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The Ultimate Guide to Champagne

Contents

Sarah Knowles MW Sarah Knowles MW

France's most famous sparkling wine must come from grapes (predominantly chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot meunier) grown on the 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 (mandated by the appellation rules), each grape variety is usually vinified separately and the wines are blended the following year. 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 within the bottle which creates the bubbles (or mousse) naturally.

How Champagne is made

The bubbles come about because 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 (the minimum requirement by the appellation rules although it is often much longer). When the wine is ready to be sold, the yeast sediment must be removed. This is done by gradual turning of the bottles, remuage or riddling, which brings the yeast sediment to the neck of the bottle. The bottle neck is then frozen to allow the yeast to solidify into a pellet to be cleanly ejected (dégorgement) under pressure in a specialised bottling line. The traditional technique of doing this by hand (à la volée) is still carried out for special cuvées or unusual bottle sizes. The bottle is then topped up with a little more wine (dosage) and depending on the winemaker's preference, a small amount of additional sugar (known as liqueur d'expédition). Finally, the bottle is sealed with a caged cork that can withstand the pressure.

Read more on the production of sparkling wines

The Champagne appellation regulations dictate that grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) must be harvested by hand
The Champagne appellation regulations dictate that grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) must be harvested by hand

Can you lay Champagne down?

Many Champagnes, including non-vintage wines, can develop additional complexity with a short period of cellaring. Vintage Champagnes are often released when ready for drinking after a period of extended ageing at the Champagne House. The great years and best vintage Champagnes can benefit from further ageing for a further 20 years or more. Champagne is sensitive to light and warmth so ideally should be stored somewhere dark and cool.

Serried ranks of Champagne bottles sealed with crown caps gently maturing 'sur lattes'
Serried ranks of Champagne bottles sealed with crown caps gently maturing 'sur lattes'

Champagne grapes

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.

Other grapes – Arbane, petit meslier, pinot blanc and pinot gris are also permitted by appellation law but the plantings are very rare.

Champagne's sub-regions

Côte des Blancs – probably Champagne's most famous sub-region, as the name suggests, is pretty much dedicated to chardonnay grapes. The chalky soils of this 'hill of whites' stretch for around 15km to the south of the town of Epernay with slopes facing in an east or south-easterly direction, are where the region's finest chardonnay grapes are grown.

Vallée de la Marne – vineyards are found along both banks of the river Marne as it flows past Epernay en route to Paris, though the right bank has better exposure to the sun. Here pinot noir and pinot meunier excel, with the former reaching exceptional depth and perfume in the area's famous cru, Aÿ.

Montagne de Reims – vines are planted on limestone soils in a huge semi-circle on the undulating land between the Marne and Vesle rivers. This is home to some of Champagne's famous wine villages, Bouzy, Ambonnay and Verzy. Pinot noir predominates making fragrant wines with good backbone.

Aube – the most southerly of the Champagne regions on the hills and valleys of the land connecting the rivers Aube and Seine where the soils are Kimmeridgian limestone. Pinot noir is the predominant variety making wine with a lightness of touch most desirable for the Champagne houses master blenders.

Styles of Champagne

Non-Vintage – By far the most popular style of Champagne, non-vintage represents the producer's house style. The name is rather misleading, 'multi-vintage', is perhaps more helpful, 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 Louis Roederer's Cristal, Pol Roger's Churchill and Boizel's Joyau de France.

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.

Glasses of Champagne Rosé

Sweetness levels

Champagnes, on the whole, are less sweet than they were 100, or even ten years ago. This is mainly as a result of consumer preference, but also due to climate change which allows for riper harvests more consistently and less need for adjustments made during dosage. Brut is by far the most common style:

  • Brut Nature/Brut Zéro - Fewer than 3 grams of sugar per litre (g/l)
  • 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)

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 – 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 – Producers of The Society's Champagne Brut and our oldest suppliers. Very original style dominated by grand and premier cru chardonnay, the use of small oak barrels for the first fermentation and the retention of crisp acidity by blocking malolactic fermentation. The resulting wines are full flavoured but because of the high proportion of chardonnay and attention to acidity, they also have great elegance and finesse.

Louis Roederer – 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. The NV is equal thirds of all three grape varieties and has an easy elegance. The wines are known to have been a 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.

Grower Champagnes

Though Champagne is a region associated with prestige and grand estates – famous Champagne Houses or Grandes Marques, the past couple of decades have seen the growth of artisan producers. In the past the grape growers have traditionally sold their crop to the Champagne Houses (most of which do not own vineyards themselves), but a younger generation has emerged passionate to make wine from their own land. These hand-crafted, terroir-focused Champagnes have gained in popularity and given this highly traditional region a new lease of life.

Champagne bottles laying down in cellar

Bottle sizes

  • 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)

View all Champagnes

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