Guide to Champagne, France’s Quintessential Sparkling Wine

Champagne — the name of both France’s most northern wine region and its only appellation — is world-renowned as the source of world’s finest sparkling wines; the area’s cool temperatures yield grapes with substantial acidity, a prerequisite for successful sparklers. Remember, while there are high quality sparkling wines from around the world, only Champagne can come from the 33,000 hectares of land that comprises Champagne, France.

Grape Varieties, Regions, and Soils

Chardonnay (29% of plantings)

Chardonnay grows predominately in the Côte des Blancs (and the Côte de Sézanne), where it is the only authorized variety of grape. Soils are chalky limestone topped by a layer of sandy clay (in slightly greater concentrations than in Montagne de Reims, discussed below). Chardonnay gives the wine its fresh acidity; typically displaying floral and mineral elements in its youth, it offers notes of honey and toast as it matures.

Pinot noir (39% of plantings)

Pinot noir is dominant in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar (Aube), where slightly warmer temperatures enable full ripening of this finicky grape. Soils are comprised of chalky limestone and a rockier limestone-clay (Kimmeridgian marl), respectively; pinot noir from the latter’s soils are more full bodied. Pinot noir contributes structure and fullness, providing red fruit notes.

Pinot meunier (32% of plantings)

Pinot meunier grows in the Marne River Valley and the Côte des Bar (Aube). Soils consist of chalky limestone and limestone-clay (Kimmeridgian marl), respectively. Low in acidity, the thick-skinned pinot meunier has an intense, fruity bouquet and a full-bodied character that add to the wine’s overall balance.

Map of Champagne, France

Map of Champagne, France

Méthode Champenoise

Méthode champenoise is the traditional Champagne production process. After primary fermentation and bottling (the creation of the still wine base, or vins clairs), a second fermentation occurs in the bottle, induced by adding an incremental dose of yeast and sugar; the carbon dioxide released from this process gives the wine its trademark bubbles. The wine is then aged on the yeast remnants, or lees, resulting from this bubble-adding fermentation, which add freshness, body and complexity. During the aging process, bottles are slowly rotated from a horizontal position to nearly vertical, neck down, guiding the lees into the neck of the bottle. The inverted bottles are then disgorged, releasing the lees, and recorked for final aging before release.

Types of Champagne

Blanc de blancs

Blanc de blancs (“white of whites,” that is, Champagne from white grapes) designates Champagne made exclusively from chardonnay. Lighter and more elegant than other styles, these wines are an ideal pre-dinner option. That said, they are best after years of aging, as only then do their flavors open and reveal complex toasty notes and bright fruit.

Blanc de noirs

Blanc de noirs (“white of blacks,” that is, Champagne from red grapes) designates Champagne made from pinot noir. As red grapes have clear juice (the red colored juice is derived from contact with the red colored skins), the juice used to make these wines has minimal skin contact. As you might expect, these Champagnes display rounder, richer profiles, particularly at a young age.

Rosé

Champagnes are produced either by leaving the clear juice of red grapes to sit on its skins for a brief time (saignée method) or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée. These wines often display notes of delicate stone fruits and cherries.

Non-vintage vs. vintage

Most of the Champagne produced is non-vintage — typically abbreviated NV on labels — meaning that it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages (usually 15-25% from older vintages, designed to add complexity); there is a predominant base vintage, however, that some producers are choosing to reveal to consumers (along with disgorgement dates) in order to increase transparency. As a result, more so than other regions, the art of blending is critical to the success of the wines, as winemakers aim to reproduce a consistent style and taste from year to year.

Non-vintage Champagne typically includes all three primary grape varieties and is aged for a minimum of 15 months (12 of which must be on the lees) prior to release. However, if the conditions of a particular vintage are particularly favorable, some producers will make a vintage wine (millésime) that must be composed of at least 85% of the grapes from that particular year; the vintage wines are aged for at least three years (on or off the lees) prior to release; these elite wines typically consist only of chardonnay and pinot noir.

Premier Cru and Grand Cru

The top Champagnes are classified as Premier Cru or even higher-end Grand Cru, indicating that the grapes used to produce the wine are sourced from select villages (specific vineyards are not part of the classification) deemed to have superior or ideal growing conditions, respectively; there are 44 Premiers Crus villages and 17 Grands Crus villages (versus 296 other basic cru villages).

Sweetness

Champagne comes in a range of sweetness levels, determined by the amount of sugar (aka dosage) added immediately before final corking: dry (Brut Nature, Brut and Extra Brut; Brut, with less than 15 g/l of sugar, is the most popular), modestly sweet (Extra Sec, Sec, and Demi-Sec), and very sweet (Doux).

Know your Producer Types

A unique feature of Champagne winemaking is that many of the leading Champagne producers do not their own vineyards and rely on purchased grapes. This has created a highly fragmented network of buyers (winemakers) and sellers (grape growers); in such a environment it is helpful to know who has had a hand in the wine you are drinking. Fortunately, Champagne labels give you some critical information in this regard on the matriculation number in small print usually located at the base of the label (these codes are followed by a 7-digit number):

  • NM (Négociant Manipulant) indicates wines made by the largest and best-known producers; they are made from both grapes they grow themselves (usually a small percentage) and those they buy from third parties; keep in mind, while NMs represent 2/3 of overall production, they own only 1/10 of the vineyards.
  • RM (Récoltant Manipulant), responsible for approximately 1/4 of total production, indicates wines made exclusively from grapes grown by the producer (a maximum of 5% of purchased grapes is permitted). These “grower champagnes” are often very good values and more respectful of terroir; we advise experimenting in this category. Look for those marked as “Special Club” for the absolute pinnacle of RM wines; they are made by a select group of growers and undergo two rounds of evaluative tasting prior to being able to be released as Special Club.
  • CM (Cooperative Manipulant) indicates wines from a cooperative of grape growers who pool their grapes, produce the wine, and sell under the general cooperative label. There are over 100 of these cooperatives in Champagne.
  • RC (Récoltant Coopérateur) indicates wines from a single cooperative member that were produced by the cooperative from pooled grapes, but sold under its own name and label.
  • SR (Société de Récoltants) indicates wines made by an association of growers from pooled grapes; they are not part of a formal cooperative.
  • ND (Négociant Distributeur) indicates wines from a merchant (not a grower or producer) sold under its own label.
  • MA (Marque d’Acheteur) indicates a wine from a brand name unrelated to the producer, grower, or wine merchant; it takes the name of the end-market buyer.

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