There’s a Champagne that’s right for any occasion — whether it’s celebrating a milestone, ringing in the New Year, or thanking a host for dinner. While the name itself already tells us that the wine was produced using a particular method (the “traditional” method) in a particular place (the Champagne region of France), there are still many different styles and price points to choose from. How do you pick the Champagne that’s right for you? Your palate (and your wallet) can help you decide.
Color Me Bubbly
While most Champagnes are white, nearly 70 percent of the grapes used to produce these wines are black. Producers avoid unwanted color by handpicking the grapes and pressing them as quickly and as gently as possible. The skins are then immediately removed from the juice, as they are the only part of the grape that can add color. In the case of rosé Champagne, some skin contact is allowed to give the wine a pink hue.
The three main grape varieties used are Chardonnay, and the black varietals Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Many Champagnes are a blend of these grapes, but single varietal versions are also produced. Chardonnay imparts floral and citrus characteristics, as well as acidity, which sets up these wines for extended ageing. Pinot Noir lends body, structure, and red fruit characteristics. Pinot Meunier gives the wine fruitiness, which is especially important for Champagnes meant to be enjoyed young (within a year or two).
Some styles reflecting these specific grapes include Blanc de Noirs (white of blacks), made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These wines are usually more structured and have more obvious red fruit characteristics, such as raspberry or strawberry flavors.
Blanc de Blancs (white of whites) is nearly always made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes. When youthful, these wines are light-bodied and crisp, with high acidity and green apple and citrus characteristics. With bottle ageing (on lees), these wines develop a rich, buttery, and yeasty character at their best.
The pink-hued rosé Champagnes are growing in popularity in the U.S., both in their sparkling and non-sparkling forms. Rosé Champagne is most often a blend of red and white base wines – the only rosé wine in the EU that can be made this way – although some Champagne houses do produce a rosé base wine for their pink bubbly. The color is obtained by allowing a limited amount of grape skin contact with the pressed juice. The best versions display a delicate red fruit character. These wines should not be aged for an extended period, as the delicate fruit aromas will fade with time.
All Years Are Good Years
While the year a bottle of wine was produced can give an indication of quality (Was it a good growing season that year? Has the wine been aged long enough? Or for too long?), Champagnes most often do not list any vintage on the label. Non-Vintage Champagnes, sometimes noted as “N.V.,” indicate the wine was produced from grapes picked during several different growing seasons. Every Champagne producer has a particular “house” style that is created by blending reserve wines produced in previous years, with wine produced in the current year. The blends are based on the current year vintage, with the reserve wines added as needed. This approach ensures consistency of the house style, regardless if the growing season was good or bad. Styles can range from light and crisp to full-bodied and yeasty, but all styles must be aged a minimum of 15 months, including a minimum of 12 months on lees (dead yeast). Non-vintage wines are usually not aged for an extended period time in the bottle and will be ready to drink as soon as they are released for sale, keeping price points more reasonable.
During especially good growing years, Champagne houses will produce Vintage Champagnes from the best wines made during that single year. Vintage Champagnes are still blended according to the house’s particular signature style, and the label will clearly state the year of the vintage. In order to ensure producers maintain sufficient reserve stocks to use for blending in other years, only 80 percent of any harvest can be used to produce a vintage wine. Vintage Champagnes must be aged a minimum of three years on lees, although many benefit from longer ageing to develop the yeasty, toasty quality that is characteristic of Vintage Champagne styles. Some Vintage Champagnes may be labeled as “late disgorged” (noted as R.D. or récemment dégorgé), indicating that the wine was aged for an extended period of time on lees in the bottle and only recently was the sediment removed. Since vintage Champagnes are not produced every year and have longer ageing periods, these styles tend be pricier than non-vintage versions.
Prestige Cuvée indicates a super-premium wine made from the very best wines the Champagne houses have available. These luxury Champagnes can be vintage, non-vintage, or single vineyard, but all should reflect the unique style of the house, vintage, or vineyard. They should be more complex in flavor and also benefit from ageing longer, upwards of 10-15 years in some cases. These wines are usually made in very small quantities, and often come with a correspondingly premium price tag. While almost all Champagne houses produce a prestige cuvee, Moët’s Dom Pérignon and Roederer’s Cristal produce some of the most renowned (and expensive) versions.
Is My Champagne a Brut? Deciphering Sweetness
Champagnes also come in a range of different sweetness levels, from bone dry to mouthwateringly sweet. Producers determine the level of sweetness appropriate for their house style by adding a cane sugar and base wine mixture called “dosage” to the bottle just before corking.
Brut Nature is the driest Champagne style. No dosage is added, so any sweetness is derived naturally from any residual sugar that is left after fermentation. This could be anywhere from 0-3 grams of sugar per liter, or about 1/6 of a teaspoon. Extra Brut versions contain anywhere from 0-6 grams/liter of sugar, or about 1/4 teaspoon.
Brut is the most popular style, dry but with a bit of sweetness to balance the acidity. This style will have no more than 12 grams/liter of sugar, or about a 1/2 teaspoon.
Extra Sec or Extra Dry is actually an off-dry style that will taste a bit sweet, containing anywhere from 12-17 grams/liter of sugar, equivalent to 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon. Sec or Dry styles are actually not dry at all. This medium sweet wine has 17-32 grams/liter of sugar, about 3/4 to 1 teaspoon.
Squarely in the realm of sweet wines, Demi-Sec is a style easily enjoyed with dessert, containing 32-50 grams/liter of sugar or 1-2 teaspoons. And the sweetest of them all – Doux – is very sweet indeed, with over 50 grams/liter of sugar, or more than 2 teaspoons.
While New Year’s is certainly a great time to try out some new bubbly, remember that Champagne pairs well with a wide variety of foods that are enjoyed throughout the year. Perfect for giving a little boost to any “ordinary” day. Cheers!
Need a quick guide to how your favorite foods pair with wine? Read on:
Remember that you must be at least 21 years old to drink in the USA and to always drink responsibly. This information is intended for informational purposes only, and not to promote the consumption of alcohol.