Champagne is the ultimate celebratory drink, the drink of toasts, of special occasions and in our book, one of the finest wines around. But ask most people how those bubbles got in their glass or what their favourite region of Champagne is and you are likely to see blank faces staring back at you. Learning the fundamentals of Champagne is not as daunting as you might think. We have broken this wine down into 5 basics that are easy enough to remember and give you a good overview of the wine.
1. There is only ONE Champagne
Champagne is that unique region in northern France that is home to the greatest sparkling wines in the world. Many other regions make sparkling wine and some other regions make very good sparkling wine, but legally only wines that were grown and vinified within the Champagne appellation can be called Champagne.
The Champenois are very serious about protecting their reputation for making excellent wines from their unique terroir. This includes legally enforcing their right as the only persons permitted to call their wines “Champagne”. Other producers can make wine using the same methods but only wine made from grapes grown within its 320 villages covering 35,000 hectares can be called Champagne. No one from outside the appellation may call their wine Champagne so when you see that word on the bottle, you know it comes from only one place in the world.
2. There are TWO distinct styles of Champagne
Champagne is unique in the world for its large reliance on blending wines from different vintages. The reason for blending vintages is that Champagne sits at the northern limits of where sufficient heat occurs during the growing season to fully ripen the grapes. To hedge against having a year where the grapes harvested are not satisfactorily ripe to make a good wine, they hold back wine made from other vintages to blend together. Typically three to five vintages will be blended together in a non-vintage (“NV”) Champagne. Some houses will blend a greater number and we can still remember tasting a delicious H. Billiot Cuvee Laetitia that was a blend of 19 different vintages. Blending allows the producer to express a consistent house style, year in, year out.
Typically over the course of a decade, Champagne will produce 4 or 5 vintages that are very high quality. In these great years, many producers will produce small lots of Champagne that came from grapes harvested in just a single vintage. These bottlings are referred to as “vintage Champagnes”. Vintage Champagnes are subject to stricter ageing regulations (they must age in bottle for three years as opposed to NV Champagne which need spend only 15 months ageing in bottle). Vintage Champagnes will very often have the word “Millésime” on the bottle as well as the year of the harvest. While vintage Champagnes represent only 5% of production, they are important as they are usually the house’s best efforts.
3. THREE Primary Grape Varieties
While there are 7 permitted varieties that can be planted in Champagne, over 99% of the acreage under vine is planted to only 3 varieties. There are two black varieties: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white variety, Chardonnay.
Champagne is all about blending. They blend different vintages. They blend grapes from different sub regions within the appellation. And they blend the different grape varieties. Pinot Noir is the most planted grape in Champagne, making up about 38% of acres under vine. This is the grape that adds body and backbone to the blend as well as ageabilty. Pinot Meunier (also known simply as Meunier) was sometimes thought of as a lesser grape but that reputation is quickly changing, especially among the hipster and Sommelier crowd. Meunier adds roundness and fruitiness to the blend as well as an early approachability. It is the second most planted at 32% of plantings. Chardonnay brings elegance and fragrance to the wine. Citrus and minerals are characteristics that Chardonnay brings to the blend along with a racy streak of acidity. 30% of vines in Champagne are planted to Chardonnay.
Sometimes these grapes will appear on their own and not be blended with others. “Blanc de noirs” refers to a wine of only black grapes and “blanc de blancs” refers to wine made only from white grapes.
4. FOUR Steps to Make Champagne
STEP ONE in vinifying Champagne is to make the vin clair which is the still wine, made the same way that regular, non-sparkling wine is made.
STEP TWO is to add the liquer de triage, a blend of sugar and yeasts, to the vin Claire to create a reaction which sees the yeasts consume the sugars and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The bottle is then capped which traps the CO2 in the wine; this creates bubbles as it tries to escape once the bottle is opened. By the way, this is enormous pressure, even greater than the pressure on your car tires!
STEP THREE is to age the wine (vin clair plus liquer de triage) in bottle under a metal cap and then leave it to age for at least 15 months, and in the case of the most special wines, up to a decade or more. During this ageing the yeasts impart a bit of flavour to the wine similarly to how yeasts impart flavour to bread dough. In fact, tasters often remark on autolytic characteristics that can be detected in some Champagnes, often expressed as bread dough, brioche or a leesy character. While the wine ages in bottle, it will be placed in special wooden racks that tilt the bottle down toward the neck. A specially trained person will turn the bottles in the rack, a quarter turn, an eighth or a sixteenth on a regular basis to channel the spent yeasts to the top of the neck of the bottle.
STEP FOUR is to disgorge all of those spent yeasts from the neck of the bottle. This is accomplished by freezing the yeasts by dipping the neck of the bottle into liquid nitrogen. The metal cap is then removed and the force of the trapped carbon dioxide shoots the frozen yeasts out of the bottle. This leaves a small space which is then filled by the dosage, a blend of reserve wine and natural sugar; the amount of sugar is selected to create the right balance in the finished wine. The bottle is then stopped with a thick cork and a wire cage to make sure the cork is held in place, and is ready for sale.
5. FIVE Primary Sub Regions in Champagne
The Champagne appellation is divided into FIVE sub regions. These 5 sub regions are home to over 278,000 vineyard plots. In many regards the Montagne de Reims is the most important sub region. The Montagne de Reims is home to the two most famous villages in Champagne: Reims and Epernay. These two villages play host to many of the big name Champagne houses: Taittinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Pol Roger, and others. The Montagne de Reims has 9 of the 17 designated Grand Cru villages in Champagne. Pinot Noir does exceptionally well in the limestone soils of the Montagne de Reims and accounts for the majority of plantings.
The Cotes des Blancs would be the next most important sub region. Its chalk soils are limestone rich which elevates acidity in the grapes and lends a mineral note to its wines. This is Chardonnay country (97% of plantings) and is home to some of the most famous vineyards including the storied Le Mesnil from which both Krug and Salon produce limited edition 100% Chardonnay wines that sell for multiples of what Dom Perignon does. There are 6 Grand Cru villages here.
The Vallee de la Marne is known for its Pinot Meunier which grows well in the cooler temperatures of this river valley. The remaining 2 Grand Cru villages are found here. Famously, the village of Hautviliers is located in the Vallee de la Marne. This is where the famous abbey that the monk Dom Perignon, one of the great pioneers of the Methode Champenois, lived.
The Cote de Sezanne is similar to more illustrious Cotes des Blancs. Both are focused on the Chardonnay grape, but the terroir of the Cote de Sezanne is more diverse. It is also warmer and more humid, delivering less of the crisp acidity that the Cotes des Blancs is known for.
The Aube (also sometimes called the Cotes des Bar) is the up and coming sub region in Champagne. Home to many grower Champagnes, this region can be seen as the innovator within a very traditional Champagne appellation. Pinot Noir grows well are their marl soils.
There you have it: Champagne as easy as 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5. ONE region; TWO styles; THREE grapes; FOUR winemaking steps and FIVE sub regions.