Champagne: A Useful Wine Guide
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Champagne But Were Afraid to Ask
Is all Sparkling Wine Champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne wine region of France using the Methode Champenoise (as defined below).
In America, many people use the word Champagne to describe any sparkling wine. The Comité Champagne fiercely defends the name, so when you see bubbly wine in America that isn’t from Champagne, it isn’t labeled as Champagne — it’s labeled as Sparkling Wine or with one of a number of other terms.
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.
Here is a list of commonly used methods to make sparkling wine sparkle.
Methode Champenoise (a.k.a. Traditional Method or Classic Method (Metodo Classico) when used outside the Champagne region)
After primary fermentation, a secondary fermentation is initiated in the bottle the wine will be sold in. Eventually the bottle is reopened and modified before receiving its permanent cork and cage. Also made in this method: Cava, Franciacorta, and Crémant.
Charmat (a.k.a. the Tank Method)
Rather than a secondary fermentation in the bottle, these wines undergo secondary fermentation in a tank prior to bottling. It’s the closest you’ll get to Champagne without those hefty price tags. The most familiar wine using the Charmat method is Prosecco.
This is the oldest method of making wine sparkle. In this method, the wine is bottled before it completes fermentation. It yields fresh and funky sparkling wines. There is a hot trend right now to use this method, often called Pét Nat, but it stands for Pétillant-Naturel. Most natural sparkling wines are made in this way.
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.
Sparkling wine is made from the same kinds of grapes as still wine and can be made from any wine grapes. Champagne is typically made from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier, though it never tastes like any of these grapes in particular.
Pinot Noir and Meunier are red-skinned grapes with white flesh. If the skins are removed quickly at the beginning of the winemaking process, the wine will be white. We call these Champagnes Blanc de Noirs (White of Blacks) as opposed to sparkling wines made from Chardonnay which we call Blanc de Blancs (White of Whites). If the skin is allowed come in contact with the grapes briefly during the primary fermentation process, the Champagne will “blush” and become a rosé.
As with all wines, the grapes used contribute to its overall flavor, but winemaking has a lot to do with those aromas and flavors winemakers and critics wax poetic about in their tasting notes.
With Champagne, there are two primary styles of wine which create different tasting profiles: oxidative and reductive. As with all things in life, most Champagne lies somewhere on a continuum of oxidative to reductive and is not 100% either.
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)
If you want to do a deeper dive into Champagne house styles — useful for finding new Champagne to suit your preferences — I recommend this article at Vinfolio.
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.
On the flip side, when a Champagne house has a great year (the French term is millésime) in the vineyard they might make a single vintage Champagne and label it as such. Fun fact: Dom Perignon is only ever sold as Vintage Champagne. Vintage Champagne typically costs more — often 100% to 1000% more — than its NV cousins and is prized for its ability to age (practically) indefinitely.
If you’re brand loyal, Champagne houses like Veuve Clicquot offer a variety of options at a variety of prices. Their N.V. Champagne is their “Yellow Label” which you can find anywhere wine is sold and they offer both a “regular” Vintage Brut and their ultra-premium La Grande Dame. This can be a fun way to explore a “house style” but compare NV vs “a very good year” when they do a Vintage bottling.
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.
Need help choosing your style? this guide from the Comité Champagne will help flesh out what you’ve learned here.
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.
Champagne starts to get super pricey when one of the following happens:
- An old vintage gets really popular
- A famed Chateau offers special bottlings
- A famous person starts drinking it notoriously
Luxury Vintage (and N.V.) Champagne typically ranges in cost from $200–300. This would include Dom Pérignon, Cristal, etc. Vintage Rosé Champagne typically costs more — up to $500 or $600. Then there’s the universe of special bottlings, ranging from $300 to $1,500.
Champagne comes in fun sizes!
All wine can be bottled in different sizes. The most common sizes are 375mL (half-bottle or demi), 750mL (standard bottle), 1.5L (magnum). Better barrels are often bottled in magnums because they offer a slower aging process than the standard 750mL bottle. But in Champagne… well, they take it to a whole other level.
In addition to the easy-to-share-a-glass half-bottles, there is also the infamous “Champagne Split” — a single-serving bottle that’s 187mL (a quarter of a standard bottle). These are frowned upon by serious winos because they are not conducive to proper aging (which is what most Champagne producers seem to think we should do with their wares). They are, however, super convenient for parties (the Moet Mini is the go-to), those who drink alone, and those who want to limit their alcohol intake. Try The Sip Society for monthly deliveries of mini-Champagne and make every day a celebration!
Champagne producers love magnums because the bubbly stuff ages more slowly in this format. This is due to the greater ratio of wine to cork (where oxygen gets into the bottle) and denser glass (which keeps out damaging UV rays). But, since Champagne is a celebratory item, they also think about bottlings for parties of every size — from dinner parties to weddings, and beyond.
It’s relatively easy to find Champagnes in large-format sizes like magnums and 3L bottles called a Jéroboam (this, and most of the other names are all quite biblical). After that, they become few and far between, sometimes only available upon request.
For more ways and places to buy Champagne, read on.
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.