent and definitely less known but much more interesting and characteristic (in my opinion) than the major Brands, the "Recoltant Manipulant" are more often called "Champagne Growers". Growers possess their own vineyards, harvest their own grapes, bottle under their own label but also (and more importantly) sell their grapes to the "Negociant Manipulant". The Growers owns more than 85% of the vineyards in Champagne, which explain why the Negociant Manipulant have to buy the grapes from them. Growers are often more focus and Terroir oriented than the big houses. Their hand-harvested-and-carefully-crafted Champagnes have their own Terroir-oriented characteristics and tastes. The distinct taste of each Champagne house is the result of the blend between the grapes of various area; from vineyards usually planted around the same village (Grand cru, Premier cru, etc...):
Reims, Epernay, Avize, Ay, Bouzy, Chatillon-sur-Marne, Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oget, Etoges, Sézanne, Les Riceys, etc... (just mention a few among the most recognizable)

Or from the same area within the 6 main distinctive regions of Champagne which also have their own characteristics and tastes (from North to South):

Vallée de la Vesle (predominantely north-west of Reims)

Vallée de l'Ardre (west of Reims, or west of Gueux to be precise)

Montagne de Reims (South of Reims, from Gueux to Bouzy)

Vallée de la Marne (extending east to west from Avenay to Charly)

Côtes des Blancs (extending south from Chouilly to Vertus then curving west to Montmirail)

Côtes de Sézanne (all the way south from Allemant then Sézanne to Villenauxe)

Further south-east, in the Aube region, three less well-known vineyards area are also part of Champagne: Côte de L'Aube, AOC Rosé des Riceys, and the small isolated Troyes

Overall, their are roughly about 5,000 growers (RM) bottling their own champagnes and about 14,000 vineyard owners selling their grapes to hundreds of Champagne Houses (NM), cooperatives (CM), and others.

RM category includes some of my favorites Champagnes and some really interesting values in this ever increasing prices market: Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, Egly-Ouriet, Chartogne-Taillet, Vilmart & Cie, Guy Charlemagne,

  • CM (Cooperative Manipulant): After harvest, growers (who belong to the local cooperative) bring their grapes to the cooperative where they (the grapes) are divided and mixed by quality (rather than by origin or growers, because local) the resulting wine(s) is(are) then vinified, aged and bottled at the cooperative under the cooperative's label(s) and not under the growers' name or label. Some cooperative offer excellent quality Champagnes, not as great, nor as complex as some of the growers or the big houses, but very often good value.

to be continued.....

A few more categories exist, but I will write them in an other post (one day...). I will also write a special post with all my favorite Champagnes and other sparklings, classified by categories and Region and Country of origin.

However, the 3 main categories above (NM, RM and CM) regroup some of the best Champagne Houses and producers in the market. Just look carefully on the front label for the two little letters.

All the info above should really allow you to make a better decision during your next bubbly buying experience. I hope that you've find this post as useful and interesting to read as it was for me to write it.

Til next time in a new post, Enjoy!

Ledom du Vin

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