What can I tell you about Champagne?
The moment I hear that term a checklist begins to form in my mind:
- Must be made specifically in the Champagne region in northern France
- The production process involves many highly-controlled stages
- Minimum ageing times
- Classification system for villlages
- Main grape varieties
- Climate / Topography / Soils
- Important Champagne houses and cooperatives
…and much more. During my studies I found Champagne to be endlessly fascinating on its own merits, not just as a well-marketed luxury product praised in rap songs.
Now, stand back a little. Now we see that sparkling wine is made all around France, not just in Champagne. In this case the wines are preceded by the term “Crémant” (literally, “creamy”), as the word “Champagne” is a legally protected term that cannot be used outside of the region. If a sparkling wine is from Alsace in north-eastern France, the label will read “Crémant d’Alsace”, if from Burgundy then “Crémant de Bourgogne”, and so on.
Stand further back. Observe the entire world. Sparkling wine is made everywhere:
- Spanish Cava
- Italian Franciacorta, Prosecco, Asti, Moscato, Lambrusco
- South African Cap Classique
- German Sekt
- New world examples in the USA, Australia, and more
Now you see that we have an abundance of choice when it comes to sparkling wine. Where would you even begin?
Going To The Source
From our world-encompassing perspective, let us zoom back into Champagne.
Champagne is not important merely for it’s effective marketing, or the way over-cashed individuals pop them open, spraying it wastefully in the club to the sound of doof-doof music.
Champagne is important because it is the model on which almost all other sparkling wine is based.
Understand Champagne, and you will begin to understand the sparkling wines of the world.
Begin at the beginning – the base material
Within Champagne, three specific varieties dominate:
- Pinot Noir (accounts for ~38% plantings)
- Pinot Meunier (~32%)
- Chardonnay (~30%)
While other regions around the world may use other varieties, you will find many sparkling wines made around the world will use the above, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Why these varieties in particular? Why not, say, Shiraz, something bigger and fuller bodied (for the moment we leave out Sparkling Shiraz, the infamous Australian innovation)?
Think of Champagne again: it is bright, refreshing, effervescent without overwhelming with alcohol. It is only right that winemakers choose varieties that have the potential to make wines fitting this profile.
Chardonnay, the sole white variety of the above, provides acidity and finesse.
Pinot Noir, a black variety, provides body and structure, which will be important during blending.
Pinot Meunier, another black grape, provides easily-approachable fruit and floral characters to complement the other varieties.
No matter where in the world, even if the above varieties are not used at all, the same considerations will be made: acidity, finesse, body, structure, character.
Putting in the bubbles – lees ageing
How does Champagne get it’s sparkle?
Remember that Wine = Grapes + Yeast
More specifically: grapes provide water, sugar and elements that contribute flavours and aromas. Yeasts consume the sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products.
The secret of Champagne is capturing this carbon dioxide within the wine.
Wine (not sparkling) is put inside the bottle. It is topped up with a solution containing yeast and sugar. The bottle is then sealed, leaving no escape for the carbon dioxide, so it becomes dissolved into the wine.
During this process, the yeast also raises the alcohol level of the wine. Eventually this yeast… dies.
Let us think of yeast again. As well as being used to make wine, it is also crucial in… baking bread.
And this is how Champagne also gains this signature character, variously described as biscuit, bread, brioche or toast. During the process of gaining it’s sparkle, the wine also gains these more complex characteristics than would be otherwise expected from a product of fruit.
Style Is King
In the context of Champagne, when we talk about style we are really considering a combination of two factors: the blending guideline chosen (what most people think of when asked about a “style” of champagne), and sweetness, which is often taken for granted as most commercially available sparkling wines are made quite dry.
The following are the main “styles”, or blending guidelines, of Champagne:
- Blanc de Blancs
- Blanc de Noirs
- Prestige Cuvée
For sweetness, the accepted terms and their sweetness levels, defined by EU law:
- Brut Nature: 0g/L sugar added (up to 3g/L unfermented sugar allowed to remain post-production)
- Extra Brut: 0-6g/L sugar added
- Brut: 0-12g/L sugar added
- Extra Sec: 12-17g/L sugar added
- Sec: 17-32g/L sugar added
- Demi-Sec: 32-50g/L sugar added
- Doux: 50+g/L sugar added
Sweetness is quite self explanatory, so let us explore the blending guidelines, or “styles”.
