Champagne’s Dirty Little Secret

HAVE YOU EVER wondered why the actual bottles for so many of the highest volume Champagne brands (the Grand Marques) are identical? Take away the label and foil and Moet & Chandon Imperial looks just like Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label which looks just like Taittinger which looks like … Well, you get the idea. As you might suspect/expect (since I’m asking the question), there is a reason. That reason is called sur lattes – and it is the dirty little secret of the grand marque Champagne business.

The grand marques are the famous big houses of Champagne that control over two-thirds of the Champagne sold world-wide. They are the Moet & Chandons, Veuve Clicquots, Taittingers, Mumms, Roederers, Perrier-Jouets, Piper-Heidsiecks, Pommerys, etc. These worldwide Champagne brands are largely responsible for building Champagne the place, having established Champagne the wine, and promoting Champagne the lifestyle. Some of these grand marque houses are huge (Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet, Mumm) and some are mach smaller (Pol Roger, Henriot, Bollinger). All these houses make a range of styles and most all have a tete de cuvee or “luxury cuvee” that they offer as a flagship wine (Dom Perignon, Cristal, Comtes de Champagne, La Grande Dame, etc.). Two – Krug and Salon – operate only at the luxury cuvee end of the business with no products under $150 per bottle.

Many of the grand marques make splendid wines from their own grapes and grapes they purchase. However, some (many?) of the grand marque producers don’t make all the wine they sell. All the grand marque producers are negoçiant-manipulant (NM) producers so they all can buy grapes but they also can buy must (juice) and even wine. While all the grand marque producers buy grapes from independent growers, many of them also buy unfermented musts and even fermented base wines from co-ops and small growers. They blend these with with their own base wines to form their cuvees. Buying only grapes gives the house the most control and is best from the standpoint of quality potential. Buying musts can be more convenient but gives a bit less control. Buying base wines can work out as long as they buy and blend carefully and manage the rest of the process themselves. If a house buys from the same areas where they grow their own grapes, the blended wines should be compatible and the finished product may even show some specificity of place.

The dirty little secret of grand marque Champagne is that there is way to buy wine: some of the big houses buy sur latte – which is to say that they buy nearly finished Champagnes in the bottle. Lattes are the thin wooden strips between the layers of bottles stacked on their sides in the cellars of Champagne so sur lattes translates to “on the strips.” The big brands buy sur latte wines from the co-ops and some growers. The idea is that they then finish (disgorge and dose) and label them in their own cellars and then sell them as if they made them start to finish. This can lead to several different products being sold under the same label as if they were the same wine when all they have in common is a generally similar blend of grape varieties and the same house dosage. Even if the quality is consistent, the taste will not be. Almost all sur latte wines are sold as basic Brut Non-Vintage (NV) or are further sweetened up to Extra Dry NV, Sec NV, or Demi-Sec NV. In general, these are the entry level products … but collectively the big houses’ Brut NV and Extra Dry wines make up the lion’s share of the Champagne business. Contrary to the “grower geek” gospel, a lot of these wines are pretty good. Generally though, the cuvees from the biggest houses are inconsistent – and likely to be dosed on the sweeter side so as to hide both flaws and dissimilarities.

So how do you know whether the grand marque Brut NV or Extra Dry in the standard green champagne bottle you’re buying was a sur latte purchase? The simple answer is “You don’t.” Some of the grand marque producers say that they don’t buy sur latte. That list includes Henriot, Pol Roger, and Roederer. Most of the other houses won’t deny that they buy sur latte but they down play it and no one wants to talk about it. To sell sur latte wines or not is an ongoing debate within the grand marques.

From where I stand, the practice of sur lattes being sold under, say the Veuve Clicquot label doesn’t seem all that different from a company in southern China selling a fraudulent purse as Louis Vuitton – except that in this case it is the company who owns the brand that is perpetrating the deception and they are demanding full price for the potentially lesser goods.

If it’s important to you that you get a high quality, authentic product made by the company which is marketing it as their own, what do you do? How can you be sure you aren’t getting a sur latte? There are several ways to make sure that your bottle of Champagne was actually made by – rather than just finished by – the producer whose name is one the label. You could buy only from those “NM” (negoçiant-manipulant) producers who say they don’t buy sur lattes; but then you’d have to trust that they are telling the truth. You can buy only magnums as all Champagne magnums are required to be made in-house. Or you can by either Champagnes in distinctive bottles or estate-bottled Champagne.

Distinctive bottles? These are Champagnes found either in one-offs or odd bottles – which is say bottles other than the standard green basic Champagne bottle. Because champagne hase to be made from the second fermentation on in the bottle in which it is ultimately sold, making sur lattes in those proprietary bottles is impossible. Any house using a proprietary bottle for all of its entry level production is not buying sur lattes – so Bollinger Special Cuvee (which come in a unique bottle) must be made by Bollinger

Or you can buy grower’s estate-bottled champagnes (also known as recoltant manipulant or “RM” champagnes and sometimes referred to as “Farmer Fizz”) which are produced from-start-to-finish by the grower from grapes he grows on his estate.

If you buy either the unique bottles or estate-bottled Champagnes, you know who made your wine.

 

Champagne By-The-Numbers

All Champagne producers have a number assigned to them and all Champagne labels have that producer number on them. It starts with two letters that are followed by a series of numbers. Usually in very small print and sometimes effectively hidden in fancy design, the number is nonetheless there. That two letter pre-fix tells you what kind of producer (negociant, récoltant, co-op, etc.) made the wine. Here’s what those initials mean.

 

NM: Négociant manipulant. These companies buy grapes or juice, or wine and process the wine. Many also grow grapes. All the grand marques are “NM” producers.

CM: Coopérative de manipulation. Co-operatives that make wines from the growers who are members, with all the grapes pooled together. The wines are sold under the co-op’s brand name. Nicolas Feuillatte is a “CM” producer.

RM: Récoltant manipulant. A grower that also makes wine from his own grapes (with a maximum of 5% purchased grapes allowed). These Farmer Fizz producers are the Champagne equivalent of the domaine in Burgundy. Co-operative members who make their own second (bottle) fermentations but take their bottles to be disgorged at the co-op may now label themselves as RM instead of RC.

SR: Société de récoltants. An association of growers making a shared Champagne but who are not a co-operative. Very rarely seen.

RC: Récoltant coopérateur. A member of a co-operative selling Champagne produced by the co-operative under his own name and label. Rarely seen in the US.

MA: Marque auxiliaire or Marque d’acheteur. A brand name unrelated to the producer or grower; the name is owned by someone else, for example a supermarket. This is seen on “Buyer’s Own Brands.”

ND: Négociant distributeur. A wine merchant (not a producer) selling under his own name.