A Cheat Sheet to Champagne
The 101 on production methods and house styles.
As we are all well aware by now, true Champagne is only made in the Champagne region of France. But few people can expound all the various styles or the production methods behind this classic, sparkling wine. Here's a primer on all the terms and information every lover of Champagne should know.
Champagne’s vineyards are rated according to quality, grand cru being the highest and are planted to three grapes, one white–Chardonnay–and two red–Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Although large companies or houses (maisons) dominate production, most of the vineyards are owned by small growers, many of whom make “grower Champagnes” from the grapes they don’t sell to the big houses.
The Production Process
Champagne is constructed from base wines made of grapes that are less-ripe, less-fruity, less-alcoholic and more-acidic than those found in normal table wines. This base wine is bottled, but then sugar and yeast are added to cause a secondary fermentation. This other fermentation is what produces the magic bubbles and great pressure, necessitating a heavier bottle.
After secondary fermentation, the spent yeast (lees) fall to the side of the horizontal bottle and are gradually moved to its neck by the process of riddling (remuage) by hand or machine, which involves continued turning and inverting of the bottle. The wine in the neck of the bottle is then frozen, the wire cage is removed and the temporary cork and the frozen wine (with the captured yeast cells) shoot out under pressure–a process called disgorging. A little wine and sugar (the dosage) is added to the bottles to soften the wine, and the final cork, cap and wire cage are applied.
Categories of Champagne: the Cuvées
The various types of Champagne produced are called cuvées, and cuvées may be designated according to the dryness or sweetness of the wine, its vintage or blends of years, the types of grapes used, the color of the wine, a trademarked brand or the quality of the wine as seen by its producer. As with everything in Champagne, the final name on the label may be a blend of information, for instance, a “2004 brut rosé” with a brand name.
The basic cuvée is brut, comparable to a dry table wine. If no or minute sugar is added, the wine may be called extra brut or brut zéro. From driest to sweetest, the ratings are extra brut, brut, extra-sec, demi-sec and doux.
A Champagne made from all Chardonnay or white grapes is called a blanc de blanc, while one made from all red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) is called a blanc de noir–“blanc” because the colorless juice is removed from the grape skins quickly after crushing before they can impart any color. A rosé (which is increasing greatly in popularity) is created by allowing the Pinot skins to impart some color and flavors. Most Champagnes are blends of colorless juice from both red and whites, which gets no special name.
A vintage wine comes from grapes picked during that year, but most Champagne is non-vintage, as older wines are added to the young wine to create complexity and often a house style. Some non-vintage and vintage Champagnes are given a branded house name to indicate a style and price range– e.g. Moët & Chandon “Imperial,” which they consider an entry-level Champagne. Wine that has been allowed to rest on its less before bottling is called recently disgorged.
Finally, Champagne houses pride themselves on their top labels—prestige or de luxe cuvees—such as Dom Pérignon (Moët), Cristal (Roederer) or Palme d’Or (Nicolas Feuillate).
The House Styles
Although wines vary in taste according to the cuvee and age of the wine, each house is known for its style. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the major ones to know.
Bollinger-rich and creamy
Charles Heidsieck-finessed and fruity
Krug-complex and often nutty or oaky
Moet & Chandon–fresh and polished
Perrier Jouet–lighter and elegant.
Pol Roger–creamy and floral.
Roederer–richness and brioche flavors.
Taittinger–elegant and structured.