Getting to Know Champagne
By Jacky Blisson MW
Champagne hails from the region of the same name in Northeastern France, about 140km from Paris. It is, without question, the world’s most revered bubbly. Racy, mineral-driven, and ultra-refined, many regions have tried, but none rival Champagne’s sparkling supremacy.
Champagne Grape Varieties
Champagne is generally a blend of two or three of the region’s major grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay. According to the Comité Champagne, Pinot Noir brings structure and body, Meunier gives a supple, fruity, rounded quality, and Chardonnay adds a delicate floral, citrus fragrance, finesse, and ageability.
Alongside their blended wines, many Champagne houses also choose to highlight varietal characteristics by producing Blanc de Blancs Champagne (made exclusively from Chardonnay and, occasionally, other permitted white varieties) and Blanc de Noirs Champagne (produced solely from black-skinned grapes; namely Pinot Noir and Meunier).
Champagne Winemaking & Sweetness
Champagne is initially vinified to produce a dry white wine. This base wine is then bottled with a measure of yeast, sugar, and wine. This liqueur de tirage provokes a second fermentation in the bottle, releasing carbon dioxide as a by-product. As the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and thus dissolves into the liquid as bubbles.
Once the yeast cells have fermented all the sugar, they begin to break down. This complex process called autolysis gives Champagne its fine bubbles, brioche-type aromas, and creamy texture. The longer the wine is left in contact with its spent yeast cells (or lees), the more intense its autolytic character.
Once sufficiently aged, the lees sediment is disgorged, and the bottle is topped up with wine and sugar. This dosage is essential to temper Champagne’s piercingly high acidity. While a Brut dosage (6 – 12 grams/ litre of sugar) is most common, Champagne producers are increasingly lowering dosage to Extra-Brut (0 – 6 grams/litre) or even forgoing sugar additions all together; a style called Zéro Dosage or Brut Nature.
These very dry styles of Champagne can be thrilling if sourced from top terroirs where the grapes ripen fully, yielding concentrated, full-bodied wines. Otherwise, they can prove somewhat austere.
Champagne lies at the northern limit for vineyard cultivation. This cool oceanic and continental climate counts 34 300 hectares of vineyards planted at 90 to 300 metres’ altitude on gentle, chalky slopes. The area is divided into five sub-regions, each with distinctive attributes. The best parcels are further singled out by Grand Cru or Premier Cru designations.
The Montagne de Reims is a vast promontory between Reims and Epernay. Pinot Noir is the star grape here, with no less than ten Grand Cru vineyards. To the east of Epernay lies the Vallée de la Marne. It is territory rich in marl stone that flanks the two sides of the Marne River. Pinot Noir and Meunier thrive here.
The most reputed terroir for Chardonnay is the Côte des Blancs. These limestone slopes stretch southward from Epernay, yielding chiselled, elegant white wines. Six top Chardonnay Grand Crus can be found here. The Côte de Sézanne, due south of the Côtes des Blancs, is also a Chardonnay stronghold, with slightly wetter weather and richer soils, making softer wines.
Finally, the Côte des Bar, located in the southern limits of Champagne, boasts a warmer micro-climate. Once less well regarded, the Côte des Bar is now a hot spot for up-and-coming Champagne producers and is mainly planted to Pinot Noir.
Champagne Wine Styles
There are two major styles of Champagne: Non-Vintage, which is most common, and Vintage. Non-vintage simply means that wines from several vintages are blended together. Still wines are kept back in tank or barrel each year to be used as “reserve wine” for future blends.
The amount of reserve wine used, the number of different vintages, and so forth is a decision taken by the cellar master. These proprietary blends are integral to creating consistent flavour profiles and defining each Champagne house’s signature style. Non-Vintage Champagnes must age on their lees for a minimum of 15 months, although many age for two years or more.
Vintage Champagne are produced exclusively from one harvest and are generally only made in the best growing seasons. They must be aged on lees for a minimum of three years – often much longer. You will see the vintage written on the label.
While Vintage Champagne is often considered the more premium of the two styles, many Champagne producers create prestige Non-Vintage cuvées – with older reserve wines from the best vineyard sites, sometimes aged in oak barrels, with many years lees ageing.
Champagne can also be made into rosé. The pink hue is obtained by macerating black grapes on their skins for a short period of time or by blending still red base wines with still white wines before the second fermentation.
The overall elegance, finesse of its bubbles, racy acidity, and mineral tension of Champagne is unique. It is the ultimate wine for celebrations and, handily, comes in many sizes from half bottles (375mL) to double magnums (3 litres) so you always have enough to serve your guests!
Jacky Blisson MW is an independent wine educator, writer, and consultant with over two decades of experience in all facets of the global wine trade. She is the first Master of Wine in Québec and one of only ten across Canada.