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Champagne must be made from chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes grown on chalky hillsides within a strictly demarcated region centred on the twin towns of Reims and Epernay, some 90 miles east of Paris. After hand harvesting, each grape variety is vinified separately, and in the following spring, the wines are blended. Reserve wines from older vintages may be added to enrich the flavour, and guarantee consistency in non-vintage Champagne. Yeast and sugar are added, and the wine is bottled for its second fermentation which creates the bubbles, or mousse.
The yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, which, with nowhere else to go in the sealed bottle, dissolves into the wine. The wine then matures for at least 15 months (often much longer). Gradual turning of the bottles, remuage, brings the yeast sediment to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen to allow the yeast pellet to be cleanly ejected (dégorgement). After topping up (dosage) with a little more wine and sugar (known as liqueur d'expédition), the bottle is sealed.
A recent study proved that Champagne may be stored equally well standing upright as horizontal. The pressure inside the bottle ensures the cork does not shrink and dry out for many years. Champagne is sensive to light and warmth and should always be stored somewhere dark and cool.
Chardonnay - The least planted of the three main grapes, chardonnay is still a crucial partner, bringing elegance and finesse to a blend. When grown so far north, acidity levels in chardonnay are high, but this is essential for wines to have longevity, and to ensure that the finished blend doesn't taste flabby. Champagnes with a high proportion of chardonnay are generally light and fresh, and make wonderful aperitifs. Champagnes made solely from chardonnay are known as blanc de blancs ('white of whites').
Pinot noir - Pinot noir offers complexity and character, which explains why it is the most heavily planted Champagne grape. Acidity levels are not as high as chardonnay, but pinot noir offers weightier flavours, adding body and strength, and giving the wine structure. Bollinger is a good example of a classic pinot noir-dominant blend.
Pinot meunier - Softness and fruitiness are the hallmarks of pinot meunier, the least well-known of the three. Making up around one-third of all plantings in Champagne, it takes its name from the French word for 'miller' - the white underside of the leaves look like they've been dusted with flour. It has a little more acidity than pinot noir, and so gives Champagne a brightness that would otherwise be lacking. Blanc de noirs ('white of blacks') champagne contains just pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
Most Champagnes are not the product of a small sub-region. Many houses buy grapes from growers from across the entire Champagne region, but as a generalisation, chardonnay works best in the Côtes des Blancs, near Epernay in the heart of the region, which contains a number of grand-cru villages: Le Mesnil, Cramant and Chouilly. Pinot meunier dominates the Marne Valley to the west, while pinot noir flourishes in the Aube region, which is closer to Chablis than Epernay or Reims. It is at its best on the Montagne de Reims in villages like Bouzy, Ambonnay, Aÿ, Louvois and Verzy, all of which are grand cru sites.
Non-Vintage - By far the most popular style of Champagne, non-vintage represents the producer's house style. The name is rather misleading; Krug's preferred term, 'multi-vintage', is perhaps more appropriate, since an NV will be a blend from a number of vintages. Consistency is crucial, and it is here that the skill of the blender comes to the fore.
Vintage - Vintage Champagnes are not made every year, and only in exceptional ones. In contrast to the NV wines, producers want their vintage Champagnes to show off the quality of that year's harvest, rather than stick to their traditional style. Vintage Champagnes always benefit from cellaring, and develop beautifully for those with the patience to leave them. They can be drunk upon release, but the vast majority will improve immeasurably with five to ten (or more) years' ageing.
Prestige cuvée - The very best Champagne that a house can produce. The best prestige cuvée Champagnes are sublime, even if the prices may seem ridiculous. Examples include Krug's Clos d'Ambonnay (yours for a cool £1,800 per bottle), La Grande Dame from Veuve Cliquot, and Louis Roederer's Cristal.
Rosé - Rosé Champagne is unique in that it is the only rosé in the old world that is allowed to be made by mixing red and white wines, as opposed to the normal method of using dark-skinned grapes and macerating them for a short period, so a little of the colour is leeched. In the past some houses felt it rather beneath them to produce rosé Champagne, but almost all do so now.
Champagnes, on the whole, are less sweet than they were 100 years ago, mainly as a result of consumer demand. Brut is by far the most common style:
- Brut Nature/Brut Zéro - Fewer than 3 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra Brut - Fewer than 6g/l
- Brut - fewer than 15g/l
- Extra Sec/Extra Dry - 12-20g/l
- Sec - 17-35g/l
- Demi-sec - 33-50g/l
- Doux - more than 50g/l
Notable producers (and their house style)
There are nearly 20,000 growers in Champagne owning 88% of the vineyards and if most are happy enough to sell their grapes to co-ops of the Houses, there are a growing number preferring to make the wines themselves. These are the hand-crafted Champagnes that combine finesse and flavour, often reflecting notions of terroir that are mostly lost in the big blends. Read more about Grower Champagne
Boizel - Medium-sized, family-run Champagne house in Epernay. Style of NV is dependent on good sources of pinot noir and chardonnay. Wines are in a classic refined style, never heavy and always elegant. Perfect aperitif Champagne and served as the house Champagne at Glyndebourne.
Bollinger - The antithesis of Boizel. Pinot dominated and always full bodied, rich and immensely complex. The secret to the style is in the reserve wines, some of which are stored in magnum-size bottles for up to ten years. Bollinger is almost self sufficient and has outstanding vineyards, especially pinot noir around Aÿ.
Alfred Gratien - Very original style dominated by chardonnay and pinot meunier with outstanding provenances. All wines in The Society's Champagne are fermented in small oak barrels. There are about 900 barrels stored, and these will be tasted and evaluated before blending, which begins in the New Year. Wines are full flavoured but because of the high proportion of chardonnay, they also have great elegance and finesse.
Laurent-Perrier - Elegant, complex and utterly delicious, on the lighter side and pinot dominated.
Louis Roederer - Again pinot dominated, but very rich, full bodied and creamy. Secret is in the reserve wines, which are stored in large oak barrels for up to ten years. Long ago, the Tsar's favourite.
Pol Roger - Another classic, especially in the UK, its biggest market. NV is equal thirds of all three grape varieties. Wines are kept for a long time. Was the favourite of Sir Winston Churchill.
Taittinger - One of the great names in Champagne and a byword for elegance and refinement. Pinot dominated, although its most famous name, the prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne is 100% chardonnay.
- Bottle 75cl
- Magnum 1.5l (2-bottle equivalent)
- Jeroboam 3l (4)
- Rehoboam 4.5l (6)
- Methuselah 6l (8)
- Salmanazar 9l (12)
- Balthazar 12l (16)
- Nebuchadnezzar 15l (20)
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