Everything you Need to Know About Champagne

Words: Robyn Samuels

There’s a reason Dom Pérignon said, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars,” the first time he tried Champagne. From the popping of the cork to the heady complexity that makes us tipsy and the sensation of bubbles dancing on your palate, Champagne is captivating. But not all Champagnes are made equal… here’s everything you need to know about Champagne.

Champagne guide

Much like regular wine (non-sparkling), they come from different varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, meaning they result in different styles with varying tasting notes.

To help guide you through the world of Champagne, we explain the difference between Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs, as well as the difference between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes, and everything related to classifying Champagne – like what people actually mean when they say it tastes ‘dry’.

Champagne Colour Types

Tasting notes for each Champagne type depends on certain factors – like the vintage year, vineyard classification, and sweetness – but there are usually common tasting notes.

Champagne types
Difference between Champagne and Cap Classique

Blanc de Blancs: Translates to ‘white from whites’ in French, meaning that white wine is made from white grape varietals. Chardonnay grapes are used to make Blanc de Blancs.

Blanc de Noirs: Wine connoisseurs will know that ‘blanc’ usually refers to white wines (Chenin Blanc), whereas ‘noir’ refers to red wine (Pinot Noir), but Champagne or Cap Classique are classified as ‘Blanc de Noirs’ or ‘white from black’, meaning that white wine is made using red or black grapes.

During the fermentation process, red grapes are pressed, but the juice remains clear. If a winemaker wants colour, it would be derived from contact with the grape skins. In the case of a Blanc de Noir, there is no skin contact – therefore, a clear/white wine is produced from red grapes, hence the ‘white from black’ reference in the name.

Did you know? Because Champagne has a specific set of requirements, only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes can be used to make a Blanc de Noirs Champagne. Blanc de Noirs are usually full-bodied and fruity. If made with Pinot Noir grapes, flavours of apple, lemon and honey present on the palate. Pinot Meunier grapes often produce more acidic, light and fruity-tasting Champagnes.

Rosé Champagne, the prettiest of them all, has a distinct pink hue and is either made by blending red and white wine, or the Champagne maker could allow white grape juice to ferment along with red grape skins to produce a Rosé. Tasting notes differ depending on the type of white grape varietal and the red grape skins used during blending, but Rosé Champagne typically has berry/red fruit, citrus and cherry-like notes.

The Difference Between Vintage and Non-vintage Champagne

Champagne is sourced from one of three grape varietals – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier (a red grape varietal) grown in Champagne, France. They can be either vintage or non-vintage depending on harvesting methods. While ‘vintage’ usually refers to the age of something in the general, with Champagne, it refers to the source of the grapes.

Champagne guide

Vintage Champagnes are made from grapes harvested within a specific year; the year stamp should be clearly labelled on the bottle. Another requirement is that the harvested grapes need to be of exceptional quality – the French refer to this as ‘Millesime’ or ‘a great vintage’. Vintage Champagnes must also be aged for a minimum of three years; some Champagne Houses might decide to extend the length of maturation.

Non-vintage Champagnes are created from specific grape varietals from more than one year and harvest. The blended wine must be aged for a minimum of 15 months. Non-vintage Champagnes account for 90% of most Champagne Houses’ profits, as it has a higher yield than vintage Champagnes.

Vineyard Classifications

Champagne is an AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, meaning that for sparkling wine to be classified as ‘Champagne’, it needs to meet standard rules controlled by its origin. In this case, it needs to originate from the Champagne region of France. The standard or status of Champagne is further judged based on the growth (cru) standards of the respective vineyards, according to the quality of soil and growth conditions.

Champagne vineyards France

Champagne 101: There are three main vineyard types within Champagne, namely Grand Cru – venerated for producing the highest quality of Champagne – followed by Premier Cru. The last is Autre Cru, and though these vineyards are capable of producing good quality Champagnes (some at the level of Premier Cru), Autre Cru is thought to have the lowest quality of the three.

Sweetness/ Dryness

The final factor is the level of sweetness. When tasting wine or Champagne, people often refer to it as ‘dry’. If you’ve ever wondered how a liquid could taste ‘dry’, they aren’t referring to the moisture content, but rather the level of sweetness.

This actually refers to the process of fermentation, during which the sugar is converted into alcohol, resulting in the ‘dry taste’. The less residual sugar present, the ‘drier’ the taste – but this also depends on the type of Champagne.

Champagne Brut: Brut means ‘raw’ or ‘unrefined’ in French, and has less than 12 grams of sugar. While Champagne Brut is one of the drier types, it does retain a slight sweetness.
Champagne Brut Nature has the least amount of sugar (0–3 grams); making it the driest.
Champagne Extra Brut is extra dry and contains between 0 and 6 grams of residual sugar.
Extra Dry Champagne is also called ‘Extra Sec’, meaning ‘off-dry’ and can contain anywhere between 12 and 17 grams of residual sugar.
Demi-Sec Champagne is one of the sweeter Champagnes or sparkling wines and contains between 32 and 50 grams of residual sugar.
Champagne Dry: Although dry, this isn’t the driest Champagne type, as it contains 17–32 grams of residual sugar.
Champagne Doux: If you’re looking for a dessert wine, Champagne Doux is the sweetest type of Champagne, ranking with a high of over 50 grams of residual sugar.

Now that you know what to look out for when tasting Champagne, learn all about the difference between Champagne and Cap Classique

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