The Ultimate Guide To Champagne

Much debate swirls over who is actually responsible for creating one of the world’s most popular indulgences: champagne. Some believe that it was the Italians, whilst others declare it was the English or even Spanish. However, more often than not it’s accepted that champagne is a drink most commonly linked with France. And that is due to two main reasons:

  1. It was French Benedictine monk Dom Perignon who invented the second fermentation process that was critical for the success of champagne.
  2. There are actually laws in France that protect the champagne and its producers from being copied.

But you may still have some questions on what classifies as 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 this ultimate champagne guide!

What is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling white or rosé wine that is made in a region of France called Champagne, located in the northeast part of the country near Paris. Champagne is more revered than other sparkling wine because of its reputation for quality and prestige. It also carries a heftier price tag, making it a popular symbol of abundance and celebration. 

According to the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), the official regulations for the region of Champagne, a sparkling wine can only be labeled as champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France. It must also be made from certain grape varieties in the traditional method. That includes being created from at least 85% Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes and using second fermentation in bottles that have been riddled by hand.

Champagne winemakers have taken legal steps to protect the brand, and nothing created outside of the area is allowed to use the name.

Champagne

A bottle of Champagne

How is Champagne made?

Here is the five-step production method to make champagne:

  • Fermentation: The initial phase is to make a still, exceptionally acidic, low-alcohol wine. Because the Champagne region is located in a cold climate, the grapes often don’t ripen totally making them acidic and low in sugar, which is perfect for sparkling wine. Champagne is a slightly unusual French wine region, in that most large champagne houses buy their grapes from various vineyards, rather than growing their own grapes. However, today it is becoming increasingly common to find “Grower-Producers”, or champagne wineries that grow their own grape for their wine.
  • Assembly: The cellar-master blends still wines from different vintages or years to make a final wine that matches the house style. Although in certain years when the grapes are exceptionally high quality, a vintage champagne may be made which will consist of only grapes from that year. 
  • Secondary Fermentation: The blended wine is bottled with a bit of sugar and yeast and left to ferment a second time in the bottle. This second fermentation creates carbon dioxide which makes the wine bubbly. 
  • Aging: The wine is left in the bottle with the now-dead yeast cells, also called ‘lees’. The lees contribute to the classic toast and brioche flavors that characterize the distinctive champagne taste. The wine is left to spend at least 12 months on lees (or more depending on the producer). The lees and sediments in the bottle must then be removed to ensure the finished wine is clear. To do this the wine undergoes a process called riddling, also known as ‘remuage’. The bottles are placed on a rack at a slight angle with the neck of the bottle lower than the bottom. The bottles are then slightly turned and the angle is increased a tiny amount each day. This is done until all the sediment falls to the neck of the bottle, near the top.
  • Disgorgement: The sediments are then taken out of the bottle in a process called disgorgement. To complete this process the bottles are opened, and the pressure in the bottle will push out the sediments. Then a small amount of sugar, called the dosage, is added to each bottle. Finally, the bottle is quickly sealed with a Champagne cork.

Grape Varieties

In order to be called champagne, the grapes must be grown on the chalky hills in a dedicated region of France and are made with one or more of the following 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 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 consists of a blend of grapes from different years. Therefore, nonvintage champagne is actually ‘multi-vintage’. The goal of blending different vintages or years is to have a consistent product every year. This means each champagne house can maintain the character of its house style year after year.

Vintage Champagne

Vintage champagne is made using grapes harvested from a specific year. This is only made in vintages when the grapes are very high quality.

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 with their finest grapes. These wines will be sold as vintage-dated champagnes made only 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 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 rosé wine cannot be made from white grapes. In fact, 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 high-quality vineyards. If you see ‘Cru’ on the bottle this indicates a higher quality champagne. 

  • Grand Cru: Grand Cru champagnes are crafted exclusively from grapes grown in one of the 17 Grand Cru vineyards. These vineyards are recognized to produce extremely high-quality grapes.
  • Premier Cru: Premier Cru champagnes are crafted from grapes grown in the 43 Premier Cru vineyards. In terms of quality, classifications listed as Premier cru vineyards are slightly lower quality compared to Grand Cru vineyards.

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 most well known Champagne producers:

  • Taittinger
  • Bollinger
  • Laurent-Perrier
  • Veuve Clicquot
  • Louis Roederer

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 place it in an ice water bath for half an hour. Then, use a Champagne bucket to keep the bottle cool while enjoying each glass. 

The Ultimate Guide To Champagne Summary 

Champagne is best served chilled, at around 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit. It should always be stored upright in a wine fridge to preserve the cork and keep it moist so that it doesn’t dry out over time. Champagne should also be poured gently into a flute or tulip glass, without shaking the bottle too much. Then, use a champagne bucket to keep the bottle cool while enjoying each glass.

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!

The Ultimate Guide To Champagne, The Ultimate Guide to ChampagneThe Ultimate Guide To Champagne, The Ultimate Guide to Champagne

 

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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