Private Brand Champagne

Making Sense of RM Champagnes

Making Sense of RM Champagnes

Wine lovers always enjoy finding wines that they’ve never tried before and that’s especially true when we discover a wine from a small family-owned maker that we think is really fabulous. It sort of makes it a more personal experience as though we’re in on a secret that no one else knows about.

Well the same is true in Champagne where, believe it or not, there are nearly 5,000 different champagne makers, but with so many to choose from, how do you find the ones for you?

Some writers would tell you that all you have to do to discover the good ones amongst all those unknown champagnes is to look for the two letters ‘RM’ at the bottom of the champagne label.

What these letters tell you about the champagne maker is that he/she makes champagne using grapes from their own vineyards – in other words they don’t buy in grapes on the open market like the big brands do. RM producers are usually just the type of small, family-owned operations that we find somehow more ‘authentic‘ and appealing.

This is O.K. as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn’t take you very far because the majority of champagne makers fall into the RM category, so you’re still faced with what is potentially a bewildering choice.

What’s needed is some means of differentiating between all those RM champagnes and here’s a way that, whilst not foolproof, will definitely allow you to identify different styles of champagne so you can tell if it’s the type and taste you’re looking for.

You see RM champagne makers usually own vineyards in, or near, the village where they live and work. That means that their champagnes are very much a reflection of the soil and climate of that particular village. That in turn means that if you know the village and the type of champagnes that are typically made there, you’ll have a good idea of what any given RM champagne will taste like.

To find where the champagne was made look on the label right next to the RM producer code.

You just can’t do this with the big name champagnes because they buy grapes from villages all over the Champagne region and their champagnes are an amalgam of different grapes with different charactesistics. So the place name that appears on the big brand labels is just their head office or the place where the wine is made.

There may be some advantages to this approach, but one thing is for sure: big brand champagnes have no particular connection with any one location, or another.

Now you may be thinking that to understand RM champagnes you have to memorize the names of all the 300 + villages in Champagne, but don’t panic.

Sure, the more you know, the more different styles and champagnes you’ll be able to identify, but if you can keep 10 or so village names in your mind then you’ll already be well on the way to deciphering the world of RM champagnes, and then, when you’ve got 20 or more you’re really beginning to become an RM expert. So here are some tips to get you started.

If you like the crisp, dry style of Blanc de Blancs champagnes made only from Chardonnay grapes, then look out for these village names in the Côte des Blancs area
Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Oger, Oiry, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Vertus
These are great champagnes for during the day or to start a meal

If it’s bigger, bolder, more full-flavoured champagne that you prefer then look for champagnes that have a high proportion of Pinot Noir in them.

 Here are some of the villages famed for their Pinot Noir vineyards
Ambonnay, Aÿ, Bouzy, Mailly, Verzy, Verzenay, Ludes, Chigny-Les-Roses, Rilly-La-Montagne.

This style of champagne is fabulous for drinking throughout the evening or with a meal.

Finally if you enjoy fresh, fruity champagnes for drinking at any time of day then you can venture down the Marne River valley to find villages that specialise in Pinot Meunier.
Here are some names to keep an eye out for
Charly-sur-Marne, Chatillon-sur-Marne, Cerseuil, Damery, Festigny, Oeuilly, Reuil, and Vincelles.

That’s 25 villages to get you started

How many can you remember?

Big Is Better

Big is Better

There are some moments when a glass of champagne is just the thing to enjoy on your own. Then again it’s the perfect drink for a romantic evening with your partner, but above all champagne is known the world over as THE wine to choose for a party

Now, a bottle of champagne only contains about 6 glassfuls so it doesn’t need many people at your party to finish the bottle. Clearly 1 lonely bottle isn’t going to be anywhere near enough, but instead of buying a case, or two, of ordinary sized bottles, why not buy magnums instead?

A magnum is a double bottle and although it’s usually a little bit more expensive than buying 2 bottles, there are some very good reasons to go for magnums:

First there’s the wine itself.
Part of the ageing process for champagne involves the interaction between the air in the neck of the bottle and the wine that fills the rest of the bottle.

 If you look carefully at a magnum you’ll see that there is twice as much liquid as in a bottle but only a little bit more air. This means that the whole ageing process is slowed down.

So magnums spend longer in the champagne-maker’s cellar than normal sized bottles and this extra ageing means the flavours and aromas in a magnum are always that little bit richer, rounder and more complex – try it and I’m sure you’ll notice the difference.

Another very good reason to choose magnums over bottles is that they look so much more impressive. If you want your pary to be a stylish occasion, (and who doesn’t?) then magnums are just what you need to make your party stand out from the others.

Of course you can get even bigger bottles of champagne. The biggest of them all is called a Nebuchadnezzar.

( I’ve never found out for sure why all the big bottles in champagne are called after kings of ancient Persia. One story is that those kings from long ago represented the height of opulence – just the thing for champagne –  but I suspect there may be other reasons. If anyone knows another reason please leave a comment.)

Anyway a Nebuchadnezzar holds the equivalent of 20 normal bottles. It takes 3 people to handle one of these: two to hold the body of the bottle and one to hold the neck steady to pour. Not very practical, but they sure look impressive.

