The Ultimate Champagne Guide

Champagne is probably the world’s most famous and recognizable wine. The term “Champagne” is often used as a generic term to mean “sparkling wine” by the general public. As an industry professional this can sometimes pain me, however, I realize that everyone is well versed in different subjects. Where some people may care about sports or science, I am passionate about wine! To me, Champagne is so special and unique that I feel everyone should know what differs champagne from its imitators.

Champagne is a blended wine made only in the Champagne region of France; accept no imitations! For a while, it was common practice for those outside the EU to call their sparkling wines champagne but thanks to regulations and globalization this trend is dying. In the Champagne region, there are five distinct districts, each district is full of villages surrounded by vineyards. Each vineyard is rated on something called the cru system in total there are: 17 Grand Crus, 40 Premier Crus, and 264 Champagne villages (the lowest rating). Champagne can be made by Negociant Manipulant, those that buy grapes and make wine, Cooperative de Manipulation, cooperatives making wine from grower member, and Recoltant Manipulant, growers making wine from their own grapes.

But all these details really tell us nothing about what’s in the bottle, so let’s pop the cork and dive inside!

Grapes and Terroir

Grapes – Champagne producers can only use three different varieties of grapes to make champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. After growing grapes and producing the wine, they will select blend their wines and use the Traditional Method (méthode champenoise) to produce the world’s most famous sparkling wine.

Terroir – The most important attribute of champagne is the region it comes from – Champagne in Northern France. It is one of the world’s most northern grape growing regions and being so northern provides a cool, continental climate. The grapes grown here ripen very late, rarely ripening fully, thus giving the wine a low level of sweetness and a high level of acidity. The soil of the champagne region consists of limestone and chalk, which contributes even more acid to the grapes. This type of soil is highly porous, meaning that it stores water deep down, allowing the vines access to water in even the driest of Summers.

Méthode Champenoise

Only producers in the Champagne region can use the French term “Méthode Champenoise” on their bottles, everyone else, even other French sparkling wine producers, must use the terminology “traditional method.” It is a method that has evolved, through trial and error, over centuries and is specific to Champagne.

Grape juice from each vineyard plot is fermented separately before being selectively blended to make the highly acidic base wine of champagne. This blending process is considered an art and the most important part of the process.

Following is the second fermentation where wine is bottled with yeast, a small amount of sugar and then capped. Here the bottle is stored horizontally for a period of time legally defined by what classification of champagne it is; although most producers exceed these legal requirements. This resting period is called “sur lie,” because the wine is resting “on the lees,” the dead yeast cells. It is this second fermentation that traps CO2 in the wine, giving champagne its bubbles!

These bottles go through a process called riddling. The bottle is put at a 45-degree angle, cap pointing down, and rotated every 2 days along an increasing angle, until the sediment rests in the neck of the bottle. Disgorging comes next and involves removing the lees from the bottle by freezing the neck, popping the top, and pulling out the frozen lees. Next come the dosage and the final corking. The wine is then dosed with a little base wine and some sugar. The amount of sugar added defines the sweetness level of the champagne. Sulfur dioxide is added as a preservative, then finally; the wine is corked and ready to go!

Classifications of Champagne

Non-Vintage Champagne

Most champagne falls into this category and it is a blend of dozens, often hundreds of wines from several vintages and many vineyards. Uses all three grapes grown in the region and rarely wine from Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards. These wines must spend at least 15 months sur lie.”

Vintage Champagne

Made from grapes from only one exceptional year, often from dozens of wines. Grapes from Premier and Grand Crus are included in these wines, but pinot meunier rarely makes an appearance. These wines must spend at least 3 years sur lie.”

Prestige Curvée

The best champagnes out there, made from the best grapes from Grand Cru vineyards by the best producers. Mainly vintage but can also be non-vintage. Often has finer bubbles and more complex, elegant and intense aromas and flavors than the other two classifications. Oddly, there is no legal “sur lie” requirement, but general practice is 4-10 years.

Sweetness

There are six categories of the sweetness level to categorize champagne. These are indicated on the bottle typically with their English translation and then how you would describe them to others. You’ll notice that some of the descriptions overlap, this is because the classifications themselves overlap.

  • Extra Brut: Bone Dry, totally dry to extremely dry
  • Brut: Very Dry, totally dry to fairly dry
  • Extra Sec: Extra Dry, fairly dry to off-dry
  • Sec: Dry, medium dry
  • Demi-Sec: Medium Dry, quite sweet
  • Doux: Sweet, very sweet

Styles of Champagne

Finally, champagne comes in four different styles. One of which, makes up 90% of all champagne made and is a blend of at least two different grapes, is white in color, and fits into one of the above categories listed in “Sweetness.” The other three types of Champagne are listed below – but strangely enough still fit into the above categories:

Blanc de Blanc

“White from white” this champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay, is white in color and is always brut. These are lighter bodied, more acidic and more elegant than other champagne.

Blanc de noir

“White from black” the rarest of all forms of champagne as only a few producers make them. Golden in color and usually produced from 100% pinot noir grapes, although Pinot Meunier can feature. Always brut and very full-bodied.

Rosé

Varying shades of pink are available, and these are almost always a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, sometimes Pinot Meunier too. These are high in aromas and flavors of wild strawberries, like Blanc de noir, these are full-bodied champagnes.

Tasting and Pairing

The fun part of beverages! Drinking and pairing them with foods. How does champagne typically smell, taste and what would you pair it with?

Aromas

Champagne’s signature aromas are of baked apples and pears. There’s also a good amount of bready, sourdough and yeasty aromas in the wine too. These come from its time spent sur lie. The longer it spends on the lees the more pronounced these aromas are.

Taste

Apples and pears are again typical here, with creamy and vanilla notes becoming more pronounced the older the wine is. Again, you’ll find bready flavors, as well as soft nutty flavors, in older wines.

Food Pairings

The classic pairing of champagne with oysters and other shellfish is not to be understated. Try pairing with crispy, lightly fried appetizers -think calamari- creamy cheeses like brie and other rich buttery foods. Blanc de noir and rosé champagnes are more full-bodied than white champagne and therefore can complement heavier foods and can even suit main courses at the dinner table.

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Benjamin Michael Beddow

Benjamin Michael Beddow

Food and Beverage Professional

As a food and beverage professional for over ten years, Ben has spent most of his time behind the bar, giving him a broad and in-depth knowledge of all things drinkable and drink related. Now, as a traveling freelance writer exploring the gastronomy, drinks, and food service industry of the world, Ben has taken his knowledge and experiences to the world wide web to share with others. The love for the trade never dies and Ben can still be found running around restaurants and slinging drinks in ski resorts in the USA during the winter season.

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