Champagne: A Useful Wine Guide

Is all Sparkling Wine Champagne?

Photo by Steve Daniel on Unsplash

How Does Champagne Get Its Bubbles?

There are different ways to get bubbles into wine to make it sparkling, but Champagne gets its bubbles during the fermentation process by way of something called the Methode Champenoise. This method is multi-step and quite complicated, leading to complex wines with great ability to age.

What does Champagne taste like?

How a Champagne tastes is a combination of the grapes used, the winemaking style chosen, and Dosage (the addition of wine and sugar to reach the desired final flavor profiles). The most common flavor profiles of Champagne include: apple, pear, peach, mango, and brioche. Learn more about the aromas of Champagne from the Comité de Champagne.

Image courtesy of Comité de Champagne

The Oxidative Style

In this method, a controlled amount of oxidation (exposing the wine to oxygen) is allowed to occur during the winemaking process. It is typically associated with oak barrel fermentation (as opposed to stainless steel fermentation) and usually produced with Pinot Noir as the dominant grape in the blend. The oxidative style makes medium-to-heavy-bodied Champagne taste “yeasty” and “biscuity.” Commonly known Champagnes made in this style include Bollinger, Selosse, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot.

The Reductive Style

In this method, as little oxygen is exposed to the wine as possible. Fermented — typically — in stainless steel vats, these Champagnes get the rounded mouthfeel and have stronger notes of florals and fruit. This lends itself to lighter-bodies wines and is the style of choice for Chardonnay-driven Champagnes like Taittinger, Ruinart, Moet & Chandon, Billecart-Salmon, and Louis Roederer.

Is Champagne Dry or Sweet?

The last major component of a Champagne’s taste profile is the step called Dosage. This step is first and foremost about topping off the wine that may have been lost during disgorgement (the phase where the lees are removed from the Champagne bottles). Older vintages are blended in to add balance to the bottling. Whether targeting sweetness or roundness, a small amount of sugar may be added to the Champagne at this phase. This creates a spectrum of sweetness in Champagnes. Not surprisingly this is tightly-regulated in Champagne and Wikipedia defines each of the levels thusly:

  • “Brut nature” contains zero dosage and less than 3 grams sugar per litre
  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Brut (less than 12 grams)
  • Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
  • Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
  • Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
  • Doux (50 grams)

Does Champagne Come in Pink (Rosé)?

Champagne also comes in Rosé bottlings. These are my personal favorites. I love the fruitiness that comes with the extra dry finesse of a rosé Champagne. It’s often my go-to when I look at a wine list and I’m not thrilled with what I see — I’m never disappointed by a glass of rosé bubbles (and, pro tip, when you order bubbly in a restaurant you can always tell if it was recently opened).

What is NV Champagne?

In Champagne, a wine labeled with a year on it (Vintage) must only contain grapes grown in that year. But vintages vary from every vineyard and for every kind of wine grape harvested, so to maintain a consistent house style from year to year — something Champagne is particularly renowned for — they blend various vintages together to make the Champagne taste the same each year. These Champages are labeled as N.V. and it is recommended they be consumed within 5 years of production.

Why does Champagne age so well?

By regulation, Vintage Champagnes must go through a longer period of maturation “on the lees” which imparts significantly more structure in the wine, enabling long-term ageability. Nerdy side note: The lees are a byproduct of fermentation that contain mostly yeasts from the primary fermentation and the natural grape sugars that feed those yeasts.

Why is Champagne so expensive?

The main costs associated with any wine (other than vanity pricing for brands with high ratings or cult-like followings) are the cost per acre to grow and harvest the grapes; the costs to make the wine from the grapes (ferment, store, etc.); the costs of bottling; and, in the case of wine from outside the US, the costs of importing. Why Champagne is so expensive:

  • Champagne is a tricky region to grow grapes in, so yield on grape harvests are low.
  • Champagne undergoes two fermentations which are time consuming to implement.
  • Rosé Champagne usually costs a little more — both because it’s popular and because it utilizes even more labor during production.
  • Champagne houses producing NV wine store old Champagne for blending.
  • Champagne must age for at least 15 months, so storage costs are high, too.
  • Champagne bottles are taxed by US Customs upon arrival (current high tariffs on French wine are compounding the matter).
  • High-volume producers can charge less for their wares, though they often don’t. There are two good reasons:
  • Protecting their brand. For example, Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” costs more than Moet & Chandon Brut, of similar quality and production.
  • These producers often are buying fruit from other vineyards rather than growing all of their own. This is an additional cost.
  • Vintage Champagne is only created in exceptional years, so these gems cost even more.
  • Champagne is highly-prized by collectors, so collectible Vintages of superlative houses get dizzyingly high prices assigned to them by the market.

What is Luxury Champagne?

The world of ultra-luxury Champagne is fascinating — and both Dom Pérignon and Cristal are cheap in comparison to what some people are willing to pay for the rarest Champagnes of all. There are more than a handful of creme-de-la-creme Champagnes over $1,000.

  • An old vintage gets really popular
  • A famed Chateau offers special bottlings
  • A famous person starts drinking it notoriously

Champagne comes in fun sizes!

Image courtesy of Moët & Chandon

Secret Bonus Content for Reading the Whole Guide!

Champagne isn’t just for celebratory occasions. It’s probably the most food-friendly wine on Earth which makes it great to pair with just about every meal. Champagne goes extra well with some usual suspects — lobster, caviar, and oysters — and some surprises, too: deep fried food, especially fried chicken; macaroni and cheese; and anything with white truffles. Check out this useful Champagne food-pairing guide at Town & Country or this article of offbeat Champagne pairings by Wine Folly.

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