The other sizes in descending order are
Balthasar 16 bottles
Salmanazar 12 bottles
Mathusalem  8 bottles
Jeroboam  4 bottles
Magnum    2 bottles
Bottle   1 bottle
The two smallest sizes are great for those unexpected moments when a glass of champagne seems to be just the thing, but you need to drink them up soon after buying them. They don’t keep for long, but how long to keep champagne is something to discuss another time....

A Spoonful of Sugar - Sweet Champagne

A Spoonful of Sugar

How do you choose one brand of champagne over another?

Some people would choose the most expensive on the basis that ‘it must be the best’.
Not necessarily true by the way, and in any case, ‘Best’ is a personal opinion.

Other people choose a brand name they know because they don’t want to risk buying something different in case it turns out not to be quite what they expected.

So what would it be like if you could tell, before you bought it, what a bottle of champagne would be like?

Well the bad news is that you can never be entirely sure what any wine will taste like until you drink it, but the good news is that there are a few very useful pointers that every one can use.

 One thing you need to know is how sweet the champagne is.

As champagne nears the end of the production process it is bone dry. All the sugar that was once in the wine has been used up during fermentation to make alcohol and CO2 ( that’s where the the bubbles come from).

Champagne is so dry at this stage that many people wouldn’t enjoy it, so a little extra sugar, in liquid form, is added. The more sugar added, the sweeter the champagne.

This process of adding sugar is called dosage in French. It’s measured in grams per litre (gr/l) and knowing what the dosage is will give you a clear indication of the style of champagne.

Here are the main categories in increasing order of sweetness with some comment about the most common ones. By law, the category of sweetness must be mentioned on the label.
Zero Dosage ( sometimes called brut sauvage, ultra brut etc)
No added sugar at all, so it’s very dry and crisp. Fans of this style will say that it’s the most authentic reflection of the natural taste of the fruit, but it’s not everyone’s choice.

Brut Nature less than 3g/l
Extra-brut between 0 and 6 g/l

Brut  less than 15 g/l
By far the most popular style accounting for over 90% of all champagne. The classic combination of flavour and  smoothness in the mouth but still with a touch of acidity typical of all champagne.

Extra dry: between 12 and 20 g/l

Sec (or dry): between 17 and 35 g/l
Demi-sec: between 33 and 50 g/l
The days of adding sugar just to mask poor quality have gone. Now sec and demi-sec champagne offers a luscious alternative to brut without any of the heavy syrupiness of full-on pudding wines.

If you haven’t tried this style of champagne I certainly recommend it. Enjoy with a sweet dessert. You’ll find the two are a perfect match.

Doux: more than 50 g/l
Sweetest of the lot, but not very common at all these days

Why is Cristal So Expensive - The Economics of Champagne

Why is Cristal so expensive?

At practically every champagne tasting some one asks me this question, or a variation:
 “Is Cristal really that good?” “ Am I getting value for my money if I  buy Cristal?”

If it’s not Cristal it’s the price of Dom Pérignon, or Krug that intrigues people.

Perhaps people want to know what each constituent element costs so as to arrive at the price in the shop or in the bar, but of course, it doesn’t work like that.

Rule No. 1 for companies that sell luxury goods is never to justify the price with logic; a ) it can’t be done and b) when you buy a luxury product you’re buying a dream, an emotion as much as the product  itself and that emotion is beyond value.

However, there’s another answer to the question which is much closer to the truth and that is that the most expensive champagnes cost what they do because they have to.

In order for you to understand what I mean by this I should explain a little about the economics of the champagne industry.

The area in which champagne may officially be produced is not only quite small, ( it covers about 35,000 hectares or  86,000 acres ), but it’s also rigidly controlled. Everything that happens within the champagne region is also tightly controlled - from the number of vines you can plant per hectare, to the weight of grapes that you are allowed to harvest from one hectare of vines, right through to amount of juice you may press from each kilo of grapes harvested

All this is done in a bid to maintain the reputation and high quality standards that are associated with champagne and you have to admit that, by and large, this has been achieved

It follows from all this regulation that the amount of champagne that can be produced each year is also limited; it’s just over 300 million bottles per year, in fact.

Although there are 35,000 hectares of vineyard, the area is split up into about 260,000 plots,
-many of them tiny- spread amongst some 20,000 different owners most of whose vineyards  have been in their family for generations.

Most of the large champagne houses also have their own vineyards, but none of them own enough to supply all the grapes they need to make the quantity of champagne they sell each year. From time to time vineyards are put up for sale, but this is an increasingly rare occurrence and it is certainly not possible to rely on buying more vineyards as a means of increasing the supply of grapes.

This consequence of this is that every champagne house has a choice to make. When sales reach the limit of what they can produce using grapes from their own vineyards, they can either choose to carry on increasing sales and buy the extra grapes they need on the open market ( from those who grow grapes but do not make champagne ), or they can decide to limit the number of bottles they sell and use only the grapes that they grow in their own vineyards.

