5 Surprising Facts About Champagne

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

With the holidays already in full swing and New Year's Eve on the horizon, it's a good time to talk bubbly. In this post, I discuss five common misconceptions about the wines of Champagne, including which grapes are allowed to be bottled as Champagne, which are the most-planted, aging non-vintage Champagne, and what glass is best for fully enjoying all that Champagne has to offer.

Surprising Fact #1: The majority of vineyards in Champagne are planted to red wine grapes.

Most of the Champagne we drink is white, not rosé. Yet 38% of the grapes in Champagne are Pinot Noir and 30% are Pinot Meunier. Only 30% of Champagne's vines are Chardonnay. The distribution of these varieties throughout the subregions and vineyards of Champagne varies based largely on soil types and climate.

Most of the Champagne we see is white, despite the predominance of red grapes. Because the juice in most red grapes, including Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is clear, those varieties can be used to make white wine. In fact, Blanc de Noirs sparkling wines are made solely from red grapes. The key is to quickly separate the juice from the grape skins so that it does not absorb any of the pigment from the skin.

Try great examples of Blanc de Noirs, such as this AG94 "total rock star" release, the NV Egly-Ouriet Pere et Fils Blanc de Noirs "Vielles Vignes",

Surprising Fact #2: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are not the only varieties allowed in Champagne.

In the past, Arbane, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meslier used to be common in Champagne. Today, they make up less than 1% of the total acreage combined, but it’s still legal for Champagne producers to use those grapes.

Surprising Fact #3: Grand Cru Champagne must be 100% Grand Cru.

Grand Cru Champagne doesn’t have to come from a single vineyard. There are 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and in fact, a wine could include fruit from all of those and still be called Grand Cru. But, if there is even the smallest amount of fruit from a lesser village, the wine cannot hold this prestigious designation.

The same is true for Premier Cru Champagne. These bottlings can include Grand Cru fruit or Premier Cru fruit, but the grapes must be at least 100% Premier Cru status or better.

Try this WA94 "highly elegant and perfectly balanced" example of a terrific Grand Cru, the 2010 Larmandier-Bernier Champagne "Les Chemins d’Avize Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru" Extra Brut.

Surprising Fact #4: Non-Vintage Champagne can age.

Vintage Champagne is well-known for it’s ability improve with age. With years in a temperature-controlled cellar, the flavors get deeper, richer and more complex while the acidity and tart fruit soften. This is enabled by high-acidity and extended time on lees in the bottle at the winery.

Non-vintage Champagne isn’t required to spend as much time on the yeast as vintage releases. However, some producers do it anyway and non-vintage Champagne has plenty of acidity too. I wouldn’t recommend aging these wines for 10+ years, but many of them can improve if you hold them for three to five years.

Moet et Chandon "Dom Perignon" is a great example of vintage Champagne that ages very well. In fact, Dom usually doesn’t begin to reveal it’s true character until about 15 years after the vintage. Delicious now, this 2006 Dom Perignon will be amazing five years from now.

If you’d like to try a vintage Champagne that is already beginning to show its best face, consider this 2002 Billecart-Salmon "Nicolas Francois Billecart" Vintage Brut, which has received fantastic reviews. (Also available in magnum.)

To get the experience of aged, luxury Champagne at more affordable prices than that of the best vintage Champagnes, consider NV Krug Grand Cuvée. It is a non-vintage wine, but packed with Krug richness and aged at the winery for six years before release. It can mature in your cellar for another 5 to 10 years.

For a non-vintage Champagne which will develop well, but already shows the benefits of aging, try the NV Tarlant "Cuvée Louis" Brut Nature. It includes a high-percentage of long-aged vintages, 1996-2000, and was bottled in 2001. Drink some for the holidays this year, but a few to hold too.

Surprising Fact #4: It’s best to drink Champagne out of a regular white wine glass.

There are two glasses traditionally associated with Champagne: the flute and the coupe. But neither of those gives you the best Champagne-drinking experience.

Flutes, with their tall and narrow shape, are elegant and just seeing them makes us think of celebrations. The long stream of bubbles they create is dramatic. And, because flutes have a small mouth, they slow down the rate at which the bubbles dissipate.

The small opening has a downside though - it makes assessment and enjoyment of the bouquet more difficult. Sparkling wine is, first and foremost, wine. Aromas are a huge part of enjoying wine and this is especially true with a high quality Champagne, which can offer so much complexity.

Coupes, which are low, relatively flat and resemble curvy Martini glasses, don’t help us out with the aromas much either. The mouth of a coupe is too broad, and doesn't channel aroma toward our noses. Instead, the aromas waft in every direction. And bubbles disappear very quickly in coupes.

To enjoy your Champagne fully, drink it out of a white wine glass. These glasses are narrow enough to keep the bubbles from going away quickly, but tall enough to allow the bubbles to develop in a long stream. More importantly, the mouth of white wine glasses is sufficiently broad to get your nose into, yet small enough that it concentrates the aromas.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.