About an hour’s drive east of Paris lies France’s most northerly wine region: Champagne. Join us as we uncover the terminology, styles and processes that define the renowned drink, and help to answer the question – what is Champagne?
The chalky soil of the Champagne region is known for growing the grapes responsible for the most prestigious sparkling wine in the world. All true champagnes are produced from traditional champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
The chardonnay grapes bring structure, elegance, minerality, linearity, focus, drive and finesse to the wine. The pinot noir grapes provide perfume, body, breadth and richness while the pinot meunier add plump, rounded fruitiness and spice.
So, while all champagnes are sparkling wine, only sparkling wines made in this specific, legally defined region of France can carry the name champagne.
Bead: A colloquial term referring to the bubbles that float in groups on top of a fermenting wine or champagne and sparkling wine in the glass.
Brut: French term referring to the driest (least sweet) champagne.
Cuvée: Cuvée often refers to a specific blend of still wines that was blended purposely for later champagne making in France.
Demi-sec: A French champagne term signifying that the product is medium-sweet.
Mousse: The head on a sparkling wine.
Muselet: Wire cage that holds champagne or sparkling cork in the bottle.
Punt: The concave indentation in the bottom of certain wine bottles, especially those containing sparkling wine.
Sekt: German word for sparkling wine.
Spumante: The Italian word for sparkling wine. Equivalent to Sekt in German.
Vintage: In short, the “year” or season of winegrowing. A wine qualifies as vintage if at least 85% of the wine in the bottle was produced in the year stated on the label.
Yeast lees: After yeast ferments sugar to alcohol, spent yeast settles at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. These yeast lees are often used for adding texture and rich brioche and nut characters.
With seven distinct levels of sweetness, understanding each one will help you to identify the level to perfectly match your palate.
Doux 50+* (Sweet)
A dessert-style of champagne that is now relatively rare to find. Very sweet fruit flavours and pairs nicely with creamy desserts (without chocolate).
Demi-sec 32-50* (Sweet)
A noticeably sweet style of champagne that is perfect alongside desserts or cheeses and nuts.
Dry 17-32* (Off-Dry)
A fruity and somewhat sweet style of champagne with a richer body and texture.
Extra dry 12-17* (Fruity)
The level of sweetness is still low enough that extra dry champagne tastes mostly dry, but with a distinctly more fruit-forward character.
Brut 0-12* (Dry)
The average champagne dosage is usually around six to10 g/L, which adds body. Since the wine has high acidity level, it usually tastes dry or even bone dry.
Extra brut 0-6* (Bone Dry)
A touch of added sweetness to balance champagne’s naturally high acidity.
Brut nature 0-3* (Bone Dry)
No added sweetness.
*Grams per litre of sugar.
When it comes to making champagne, there is only one accepted method; Méthode Traditionelle, also known as Méthode Champenoise. All true champagnes follow strict rules by which the secondary fermentation that gives the wines its bubbles take place in the bottle from which it will be sold and consumed. The steps include:
Pressing – Grapes are carefully hand harvested and gently pressed immediately near the vineyard.
Settling – The solids and impurities are then separated from the must (pressed grape juice), leaving just the clear juice.
First fermentation – Most champagne producers ‘chaptalize’ the wine prior to fermentation by adding sugar or concentrated grape juice to increase its alcoholic strength. It is then fermented in stainless-steel tanks, although traditional oak barrels are being used again.
Malolactic fermentation – Responsible for softening the wine, this step converts tart malic acid into softer lactic acid.
Assemblage – To maintain quality and balance, juice from different vineyards, vintages and varieties are carefully blended to create a consistent final product.
Bottling – The wine is then combined with the liqueur de triage (a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast) before being bottled and sealed with a crown seal, similar to the cap you would see on a beer bottle.
Second fermentation – Under the pressure of the sealed bottle, the carbon dioxide produced from the liqueur de triage dissolves in the wine during the second fermentation, also known as the prise de mousse.
