What does the name on a bottle of Champagne actually mean? A person, a family, an estate or perhaps a company? Brands want us to feel like we know where a wine comes from and who made it. When you pick up a bottle though, how can you tell?
It might be a surprise to learn that many of the names on the supermarket shelves are not ones you can walk up to in Reims or Epernay and ring the doorbell. Some just seem to pop up for the odd too-good-to-be-true promotion before disappearing again. Some, such as the enormous cast of ‘own-label champagnes’ available in the UK, sell in their millions without anyone really minding who made them. Even if a champagne does not boast a well-known retailer’s name on it, it may still be made-to-order, with a concocted (or appropriated) brand name designed to conjure up the image of an established house.
Champagne is no different from other wines in this regard; there are ‘real’ brands and ‘soft’ ones. Where it is different, though, is in a marvellously-French piece of legislative detail. On the back label of every single bottle of Champagne there is a two-letter code, followed by a number. Understanding this is the first step to revealing the path of that wine from vineyard to glass.
Cracking the code
Starting with the most opaque of examples, take a look at that unfamiliar own-brand champagne on a supermarket shelf. On the back label, in small print, will be two letters, most likely MA or NM, followed by a string of numbers.
MA is a ‘Marque ‘d’Achateur’, or a buyer’s brand. This is one of those conjured-up, anonymous brands, created by the retailer to stick on a wine made especially for them by another producer (who you may or may not be able to track down). These can be houses, large or small or, just as frequently, co-operatives. Can these wines be any good? Well, in wine, if you’re proud of the product you tend to put your name on it. So, in this case, there’s usually a question mark.
‘NM’, or Négociant-Manipulant, is next on the list and this is the category that includes all the true Houses. In Champagne, if you buy in even a small proportion of your grapes (but make the wine yourself) you are denoted NM and the ‘Grandes Marques’ – the famous names we all know in Champagne – might have thousands of acres of vines but none of them can hope to produce wine entirely from their own vineyards (although Roederer and Bollinger are closest). Champagne’s history is one of an almost total separation between grape farmers and winemakers after all and, even today, 90% of the vineyards in Champagne are owned by independent growers rather than the houses themselves.
Over the last decade, however, the NMs have started welcoming some newcomers. Names such as Bêreche, Lassaigne and La Closerie have all joined their ranks, even though these will be familiar to many as famous ‘Grower’ producers. Faced with increasing demands for their wines, these and many other growers have found it impossible to expand their businesses without buying in grapes from vineyards they don’t actually own.
“You cannot buy vineyards to expand, because there’s nothing for sale and the prices are crazy” – Charlotte De Sousa
Champagne De Sousa works with just ten hectares, split into ninety three plots centred in the Côte des Blancs. “You cannot buy vineyards to expand, because there’s nothing for sale and the prices are crazy”, explains Charlotte, one of three siblings now controlling the estate. With a few hectares of rented vineyards they are hardly Moët et Chandon, although this now puts them into the pigeon-hole by the Champagne authorities. Perhaps being a ‘house’ or a ‘grower’ is more of a state of mind than a technicality, then? Or maybe, at a time when a number of the larger houses are making steady progress improving their vineyards, there is less of a real difference on the ground than there was twenty years ago? Either way, being a négociant doesn't necessarily mean being enormous.
Nevertheless, if you only make champagne from grapes you grow yourself, you are labeled RM, or Récoltant-Manipulant. This is true Grower Champagne. Being an RM means that all wine production has to happen on your own premises and this, rather than the growing itself, is the most significant barrier to entry. Want to start making your own wine from just 1 hectare of land, all yourself? Well, you’ll need hundreds of thousands of Euros of equipment, staff and, not inconsequentially, space; that land, just over the size of a football pitch, will produce around 20,000 thousand bottles that need to be stored somewhere.
Being a grower is no guarantee of quality, but it does offer the producer total control of every stage of the process, from vine to glass. Some growers only own small parcels in very specific regions, whereas others work more like houses, blending vineyards that they own across the region.
There is, though, one other category of ‘grower’ that is rarely discussed. The RC.s, or Récoltant-Co-operateurs, have their wine made for them by the local co-operative as part of their agreement to supply grapes. The reasons for this largely come down to both costs (as mentioned above there are considerable equipment costs to get started) and size; as the average vineyard holding in Champagne is tiny – typically under 2 hectares – the co-operative will process and blend the grapes of many different growers together (occasionally an RC might separate out their own grapes at the co-operative, but this is fairly rare). These blended wines will then either be bottled under the RC’s label, bottled under the co-operative’s own label (a CM. or Co-operative de Manipulation), bottled as MA for a retailer, or simply sold to another producer (including a large house).
Slowly but surely
Clear as mud? Champagne’s complexity doesn’t just start in the glass, then. It goes all the way back. The Champenois have learnt, over centuries of inclement weather, political upheaval and war, not to overstretch themselves. Most of the true growers we know and love did not pop up overnight. Instead, row-by-row, hectare by hectare, they have inched themselves away from contracts and co-operatives, started a winery with a few tanks and second-hand press, tailored their production to their market safe in the knowledge that there are always other paths. The new generation are no different. If anything, they face stronger headwinds. It’s the least we can do, then, to hunt down those wines that keep Champagne’s variety alive and her land in good health.
Knowing a little more about where that bottle comes from is a good first step.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
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Pierre Legras is one of the few NM labelled producers we work with at Sip, creating a wonderfully clean style of Chardonnay that is archetypal of the Côte des Blancs.
At the top end of the RM scale we work with a number of producers who are fortunate enough to own 10+ hectares, such as Louis Brochet (13ha), whilst on the smaller side, we have producers such as Rousseaux Batteux who work with just 2.6ha.
We don’t currently have anyone labelled RC… but we do have a new and exciting producer who will likely fit this niche coming in the new year. Watch this space!