Champagne, the most celebratory of bubbly beverages, is appropriate for a wedding toast, a baby’s birth, or a ship’s christening. Champagne gets its distinct yeasty, nutty aromas from a years-long fermentation and ageing process that results in a sparkling wine of unparalleled complexity.
What Is Champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine that is white or rosé in colour and is made primarily from the grapes chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. It takes its name from the Champagne region of France, where it is produced. Because champagne is more expensive than other sparkling wines, it has come to represent luxury and celebration.
Champagne refers to a specific type of sparkling wine. This wine must be made in the Champagne region of France using a specific winemaking technique known as the méthode champenoise, according to EU regulations. Champagne winemakers are so proud of this method that they have taken the name to court to protect it, and no wine made outside of the region can be called Champagne.
What Is the History of Champagne Making?
Champagne has been home to grape vines since at least the 5th century and is the closest winemaking region to Paris. Historically, Champagne wines were uncarbonated, light reds made from pinot noir. These early red wines would frequently begin refermenting in the bottle, causing a buildup of carbon dioxide that would occasionally cause the bottles to explode. While Champagne winemakers tried to avoid this risk, the unusual bubbly wine became popular with the royal court in the early 1700s. Winemakers figured out how to control the carbonation process by the nineteenth century, resulting in the Champagne we drink today.
How Champagne Is Made: Méthode Champenoise
The method of production, known as méthode champenoise, distinguishes Champagne from other sparkling wines. This procedure can be divided into six steps:
- Primary fermentation: The first step in the Champagne production process is to create an uncarbonated, highly acidic, low alcohol wine. Champagne grapes are high in acid and low in sugar, making them ideal for this first step. Champagne is a northern region defined by a cold and dark climate. Each Champagne house purchases grapes from a variety of small growers throughout the Champagne region and vinifies them independently.
- Assemblage: The cellarmaster blends the previous step’s wines to create a wine that is consistent with the house’s style. The key to producing Champagne that tastes the same year after year so that consumers know what to expect is assembly.
- Tirage and secondary fermentation: The blended wine is placed in bottles with a small amount of sugar and yeast (a solution known as the liqueur de tirage) and allowed to ferment for several months. This secondary fermentation raises the alcohol content of the wine by about 1.5% and traps carbon dioxide in the wine. When you open the bottle, the carbon dioxide is released in the form of bubbles.
- Aging: The wine is aged on its lees, which are the dead yeast from the fermentation process. This gives Champagne its distinct toasty, brioche-like notes. After months or years of ageing, the lees will be removed. As the bottles age, they are rotated a few degrees at a time until the lees collect in the neck of each bottle, making removal easier.
- Disgorgement: In French, degorgement refers to the removal of the lees from the neck of the bottle so that the finished wine is clear and free of sediment.
- Dosage: Dosage is a combination of still wine from the first fermentation and sugar that is added to Champagne before it is sealed with the traditional mushroom-shaped cork.
What Grapes Are Used to Make Champagne?
Three major grapes are grown in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.
- Pinot Noir is a black grape with white juice that was originally grown in Burgundy. To preserve the light colour of white sparkling wines, the grapes are hand-harvested and the light juice is extracted using special champagne presses. This is the most popular grape in Champagne, accounting for 38% of plantings, particularly in the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar subregions.
- Pinot Meunier is a hardy black grape grown primarily in the Marne Valley. It accounts for 32% of all plantings. Blanc de Noirs champagne is made solely from Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes.
- Chardonnay is Champagne’s only white grape, accounting for 30% of plantings. The majority of it is grown on the Côte des Blancs. Blanc de Blancs is a single-vintage champagne made entirely of Chardonnay grapes.
Small amounts of arbane, petit meslier, pinot blanc, and pinot gris are also planted in the region, but are rarely used in the Champagne blend. Some terms you might see on a label are:
- Blanc de noirs: a white Champagne made from black-skinned grapes, typically pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
- Blanc de blancs: a white Champagne made from chardonnay grapes.
- Rosé: pink Champagne created by blending still red wine into a sparkling white wine base, a rare technique permitted only in Champagne.
5 Subregions of Champagne
The region of Champagne is comprised of five subregions:
- Vallée de la Marne (valley of the Marne River), Champagne’s westernmost subregion, is home to Pinot Meunier grapes.