Maturation – Time in the bottle for ageing is important for softening the champagne’s astringent acidity. Dead yeast cells (lees) from the second fermentation remain in the bottle and contribute complexity and mouthfeel over time.
Riddling – Once the second fermentation is complete, the bottles undergo the process of riddling to collect the sediment created during the fermentation process. This is achieved by placing the bottles in heavy, hinged rectangular blocks, called pupitre, and held by the neck in angular holes cut into it.
They begin horizontal and are gradually tilted over roughly three weeks until they are upside down with the bottle being given a quarter rotation every day. This allows the lees sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle without losing the bubbles.
Modern technology has brought riddling to the future with the use of the gyropallette which is a giant robotic arm that can slowly rotate over 500 bottles at once and can complete the process in about eight days.
Disgorgement and dosage – After the riddling process, the neck of the bottle is frozen to solidify the sediment and the cap is released. The frozen sediment is ejected, leaving perfectly clear wine behind. The bottle is then topped up with either sweetened or unsweetened wine (dosage) depending on the style of wine, to replace any lost volume. The cork is then replaced, finishing the process.
With fewer restrictions and limitations placed on producers outside of the Champagne region, alternate methods of creating sparkling wine have been explored and adapted including:
Tank method – Also known as ‘Cuve Close’ or ‘Charmat Method’, the tank method completes the second fermentation in a large, closed pressure tank instead of in the bottle.
Transfer method – Essentially a hybrid of the traditional and tank methods, the transfer method starts the second fermentation in the bottle before being transferred to a pressure tank and its sediment filtered off.
Ancestral method – Secondary fermentation does not occur for the ancestral method. Instead a fermenting wine is transferred from tank to bottle before the first fermentation is complete, finishing the process under cork or cap.
Continuous method – Created in Russia and similar to the tank method, the liqueur de tirage is continuously added to the wine while it is pumped through a series of pressurised tanks, some of which contain oak shavings or chips. Lees accumulate on these wood shavings, enhancing toasty, yeasty flavours while also helping clarify the finished sparkling wine.
Carbonation – As the name suggests, this method involves injecting the wine with carbon dioxide in the same way as many soft drinks. This produces big bubbles that dissipate quickly and is considered the cheapest method of creating sparkling.
While the production of champagne follows very strict rules, producers have experimented with how they use those grapes to come up with some deliciously different variations.
Blanc de Blancs
This style of champagne is made with 100% white grapes. In Champagne, this means the wine is likely to be 100% chardonnay. Blanc de blancs often have floral aromas and fresh minerality due to the chardonnay influence and can also display toasty, buttery flavours after ageing. There are a few very rare grapes (in the same region) including pinot blanc, petite meslier, and arbane, that can also be used to make blanc de blancs but for the most part, blanc de blancs is 100% chardonnay.
Blanc de Noirs
This style of champagne is made exclusively with dark-skinned grapes which are pressed and the clear juice removed from the skins before any colour can be transferred. In champagne, this means blanc de noirs are made from a combination of pinot noir and or pinot meunier and are known to have more strawberry and white raspberry flavours.
This pink style of champagne is often made during the assemblage stage of the process where a small amount of red pinot noir or pinot meunier juice is added to the blanc champagne. This tiny amount is sometimes only 5-10% of the wine but sometimes as much as 20%. The red wine adds fruit flavours, body and tannin to round out the blanc champagne.
One of the least talked about and most important factors that plays into the taste of champagne is how long it’s aged. Ageing champagne on ‘tirage’ (on the lees) gives it more bready, toasty, and nutty aromas – highlights of great champagne.
The best producers with the nuttiest wines are known to age their wines on ‘tirage’ for as long as five to seven years before release. Even though tirage time is usually not listed, seeing a vintage on the label is a clue.
Aged for a minimum of 15 months. Non-vintage (NV) champagne exists so that producers can make a consistent house style each year (regardless of the quality of that year’s harvest). Most NV champagne are fruitier and less bready than their vintage styles.
Aged for a minimum of three years. On special years when the harvest is particularly good, producers create single-vintage wines. Most opt for a creamy and yeasty style in this aged category.