Non-Vintage (NV) – This is the bread and butter of Champagne producers, simply because there are fewest restrictions on blending guidelines here.
Wines can be made from a blend across varieties, villages, vintages, or all three.
The only restriction is self-imposed – the resulting product must consistently reflect a “house style”, to be defined by the producer themselves, whether they are aiming for a full/rich wine or a light/clean wine.
The consumer expects consistency, so the producer must deliver. The only way to guarantee this, in a region where weather and climate can make or break the harvest, is to blend, as well as ensuring enough supply of reserve wines to choose from.
“Non-Vintage” is often abbreviated to “NV” on labels
Vintage – Sometimes, the climate may be forgiving enough that a vintage wine can be made.
The wine may still be a blend across varieties and vintages, but it will 100% be made of grapes from the declared year.
Rather than creating a consistent style, the aim of a vintage wine is to express the condition of that particular year.
Vintages are uncommon, generally occurring 3-4 times a decade. As such, these wines command a premium over Non-Vintage offerings.
Blanc de Blancs – Literally “white of whites”, this is a wine that is made purely from the white grapes of Chardonnay.
The wine will most likely still be blended across villages and vintages.
Chardonnay has much acidity and can be quite lean. Without the Pinot varieties to provide body and character for balance, Blanc de Blancs wines can be quite sharp and steely (“austere” is a commonly used term), especially in youth. Therefore it is a wine that will reward long-term cellaring.
With age, the steely leanness will give way to a rich and complex combination of fruit, toast and nuts.
Blanc de Noirs – Literally “White of Blacks”, the opposite of the above Blanc de Blancs, being made exclusively from the black grapes of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, sometimes together. It will still appear as a white wine, thanks to gentle pressing that avoids extracting colour and tannin.
The wine will most likely still be blended across villages and vintages.
Without the leanness and acidity of Chardonnay for balance, Blanc de Noirs can be expected to have a fuller body and richer flavour, but less liveliness on the palate. Notes of apple, spices and mushroom are not uncommon.
Rosé – As the name suggests, Rosé will exhibit a pink-peach hue that distinguishes it from sparkling white Champagne.
This style is surprisingly diverse, and will not always be a simple, fruit-forward style made for early drinking. Many will have the complex bread and biscuit notes working in tandem with the primary fruit characters, creating a sort of strawberries-and-cream effect.
Prestige Cuvée – The jewel of a Champagne producer’s portfolio, made only when circumstances are perfect.
Whereas Vintage Champagne is made to express the condition of a particular year, a Prestige Cuvée gives the winemaker the chance to truly express the Champagne house’s philosophy. because of this, the selection process is most rigorous for this category.
Prestige Cuvées are often also vintage wines, but this is not always the case (Krug is a good example). So despite its high selectivity, the wine can still be blended across varieties, villages, vintages, or all three.
Putting It All Together
With the above information, you can begin to look for clues on the label of a Champagne bottle.
More than one term may be used in combination:
- Vintage (1) Blanc de Blancs (2) Brut (3)
- NV (1) Demi-Sec (2)
- NV (1) Brut (2) Rosé (3)
Example 1 tells us it is a vintage wine, made 100% from Chardonnay, and that it is quite dry. It may still be a blend of wines from different villages.
Example 2 tells us that it is a non-vintage, and that it will be sweet. In the absence of other terms, we can deduce that it is likely a blend of wines from different varieties and villages as well.
Example 3 tells us that it is a non-vintage, made dry, and will be pink. We can deduce that it is a blend of different varieties and vintages, and we can also add that black grapes are involved due to the colour.
Due to the structure of EU wine laws, and also other countries wanting to imitate Champagne’s popularity, you will find the same terms or their equivalents on sparkling wines made all around the world. I may cover them in another article in the future.
In the meantime, go out there and explore the diversity that Champagne has to offer.
Read more: Do You Drink Wine For Fun, Or For Pleasure?