What can be read on a champagne label? The brand and the name of the maker; the dosage (brut, sec or so on); the year or lack of a year; the phrase blanc de blancs when only white grapes have been used in the wine; when possible, the commune of origin of the grapes, and finally, sometimes, but less and less often, the qualitative classification of the grapes: Grand Cru for the 17 communes that have the right to the description, or Premier Cru for 41 others. The professional standing of the producer must appear, printed in small letters: NM meaning a merchant-winemaker; RM a grower making champagne from other sources; CM a cooperative that makes and sells its own champagne using grapes from its member growers; MA the brand of the buyer; RC a small grower who sends his grapes to one or several cooperatives to be make into champagne because he does mot habe the equipment to do so himself, and who receives the finished champagne to sell; SR a registered firm set up by champagne growers of the same family who pool their production resources; or ND meaning a merchant who distributes wine bought from others.
What can be gleaned from all this? Simply that the Champenois have deliberately adopted a sales policy that is focused on the brand. A customer will, therefore, order Moet et Chandon, Bollinger or Taittinger because he or shi prefers the flavor and style adopted by this or that brand. It is the same for the champagne produced by the négociants-manipulants, the cooperative and related brands, but not for the récoltants-manipulants, who, to qualify as such, make champagne only from their own grapes, generally grouped in a single commune. These champagnes are the so-called Monocrus, and the name of the cru will generally appear on the label.
Although there is only the one appellation, “champagne”, a great many different champagnes exist, and the range of characteristics of flavour, scent and appearance can readily satisfy the different needs and varying tastes of every drinker. So, champagne can be blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs (from Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir or from both) or blends of blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs in any imaginable proportion. It can be from one cru alone or from several, originating from a Grand Cru, a Premier Cru or communes of lesser prestige. It can be vintage or non-vintage (the non-vintage champagnes can be made from young wines or be made up from wines from the reserve, and they are sometimes produced from an assemblage of vintage years). It can be non-dosed or very variably dosed and it can undergo short or long maturation on the less. It may be disgorged for a longer or shorter time, or be white or rose (which is obtained either by blending or by bleeding). Then again, most of these options can be combined together in different ways, so there is in fact an infinite number of champagnes. Whatever the type, the general consensus is that the best champagne has matured for a long time on the lees (five to ten years), and is consumed, in France at least, in the six months following disgorgement.
Given all this, it is easy to understand why the price of bottles can vary so widely and why there are wines at the top of the range or special wines, cuvées speciales. It is unfortunately true that, among the better-known brands, the cheapest champagnes are the least appealing. On the other hand, the big price differences between the upper range (vintage champagne) and the top-price wines do not always guarantee an equivalent step in quality.
Champagne should be drunk when is between 7° and 9° C, chilled for the blancs de blancs and young champagnes, not so cold for the vintage and sweeter champagnes. In addition to the quarter bottle, a half, a magnum (twice a single bottle), Jeroboam (4 bottles), Methuselah (8 bottles) and Salmanazar (12 bottles). The bottle should be cooled gradually by immersing it in a champagne bucket containing water and ice. To remove the cork, take off the wire cage and foil. If the cork is likely to be pushed out by the pressure, allow it to come out with the cage and foil. If the cork resists, hold it in one hand and turn the bottle with the other. The cork should be removed slowly and noiselessly, avoiding rapid decompression.
Champagne should not be served in goblet but in tall, slender glasses that are completely dry and free from any traces of detergent, which will kill the bubbles and the foam. It can be drunk equally well as an aperitif as with starters and non-oily fish. The richer wines, mostly blanc de noirs, and the great vintages are frequently served with meat dishes with sauce. Drink a demi-sec wine rather than a brut with dessert of sweet dishes, because the sugar in the dish will over-emphasize the palate's sensitivity to the acidity of the brut.
The most recent vintages are 1982, a great vintage everywhere; 1983, straightforward; 1984 was not a vintage, so we can ignore it; 1985, good bottles; 1986, average quality, few wines declared a vintage; 1987, a bad year; 1988, 1989 and 1990, three wonderful years to enjoy; 1991, poor, generally not declared a vintage; 1992, 1993 and 1994, average years; a few important houses declared 1992 and 1993 a vintage; 1995, the best year since 1990; 1996, a great year, declared a vintage in January 2000.