Your Guide to Champagne 101

Your Guide to Champagne 101

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines


People seated at an elegant table raising glasses of Champagne for a toast

When it comes to celebrating, nothing tops off the festivities quite like a glass of champagne. It’s the often preferred beverage to toast the New Year, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and other significant life milestones. But, just what is it? We have your guide to champagne right here.

All champagne can be called sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are champagne. To be called champagne, this bubbly beverage must come from the Champagne region of France, an area just east of Paris. The grapes must come from vineyards entirely within the region, and producers must follow a specific method of production. Any sparkling wines produced outside of this region cannot legally be called champagne.

The Making of Champagne

Champagne producers use three types of grapes to make champagne: pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay. 

Different Blends Used in Champagne

The specific blend chosen has a significant impact on the resulting style, as each grape has something unique to offer. For instance, pinot noir grapes bring complexity and character, while pinot meunier adds a touch of brightness. Chardonnay grapes add a bit of elegance to the final product and can also help contribute to longevity.

The Process

There’s a specific process that producers use to make champagne. This method is known as the Méthode Champenoise or “traditional method.” It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, which is part of the reason why the wine tends to stand out from other sparkling wines when it comes to prestige and price.

First Fermentation

As with all other wines, the process for making champagne begins with pressing the grapes. The juice undergoes its first fermentation, which involves the addition of yeast to transform sugars into alcohol. Next, producers blend still wines from varying grapes and vintages in a process called assemblage. After creating the final blend, the wine goes into the bottle for its second fermentation.

Second Fermentation

During the second fermentation, producers add sugar and yeast to the still wine and seal the bottle with a crown cap, a metal cap similar to those you find on a beer bottle. The bottles rest horizontally as the yeast converts the sugars to alcohol and create the carbon dioxide responsible for the bubbles. It’s a process that can take up to eight weeks to complete.

Lees Aging

Next, the now sparkling wine undergoes what’s called lees aging. Contact with the lees (dead yeast cells from the fermentation process) enhances the Champagne’s flavor profile. It takes a minimum of 15 months to complete. The bottles then go on special racks that hold them at a 45° angle. The bottles get turned every so often to encourage the lees to settle in the necks.

Disgorgement

The next step is disgorgement, which involves removing the crown caps, freezing the necks of the bottles, and removing the lees. Producers replace the lost liquid with a mix of still wine and sugar (dosage). Finally, the producers cork the bottles and allow them to age.

Champagne Styles

There are a number of different styles of champagne, but the following are some of the most common. 

Brut 

One of the most common types of champagne is Brut Champagne, which is a dry, non-vintage style. It contains a blend of the three  champagne wine varieties — Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.

Rosé 

Rosé Champagne is a light-colored wine that producers can make in one of two ways. The first method involves a process similar to making other Rosé wines, allowing the skins of red grapes to sit with the juice for a short period. The second method involves blending red and white wines. Rosé champagnes are the only wines in the world where this is allowed.

Blanc de Noir 

Blanc de Noir Champagne is a type of white Champagne that producers make using the region’s permitted red grapes, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier. The process to make it requires as little contact between the skins and the juice as possible so that the finished product has very little color from the grape skins.

Blanc de Blancs 

Then there’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne. These are composed entirely of the region’s only permitted white grape, chardonnay. 

Sweetness Levels

Not only are there different styles of champagne, but there are also different levels of sweetness. 

The amount of sugar added during the dosage plays a role in the final sweetness of the wine, which you’ll see indicated on the label:

  • Brut Nature: less than 3 grams of sugar per liter (little to no sugar added during the dosage). This is the driest of all champagne.
  • Extra Brut: less than 6 grams per liter (still very dry, but less so than Brut Nature)
  • Brut: less than 12 grams per liter. The most common designation you'll find in champagne, it’s still fairly dry.
  • Extra Dry: between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter. This confusingly named designation is a bit sweeter than Brut.
  • Sec: between 17 and 32 grams per liter
  • Demi-sec: between 32 and 50 grams of sugar per liter
  • Doux: more than 50 grams of sugar per liter (the sweetest type of Champagne)

Vintage Vs. Non-Vintage

Champagnes are either vintage or non-vintage. Vintage champagnes are wines that contain grapes that were all harvested in the same year. Producers that make vintage releases do so only do in years when the harvest is considered excellent to exceptional. Vintage champagnes must also age for at least three years prior to being released for sale.

Non-vintage champagnes (labeled “NV” on the bottles) contain a blend of grapes from different years. With these varieties of champagne, producers can offset poor harvests with better ones. As such, they can produce champagnes that aren’t weather-dependent, and that also boast a consistent and dependable style year after year.

How to Open Champagne

Contrary to popular belief, the goal of opening a bottle of champagne isn’t to send the cork across the room and allow the beverage to spill out. Instead, the process is much calmer and requires a special touch. After removing the wire cage, you want to release the cork gently. Instead of an impressive pop, it should sigh contentedly and pop quietly.

The Taste of Champagne

The exact flavor of a champagne depends on a variety of factors. The blend of grapes used and the level of sweetness both play a role. Even so, there are some common characteristics you can expect.

Most champagnes are dry with high acidity. Some of the most frequent flavor notes include green fruits, citrus, and toast. Along with the texture from the bubbles, many varieties of champagne also have a creamy mouth-feel akin to a fine, silken mousse.

Find a Champagne for All Occasions

An excellent bottle of champagne can help elevate any commemoration, making the festivities even more memorable. No matter what the occasion, JJ Buckley’s Fine Wines has a champagne to help you celebrate. 

Whether you’re drinking it on its own or pairing it with a meal, our consultation services can help you find the perfect bottle. Visit our website to browse our incredible selection and find a champagne that fits your needs today.