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Champagne Labels - It's All Back To Front (short version)

Jiles Halling,
UK’s leading Champagne host

Lots of people have written, blogged and videoed (is that a word?) about how to ‘read’a champagne label, but they’re all talking about the label on the FRONT of the bottle.

Here are a few thoughts on why what’s on the BACK label is potentially much more important....

By the way, there’s a lot that could be said on this and I didn’t want to overdo it for those who just want a fairly quick run-through of the main points, but if you want to read a more detailed version go to Champagnelabels

It’s odd to me that people so often speak of “wine and champagne” as if they are two totally different things. They’re not of course.

I ‘m not suggesting that champagne isn’t a bit special – I love champagne and for me it has an extra magic that is hard to put your finger on - but when all is said and done champagne is only a wine with bubbles in it.

Yet some of things that you’d normally expect from a wine seem not to apply to champagne; take the labels for example.

The front label of a champagne bottle is always reasonably standard.
No matter what shape, or colour or size it is there are certain bits of information that must be there:

  • the word ‘Champagne’ for starters,
  • then the name of the producer and his registration code,
  • the content (usually 75cl / 750ml),
  • the strength in abv ( alcohol by volume, usually 12%),
  • the degree of sweetness, (brut, demi-sec or whatever)
    and there are a few more things besides which can appear on the front label.

    If you ask me, a lot of this stuff is there more to satisfy the regulatory authorities than to give any really useful information to the consumer, but there you go. The point is that there’s little or nothing, in all this lot that tells you what the champagne tastes like, which is really what you want to know in the first place.

    That leaves you hoping that there’ll be a back label with some more detailed stuff to help you understand what’s inside the bottle and what it tastes like, but have you ever looked at the back label on a champagne bottle?

    Actually it would be more accurate to ask ‘ Have you ever looked FOR the back label on a champagne bottle? The chances are there’s no back label at all.

    This is a real shame and a missed opportunity for champagne makers because these days people want to know more about their wine (same with food and all sorts of things too) and they expect some sensible information.

    Most wine makers seem to have cottoned on to this and put some helpful stuff on their labels, but not so when it comes to the big champagne brands.

    Fortunately some makers are doing something a bit more switched on and I have to say that’s it’s often the smaller champagne makers who are leading the way- the so-called Grower Champagnes.

    So what should the label tell you?

    Recently I came across a back label that’s one the best I’ve ever seen so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s from Champagne Laherte Frères which has really caught my attention recently, but if they can do it, so can everyone else.

    Don’t worry if you don’t get all the significance of what follows or if it some things seem a bit detailed – if you follow my blogs and especially if you join our champagne club then all will gradually become clear.

    The Blend : 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier

    The type of grapes and more importantly, the proportion in which they have been blended, is very good indication of the style and so it’s one of the key things to know about a champagne.

    The Ageing: 6 months in oak barrels followed by at least 42 months in the bottle in the cellars.

    You need to know how long the champagne has been aged for, but very few makers tell you.

    The yeasty, toasty aromas that many people associate with great champagne, only develop after a good few years ageing on the lees.

    At the other end of the scale, a champagne that’s aged for the minmum time and no more will be what they call ‘Green’: sharp, thin and too acidic.

    The quality of the grapes
    Another good pointer to the quality of the champagne.

    If the words Grand Cru or Premier Cru appear on the label, it means that the grapes used were top-notch.This is not an absolute guarantee that the champagne will be great too, but it’s definitely a plus point.

    On the label of the bottle I am talking about, neither wording appears. That’s because there is 15% Pinot Meunier in the blend and no champagne with Pinot Meunier in it can be either Grand or Premier Cru *

    The Dosage: 5 grams / litre

    The Dosage is the small amount of liquid sugar added just before the bottle leaves the cellars so as to adjust the level of sweetness.

    Most champagne is in the Brut category, but anything under 15 grams of sugar/litre can still be called Brut – that’s quite a variation, so you could buy a brut and find it’s not quite what you expected at all and worse, you wouldn’t understand why not.

    So Yes. Brut is a good starting point, but something more precise is needed.

    In the case of the champagne I’m refering to the dosage is only 5 gr/litre. That’s low, so you know that the champagne is going to be pretty dry with a distinct edge to it.

    Wow, all that information packed into just a few short lines.

    If only more makers did that we’d be so much better informed and have a better experience in my view. So far there are only a few makers who do this, but the trickle is getting bigger and from your point of view that can only be a good thing

    Stay Bubbly

    If you're champagne-lover, perhaps you’d like to learn a little more about it and discover some champagnes you’ve never tried before instead of stcking with just a few brands whose names you know?
    If that sounds good to you then our new champagne club is just the thing for you. Find out more here: champagne club

    For an update of Jiles last publications: read more …..

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