Champagne is a culturally accepted luxury. While there are many bottles of bubbles we consider to be Champs, there can only be one Champagne! But even among the ranks of Champagne wines, there are some major production and quality differences.
I have to get something out of the way first – Champagne is a place, a region of the world, and not a style of wine. There I said it! Sorry to say that “Canadian Champagne” is NOT CHAMPAGNE, Prosecco is also NOT CHAMPAGNE. Sekt, Prosecco, Cava these are all types of Sparkling Wines, but none are named Champagne.
To call any bottle of bubbles ‘Champagne’ is kind of like calling Iceberg Lettuce by the name Spinach. Both are leafy, green, and make great salad. But Iceberg Lettuce is not Spinach by any stretch. They taste different, they are grown under different conditions, and cost different prices accordingly!
However, I can easily understand the confusion. All wine labelled as being produced in the French region of Champagne must adhere to a strict set of production guidelines, making it consistent as the home of the best sparkling wines in the world. Interestingly the production of Champagne sparkling wine as we know it was born out of economic necessity. The region of Champagne is a cool, wet region where grapes struggle to fully ripen. With an average growing season temperature of only 16C, high ripe yields of fruit are hard to come by. The cool climate gives grapes that are high in acid, and as such Sparkling wine was born as a way to make palatable wine from grapes that could not be made into quality still wine. Without carbonation, these wines were undrinkable. Thank goodness for capitalism and innovation!
Because grape growing can be a challenge, the majority of Champagne wines produced are blends of wines from multiple years. This is a great form of business insurance, and is the only AC region in France to allow for such extensive blending. These blends are made from the best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier in the area.
Unlike other areas of France there are no regional subdivisions or quality classifications within the AC of Champagne to create a system of more stringent production laws. Certain villages label wines with a “Cru” status, but these are part of a long disbanded system that no longer indicates quality levels within the region in the same manner as it does in other areas of France.
When compared to other sparkling wines, Champagnes will consistently offer the most complex flavour palates offering up fruit, floral, smoke, mineral and marked toasty, biscuit characters. These savoury notes are imparted into the wine through long term ageing and contact with yeast sediment deposited during a secondary fermentation that carbonates the wine in the bottle. This is known as “Traditional Method” Sparkling wine production.
Now that you are about to go shopping for your premium bubbles, here are a few tips on decoding Champagne Labels:
Non-Vintage Champagne (NV)
These wines are most commonly found and will not show a Vintage year on the bottle. They are a producer’s most commercially important wine. Because blending is the building block method for creation of these wines, each Champagne house tries to adopt a consistent style that they seek to continuously replicate. This means that no matter when you purchase your bottle, you should get a consistent taste profile. Starting prices on these are usually in the $35-$80 range depending on the producer, and some can be much much higher. Most are released at their peak, and few will benefit from further ageing.
Vintage Champagne (Year Marked on the Bottle)
The most expensive type of Champagne, these wines are made from grapes of an exceptionally high quality single harvest year, and they have the prices to match. Many Vintage Champagnes will be aged by the Champagne house for a decade before they are released to the public. That is a loooong time to sit on your product! These wines have the highest capacity to improve with age. Many can continue to evolve for decades after release if stored in a controlled environment. Each Vintage Champagne will be made in a ‘house style’ but will be a unique wine, unable to be duplicated. Expect to pay over $100/bottle as an entry point into the Vintage Champagne Market.
Blanc De Blancs
These are Champagne wines made from 100% white grapes, usually 100% Chardonnay. Young Blanc de Blancs show flavours of apple and restrained citrus, and in youth have higher levels of acid. With Age they develop complex butter and toasty characteristics.
Blanc De Noire
These wines are made exclusively with the black grape varieties Pinot Noir and Meunier. Because of this the wines tend to be more structured on the palate and show red fruit character despite being a white sparkling wine in colour.
This is a catch all term that many producers use to identify their super premium wines from the best parcels of wine that they have to work with. They are usually made in small quantities, and have higher prices to match their exclusive nature. Expect to pay upwards of $70 for a non-vintage bottle, and the highest possible price tag for a Vintage version.
How Sweet is that wine?
Thankfully the French developed a labelling system for sparkling wines to indicate final levels of residual sugar. The following is a table to illustrate these from driest to sweetest:
|Label Term||Sweetness Description|
|Brut Nature||Driest possible 0-3g/L of sugar|
|Extra Brut||Dry 0-6g/L of sugar|
|Brut||Dry to Off-Dry 0-12g/L|
|Extra-Sec||Off Dry to Medium Dry 12-17g/L|
|Sec||Medium Dry 17-32g/L|
|Doux||Luscious 50+ g/L|
It is important to note that with a trend towards drier style Champagnes, many wines labelled as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, or Brut all have no residual to them, though from a legal labelling standpoint Brut can have a maximum of 12g/L of residual sugar. It is important to remember that sweetness in a wine can nicely balance out acidity. In Champagnes with higher levels of acidity, it is common to see more residual sugar. However it is unlikely that the drinker will notice this additional sweetness. Depending on the acid level of the wine and the drinker, most individuals do not detect sweetness in wine until sugar levels begin to reach 4-6g/L
If you prefer fruitier sparkling wines, there are plenty of great alternatives such as Prosecco, Cava, and many new world offerings. With plenty of options to choose from, that is another post for another day! Let’s face it, Champagne is a beautiful treasure worth celebrating with and sharing.
Want to share great bottles of bubbles with friends? Check out our Wine Club!