Unlike other French wines that are named after growing regions, Champagnes are named for the houses that produce them. The houses, in turn, produce various brands of Champagne — called marques. The largest and most famous of the houses are known as the Grandes Marques. Many belong to a union called the Syndicat de Grandes Marques de Champagne. Here are some of the more recognizable members:
Pommery & Greno
Moët et Chandon
Beginning with Moët et Chandon in 1974, a number of French Champagne houses opened up shop in California. These New World facilities produce sparkling wines the traditional way using the same grape varieties as in France: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.
The French-American productions include Domaine Carneros (owned by Taittinger), Domaine Chandon (owned by Moët et Chandon), Mumm Cuvée Napa (owned by G. H. Mumm), Piper Sonoma (owned by Piper-Heidsieck), and Roederer Estate (owned by Louis Roederer).
Madame Lilly Bollinger, a young widow who took control of the esteemed Bollinger Champagne house, had this to say about bubbly: “I only drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I'm thirsty.”
While some of the major Champagne houses have sizeable vineyard holdings, they still buy most of their grapes from the 20,000 or so small growers in the Champagne district. The small growers, who collectively own about 90 percent of the vineyards, are increasingly making their own Champagnes.
About 130 of these grower Champagnes are available in the U.S. market (out of the thousands sold in France). You've probably never heard their names (they can't afford to pay for promotion and advertising like the big guys), but they offer high quality and bargain prices.
How do you recognize a grower Champagne? It's on the label. In the lower right-hand corner of the front label are two letters followed by some numbers. The only letters that signify it's a grower Champagne are either “RM” or “SR.” Here are all the possible letters and what they mean:
NM (Négociant-Manipulant) — The term means merchant-distributor. These are the big houses. They buy grapes in volume from independent growers.
RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) — The term means grower-distributor. This is a grower that makes and markets its own Champagne.
MA (Marque d'acheteur) — This term is used for a brand of Champagne not owned by the actual producer of that Champagne.
CM (Cooperative-Manipulant) — This is a cooperative of growers who bottle their product together — although these wines can include purchased grapes.
RC (Recoltant-Cooperateur) — This means a grower sends its grapes to a cooperative to be made into wine. The grapes can be blended with other wines in the cooperative.