The prestige, aromas and flavours of Champagne have been seducing both wine aficionados and laymen for centuries. It was Mark Twain who said, “too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right” and I couldn’t agree more. However, bottle labels can bewilder and intimidate potential buyers. To find some clarity, and arm you against confusing labels, please read on for a brief insight into the world of Champagne.
Champagne: A brief product summary
The only wine legally permitted to be called Champagne internationally is from the Champagne region of France. The regions cool climate yields high acidity in its wine, while its unique chalk (belemnite) soils contribute a distinct minerality in the flavour and aroma. The only grape varieties permitted in Champagne production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Champagne: A brief explanation of production
A still wine is first produced. Next, a small amount of yeast and sugar, called the, is added initiating a second fermentation in bottle. During fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar converting it into alcohol and creating carbon dioxide as a by-product. In still wine the CO2 is released into the atmosphere, in Champagne however, the CO2 is trapped inside the bottle giving Champagne its effervescence. The expired yeast is trapped in the neck of the bottle via a process called remuage, and removed before the product goes to market.
Each Champagne producer (Champagne house) offers a signature Non-Vintage (NV) style. This wine is produced annually to a consistent flavour and quality. NV uniformity is achieved by blending wines from many vintages. This process is called cuvee. The final step before corking the bottle is to add the dosage, a sweetened liqueur, which defines the style (level of sweetness) of the wine. This is then stated on a bottle (from driest to sweetest) as Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Demi-sec, or Doux.
A Vintage Champagne is made with grapes of exceptional quality from a single year. However, up to 20% of wine from other vintages is legally permitted. It is not necessarily true that Vintage is ‘better’ than Non-Vintage. Vintage Champagne has characters unique to the year it was cultivated, while NV wines offer a specific and reliable flavour profile every year.
Prestige Cuvee is considered to be the ultimate Vintage Champagne. It is produced from only the very best grapes in the most exceptional years; although some producers chose to blend vintages. Prestige Cuvee’s are so elite that we often get to know them on a first name basis, as opposed to by their producer. Here are some examples:
Dom Pérignon produced by Moët et Chandon
Cristal produced by Louis Roederer
La Grande Dame produced by Veuve Clicquot
Belle Epoque produced by Perrier-Jouët
La Grande Année produced by Bollinger
Célébris produced by Gosset
Grand Siècle produced by Laurent-Perrier
Sir Winston Churchill produced by Pol Roger
Champagne: Other common label phrases
* Blanc de Blancs: Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
* Blanc de Noirs: Champagne made entirely from the black grapes Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. The grape skins are removed before the wine can absorb colour.
* Brut Natural: No sugar was added at the dosage stage of production. Some consider these wines to be truer expressions of their terrior as the taste has not been altered by sugar. Others prefer Brut Natural as an attempt to cut calories.
* Rosé: Pink Champagne. There are two ways to achieve pink wine. 1) Wine endures a brief period of grape skin contact during or prior to fermentation. B) A small amount of still red wine is blended into the white wine.
* Grand Cru: The rank of a vineyard in Champagne is directly related to soil quality. The best vineyards are categorized as Grand Cru, followed in quality ranking by Premier Cru. There are 17 Grand Cru Vineyards. These vineyards will be labelled specifically on the bottle as these wines have earned their bragging rights (and so have you if you are drinking one).
You are officially prepared for the ultimate Champagne challenge, buying a bottle. So, approach that wall of foreign bottles and knowledgable wine merchants with confidence. And above all else, happy drinking!