The Ultimate Guide To Champagne

Who knew a creation by French monks in the 1600s could have become such a sensation in the wine industry? The popularity of Champagne, sparkling wine, or fizz (or whatever you prefer to call it) has soared since the 19th century.

But you may still have some questions as to what classifies Champagne, how it’s made, and how to distinguish the grape varieties and styles of Champagne. So grab a glass of bubbly and dive into the ultimate guide to Champagne.

What is Champagne?

Champagne is a shimmering white or rosé wine that gets its name from a region in France called Champagne, located in the northeast part of the country near Paris. Champagne is more expensive than other sparkling wines; therefore, it has become a symbol of abundance and celebration. 

According to EU guidelines, any drink named Champagne must have been made in the area and utilizing a particular winemaking process. Champagne winemakers have taken legal steps to protect the brand, and nothing created outside of the area is allowed to take the name. 

Champagne

A bottle of Champagne

How is Champagne made?

This five-step production method distinguishes Champagne from other sparkling wines:

  • Fermentation: The initial phase is to make an uncarbonated, exceptionally acidic, low in alcohol wine. Champagne grapes are highly corrosive and low in sugar, making them ideal for this process. The most Champagne house buys grapes from various ranchers around the Champagne region and vinifies them autonomously. It’s worthy to mention that are some “Grower-Producers”, Champagne makers that grow their own grape in their own parcels of land.
  • Assembly: The cellarmaster adds the wines from the past cycle to make a wine that mirrors the house’s personality.
  • Secondary Fermentation: The mixed wine is set in bottles with a bit of sugar and yeast and left to ferment the second time in the bottle. This second fermentation catches the carbon dioxide while raising the liquor convergence of the wine by approximately 1.5%.
  • Aging: The wine is permitted to develop on the remaining dead yeast. Champagne’s toasted, brioche-like flavors are an aftereffect of this process. After months at least 12 months on lees, the remains will be removed. The bottles are turned slightly while they mature, which gathers the remains at the neck and makes it easier to pour them off.
  • Disgorgement: Disgorgement [2] is the method of eliminating the remains from the neck of the bottle, so the wine is clear and dreg-free.

Grape Varieties

To go by the name Champagne, the grapes must be grown on the chalky hills in a dedicated region of France and are made with a mix of the following three grape varieties:

  • Chardonnay brings elegant notes, a freshness, and a touch of acidity to the blend to balance the other grape varieties. 
  • Pinot Noir offers Champagne a complexity and gives the wine more body. In addition, it brings a fruitiness that can balance the citrus notes in the Chardonnay
  • Pinot Meunier is the least famous grape variety, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Pinot Meunier offers a fresh redberry flavor alongside brightness and softness. 

Styles of Champagne

Non-Vintage Champagne

The majority of Champagne is non-vintage, which means it is prepared from a mix of grapes from different years. Therefore, the grapes are rather ‘multi-vintage’ than not vintage at all. As a result of mixing their grapes, each Champagne house can maintain the character of its renowned flagship wines year after year. 

Vintage Champagne

Vintage Champagne is made using grapes harvested from a specific year. Therefore, not every year’s harvest will be of a high enough quality to be made into an exceptional vintage wine. 

Did you know?  Vintage wines usually taste best when aged for a minimum of 5 to 10 years.  

Prestige Cuvée

Many winemakers also brew a higher-priced prestige cuvée from their finest grapes each year. These wines will be sold as vintage-dated Champagnes in exceptional vintage years. Therefore, if you see ‘vintage’ followed by a year on a Champagne bottle, you can safely assume this is a superior bottle. 

Fact – some prestige cuvée Champagnes, such as the Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, have sold for over $2,000! 

Rosé

Last but certainly not least, rosé Champagne. Although rosé Champagne had a poorer reputation than traditional Champagne, and in the past, some production houses had refused to make it, it is rapidly becoming a popular wine

There is a misconception that sparkling rose wine cannot be made from white grapes [1]. However, there have been examples of production houses using fermented red grapes and blending these with white grapes to produce pink Champagne.

Fact – Rosé Champagne is the only rosé technically allowed to be made with both red and white grapes in France.

The Ultimate Guide To Champagne FAQ

What do Premier Cru and Grand Cru mean on Champagne bottles?

‘Cru’ refers to the description of the vineyard in the winemaking village. The term was coined in the 1920s to help grape growers and encourage houses to buy from smaller vendors. 

Today, the label refers to the classification of the historic qualities of the vineyards. If you see ‘Cru’ on the bottle this can indicate the best Champagne. To make their mark cuvées, organizations consolidate wines from multiple grape plantations. 

  • Grand Cru: Grand Cru champagnes are crafted exclusively from grapes grown on one of the 17 Grand Cru plantations.
  • Premier Cru: Premier Cru champagnes are crafted from grapes grown on the 43 Premier Cru grape plantations or mixed with the Grand Cru grapes. In terms of quality, classifications list the Premier cru grape plantations are slightly substandard compared to Grand Cru plantations.

What is a Champagne magnum? 

A regular Champagne bottle is 75cl. A magnum is the equivalent of two standard bottles or 1.5L. 

Who are the most popular Champagne producers? 

Here are some of the best Champagne producers:

  • Taittinger
  • Bollinger
  • Laurent-Perrier
  • Alfred Gratien
  • Boizel
  • Louis Roederer
  • Pol Roger

How to best serve Champagne

In our experience, any glass of cold Campagne is an excellent glass of Champagne. However, to achieve that perfect flute, serve between 4.5-10°C (40-50°F). 

To achieve this temperature, chill your bottle for around 3 hours in the fridge or cool it in some ice water for half an hour. Then, use a Champagne bucket to keep the bottle cool while enjoying each glass. 

The Ultimate Guide To Champagne Summary 

So whether you prefer a dry Champagne, a sweet Champagne, or a Champagne cocktail, you now know the types of champagne and you can impress everyone with your insightful knowledge of the six stages of Champagne production and other facts from our ultimate guide to Champagne. 

Discover facts about the history of wine or dive into learning about the black markets in the wine industry on the This Day In Wine History blog. 

Want to read more about Champagne? Try these books!

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References:

[1] https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-about-champagne-grapes-wine-region-and-pairings#what-does-grand-cru-and-premier-cru-mean-in-champagne

2 https://vinepair.com/explore/category-type/champagne/ 

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champagne_wine_region

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