Holiday Entertaining: Champagne Labels Demystified

For food and wine enthusiasts, the holidays are the time to pull out all the stops and delight guests' taste buds. And when it comes to this, nothing beats a bottle of bubbly. But with so many champagnes to choose from, and such cryptic phrases on the labels, non-experts are often overwhelmed. Here, we unravel the mystery behind the vocabulary of champagne labels.

Blanc de noirs
On a champagne bottle, this phrase indicates the use of Pinot Meunier or Pinot Noir grapes. Both of these varieties are red grapes with white juices. Surprising though it may seem, champagne may indeed be made from red grapes. A "Blanc de noirs" champagne may combine Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for a powerful and heady wine, or may contain only Pinot Noir. Champagnes in this category go particularly well with caviar and cured meats.

Blanc de blancs
Like the "Blanc de noirs," the phrase "Blanc de blancs" indicates the grape variety used -- in this case, Chardonnay. A white grape with white juices, Chardonnay typically produces crisp, elegant wines. Sometimes described as feminine, wines made with the Chardonnay grape are ideal for accompanying refined dishes. A "Blanc des blancs" champagne is a perfect complement to oysters, for example, or to the delicate flavors of fish.

Millésimé or Vintage
In addition to blending different grape varieties, the winemakers of Champagne often blend wines made from the harvests of different years, a practice that sets them apart from other French producers. Champagne producers keep a reserve of wine in their cellars to carry over the aromas from one year to the next. But sometimes, namely when the harvest has been of an exceptional quality, they choose to make wine from the grapes of a single year. These wines are labelled either as "Millésimé" or "Vintage." They tend to have more character than other champagnes and should be served with refined delicacies or to celebrate a momentous occasion.

Brut nature
Typically found under the name of the Champagne house or winemaker on the label, the phrase "Brut nature" or "Zéro dosage" indicates a minimal amount of sugar added in the last step of the vinification process. Depending on the dosage, champagne may be brut (dry), demi-sec (semi-sweet) or doux (sweet). When less than 3 grams of sugar are added per liter, the champagne is labeled as "Brut nature." Champagnes with this distinction are known for particularly pronounced flavors, which permeate the palate.

Those with an eye for detail may have noticed several different abbreviations on champagne labels. All of these two-letter designations describe the producer's professional profile. To simplify, the wine may be produced by a champagne house that purchases grapes from growers or by individual winemakers who grow their own grapes. Generally speaking, these abbreviations may provide an initial idea of the champagne's character. Champagne from an individual winemaker (RM for "récoltant manipulant") is more likely to stand out for a unique character and a reflection of "terroir," as it is more likely to be made of grapes from only one or two harvests.