At professional wine tastings, the pop of a Champagne cork usually signals the end of work and the start of socializing. The experts know that the handful of brands that will be poured are so consistent and so familiar they aren't likely to provoke much critical discussion. Therefore, they can relax and put pleasure before analysis.
But this civilized tradition may be coming to an end--and happily so. While Champagne is still primarily identified with a few big houses (Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Taittinger), there are suddenly many more names to choose from, thanks to the top-quality small Champagne producers whose wines have arrived in the international marketplace.
The Champagnes of small producers are identified on labels by the initials RM, which stand for récoltant-manipulant, or grower-maker. There are no fewer than 2,700 of these producers in Champagne, vintners who grow grapes, make wine and, increasingly, sell it using their own names. That's an astonishingly high number, especially considering all the time and money and expertise it takes to make sparkling wine.