- The Montagne de Reims (the mountain of Reims), in the north of the region near Reims Cathedral, is planted predominantly with Champagne’s two red grapes.
- Côte des Blancs (the hillside of whites), directly south of the Montagne de Reims and near the town of Épernay, is planted mostly with Chardonnay grapes.
- Côte de Sézanne is mostly planted with Chardonnay and lies directly south of the Côte des Blancs.
- Côte des Bar is located on the boundary of the Haute-Marne department and the department of Aube, where Pinot Noir dominates. The nearest town is Troyes.
The Champagne Scale of Sweetness: What Is Doux and What Is Brut?
Each Champagne house has a flagship wine, which is typically brut or extra-brut in style and refers to the sweetness of the wine. Sweet Champagnes were once popular, but tastes have shifted, prompting winemakers to introduce bone dry “no-dosage” Champagnes.
The sweetness levels of Champagne are:
- brut nature (no dosage)
- extra-brut (wines with up to 6 grams of sugar per litre)
- brut (6–12 grams of sugar per litre)
- extra-sec or extra-dry (12–17 grams of sugar per litre)
- sec or dry (17–32 grams of sugar per litre)
- demi-sec (32–50 grams of sugar per litre)
- doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per litre)
What does Grand Cru and Premier Cru Mean in Champagne?
Champagne is a blended wine defined more by its winemaking process than by the terroir of individual vineyard sites or the characteristics of specific vintages. The large champagne houses, many of which date from the nineteenth century, source their grapes from dozens of small growers in the Champagne region. These houses create their flagship cuvées by blending wines from dozens of vineyards (blends). Champagne has two quality classifications based on the quality of grapes grown in each village:
- Premier cru: Champagnes labeled premier cru must be made entirely from grapes from the 43 Grand Cru-rated vineyards. Premier cru vineyards are lower quality than grand cru
- Grand cru: Champagnes labeled grand cru must be made entirely from grapes from the 17 grand cru-rated vineyards.
What is a Vintage Champagne?
The majority of Champagne is non-vintage, which means it is a blend of wines from different vintages. This enables each Champagne house to maintain the style of their popular flagship wines year after year.
Many producers also create a more expensive prestige cuvée from their year’s best grapes. In exceptional vintage years, wines made from the best grapes will be released as limited edition, vintage-dated Champagnes. Non-vintage Champagne can age in the bottle for years longer than vintage Champagne.
What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?
Unlike Champagne, which is a legally defined winemaking style, sparkling wine is a broad category that encompasses wine that has been carbonated in a variety of ways. The Charmat method (used for prosecco) and forced carbonation for lower-end wines are examples of these. Pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat for short, is a lightly sparkling, slightly sweet wine made using the ancestrale method, which requires only one fermentation. Crémant is a sparkling wine produced using the Champenoise method but from regions of France other than Champagne (where the method is known as méthode traditionnelle).
Some French Champagne producers own wineries in California to produce Champagne-style sparkling wines, and the prices for these domestic wines can be comparable to those of their French counterparts.
What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Cava and Prosecco?
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine from Catalonia. Cava is made using the Champenoise method, but because it is not made in Champagne, it is classified as a méthode traditionnelle wine. Cava is made from Catalan grapes such as macabeu, parellada, and xarel-lo. Cava has citrus and stonefruit aromas but lacks Champagne’s toasty nuttiness. High-quality cava is available for a fraction of the cost of champagne.
Prosecco, made from the glera grape in northern Italy, is sweeter and fruitier than champagne. It is usually carbonated using the charmat method, which saves money by using a tank for the second fermentation rather than individual bottles as in champagne.
How to Pair and Serve Champagne
When purchasing Champagne, look for the sweetness indication and select a style that is appropriate for the occasion. Aperitif-friendly brut nature and extra-brut wines, while brut Champagne has a richer texture that pairs well with food.
Champagne’s palate-cleansing effervescence complements almost any dish, but it is best with oysters, lobster, roast chicken, or cream sauce-based dishes. Brut rosé is an excellent match for brunch fare.
Sweet Champagne pairs well with cheese after dinner or with fruity desserts, as long as the wine matches the sweetness of the dessert.
Champagne should be served ice cold in flutes to admire the bubbles, or in white wine glasses to capture more of the aroma.