Brut Non-Vintage (Brut NV) is the standard quality for Champagne. Ideally, these wines are blended of one or more years’ production with reserve wines to hit a consistent house style and to reflect the base vintage as little as possible. Some of the better producers (Krug for instance) like to refer to their Brut NV as “Multi-Vintage” rather than “Non-Vintage.” Many of the wines labeled Brut NV are in fact from a single vintage. As Brut NV is most often the highest volume and lowest priced wine from a particular Champagne house, it is likely to contain the largest percentage of purchased grapes or juice (if grapes or juice are purchased) and in some cases may not even be bottled by the company selling it. Most of the wines bought sur latte by the Champagne houses are ultimately sold as Brut NV or Extra Dray It tends to be easily accessible and can be commercial (in the best sense of the word) in style. Here’s a tip: If you want the best possible Brut Non-Vintage from a particular producer, buy it in magnums.
Vintage Champagne is usually Brut and always from only one usually superior vintage which is indicated on the label. Most houses do not make vintage Champagne every year so the vintage-dated wines are special. These wines reflect both the house style and the vintage. As Brut Vintage is frequently closer in quality to Luxury Cuvee offerings but is priced closer to Brut NV, it is often the best value in a particular Champagne house’s line-up. Some Vintage Bruts are labeled “Brut Millesime” which is literally Brut Vintage.
Luxury Cuvee Champagne (aka Tete de Cuvee) is the highest quality Champagne but, as with many other luxury items, often draws a disproportionately higher price. The luxury cuvees are intended for when only the best will do, no matter how expensive. All the luxury cuvees that I am aware of are finished Brut.
There are other sorts of Champagne that may fit in one or more of the above quality levels. Blanc de Blancs are made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de Noirs are made from 100% black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Cremant is a old style of Champagne with two-thirds the effervescence of most Champagne (four as opposed to six atmospheres of pressure). Rosé Champagnes usually are produced by adding red wine to the cuvee, often as part of the dosage. All these types are usually sold as “Brut” but may be Non-Vintage, Vintage, or Luxury Cuvee. In fact, it is possible to have a wine that is a Blanc de Blancs Cremant Brut Non-Vintage or a Blanc de Noirs Rose Brut Vintage.
The terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru (or “1er cru” as it is most often notated) on Champagne labels refer to the recognized quality of the villages as opposed to single vineyards. In Champagne, a village is a Grand Cru or a Premier Cru. If all the villages providing grapes for the wine are designated Grand Cru, the wine is entitled to say Grand Cru on the label. If all the villages providing grapes for the wine are designated Premier Cru, the wine is entitled to say Premier Cru on the label. A wine coming from a mix of Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages also may have Premier Cru on the label. As with anything else, there are Grand Crus and there are Grand Crus. Even in the best villages, some sites (and some farmers) are better than others. Nevertheless, wines labeled Grand Cru are usually a very good bet. Wines labeled Premier Cru may be less so although it is certainly no knock.
Sur Latte is the economically expedient practice wherein a producer (usually a negociant) buys unfinished bottled Champagne from a grower or co-op or even another negoçiant and finishes (disgorges and add the dosage) the wine and sells it as if it had been made by the producer. Because of differences in grape variety, sourcing, terroir, and cellar practice, sur latte wines are very generic tasting. Most quality proponents in Champagne deplore the practice and several of the best negoçiants have “taken the pledge” not to buy sur lattes.
Grower Champagne refers to Champagne made by the grower who grew the grapes. The wines must be made, bottle, and refermented on his premises. They may be disgorged and dosed at a co-op of which the grower is a member. Grower Champagnes are also known as Estate Bottled Champagne or Farmer Fizz.