Louis Roederer, which is the house that makes Cristal, has a policy of buying in no more than 30% of the grapes they need to make their champagne, or looked at the other way, they have decided to be self-sufficient in grapes for 70% of their needs.

Whilst this can be seen as an advantage because it gives control over the supply of grapes, it also means that  (unless you can buy more vineyards) it’s very difficult to increase the number of bottles you can produce and sell, so the only way to increase annual turnover is to increase the price of the bottles you do sell, but this can be easier said than done.

Most houses sell a ‘ flagship’ non-vintage brand – these sell in the UK for  between £25-£40 – but here the market is crowded and competition is tough so it’s hard to raise prices. This is the principle reason that houses also sell a Prestige Cuvée – the likes of Cristal and Dom Pérignon – that sell for £100 or a lot more, even though the cost of production is only a few euros more than for the less expensive ‘flagship’ brand. At these higher prices the competition is slightly less fierce and besides, there is a less clear perception on the part of the public of what the ‘correct’ price should be. Consumers base their decision to buy or not to buy on emotion just as much, if not more than, on logic.

It’s the generous profit on these prestige cuvées that keeps champagne houses afloat. There is money to be made in selling non-vintage champagne if you sell enough of it, but champagne houses usually re-invest a large part of the profit on non-vintage in advertising, marketing, distribution and all their other business activities, whilst a much greater proportion of the profit on the more expensive champagne goes straight into the bank.

So, from the commercial point of view, that’s why the price of Cristal and the others has to be at the level it is.

My advice, whatever champagne you are buying, is not to think too much about the price, but just to enjoy the experience.

Champagne Brands - How to Choose One From Another

Champagne brands – How to choose one from another

Isn’t champagne wonderful?  It truly does bring a sparkle to any party, and yet when it comes to choosing between one brand or another, most of us haven’t a clue where to start.  Here’s a quick- start guide on how you can begin to understand what makes all  champagne brands different which will help you discover all kinds of new possibilities.

When buying champagne we tend to do one of three things:
• Stick with the brand we tried and liked before.
• Opt  for a recommendation from a friend
• Buy what the waiter or barman suggests

If you always drink the same brand you will probably never be disappointed, but you might well be missing out on something new and different.

If you try what someone else suggests you may, or may not, be pleasantly surprised but don’t forget that we all have different tastes so a champagne brand that your friend thinks is the most wonderful thing they’ve ever tasted may just not be what you like.

Unfortunately when we take whatever is on the wine list we’re letting someone else make the choice for us. That’s how a lot of the big brands get to be so big. They’re available everywhere and so, if we as consumers don’t make a deliberate choice, they get to sell a heck of a  lot of bottles!

There is another way and all it takes is to learn a few of the basics about champagne. Here’s the first one – ask what grapes have been used in the champagne production.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it. After all, when we buy a bottle of wine we’d usually want to know which grape varietal was used, wouldn’t we?  It’s how we’ve come to buy our wine nowadays.

Well we can and should do the same with champagne.

Champagne is made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, a white grape, and from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – two black grapes. (Actually there are others but let’s keep it simple. If you know these three that will cover 99% of all champagne that is made.)

You may be wondering how you can make white champagne from black grapes, but don’t forget that when the grape is pressed, the juice is always colourless, even if the grape skin is black.

As  wine lovers, we know that different grape varieties have different characteristics and produce wine with different tastes and flavours; and champagne is no exception.

A champagne maker can blend the juice from the three grapes in whatever proportions he/she wants just so long as they get the final taste they are looking for. So we can see that  the possible combinations are virtually infinite and it’s this blending of the three different grape varieties that is one of the key things that makes one champagne brand different from the next one.

Chardonnay brings flavours and aromas that are often described  as like citrus fruit. When wine gurus talk of elegance, freshness and finesse, they are usually talking about Chardonnay. We could compare the flavours to music and say that  Chardonnay provides the ' Treble' notes.

So, chardonnay-based champagnes  tend to be light, refreshing, clean and often quite dry. They are great as an aperitif and with delicate food such as sushi and shellfish.

Pinot Noir on the other hand brings fullness, power and body to the champagne. Typical aromas associated with Pinot Noir are red fruits such as strawberries and blackcurrants.

Champagnes with a high proportion of Pinot Noir are a good match with fairly full-flavoured, gutsy  food. If we use the same musical analogy as above, Pinot Noir provides the ' Bass ' notes in the composition.

The third grape variety allowed in the production of champagne is Pinot Meunier and whilst the other two are well-known outside the Champagne region, Pinot Meunier is peculiar to champagne.

Used in a champagne Pinot Meunier can bring intense fruitiness with aromas of white-fleshed fruit such as apples or pears. It’s easy to drink and difficult to dislike.

So before you buy your next bottle of champagne ask the retailer, or waiter, which grapes  have been used, and that will give you a good idea of the style. If you really want to impress then ask to know what the ‘assemblage‘ is ( pronounced assomblarge). That’s the French word for blend.

If you’re thinking that this is not a fool-proof method, then you’re right. This is a generalisation and the whole story is much more complicated, but I hope it’s a useful start for you.  Plus you don’t have to be a champagne expert to use this tip.

Whatever you choose, enjoy!