Sunday, February 24, 2013

Champagne 101

As a follow-up to the sparkling wine decision map I posted recently, I thought I’d share some details on Champagne, the most famous sparkling wine in the world.  Understanding what makes Champagne unique can help you understand why you like it (or don’t), and help guide you to other sparkling wines you may like.  

What makes Champagne different from other sparkling wines?

A sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is made within the legally defined boundaries of that region in northern France.  This is based on the French concept of terroir, which means that a wine expresses the place where the grapes are grown.  

The process is also important.  The Champagne method is the highest quality method of making sparkling wine.  When it is used outside the Champagne region, it is called the traditional method.  Here’s an overview of the steps in the process:

What are the typical Champagne flavors?

Because it is made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, Champagne has the fruit flavors of those grapes (citrus, stone fruit, red fruits).  But because the process involves aging on the “lees” or dead yeast cells for at least a year, Champagne also has toasty, bready aromas that some people love, and others don’t.  (If you don’t like these flavors, try a sparkling wine from California that is made in the traditional method.)

Champagne comes in a range of sweetness levels.  Here is a list of the official styles and what they will taste like:

  • Non-dosage/Brut Natural/Brut Zéro:  no dosage at all – no sweetener; will taste extremely dry  
  • Extra Brut:  less than 0.6% residual sugar – will taste very dry  
  • Brut:  up to 1.5% residual sugar – will taste dry
  • Extra Dry or Extra Sec:  between 1.2% and 2% residual sugar – will taste very slightly sweet   
  • Dry or Sec:  between 1.7% and 3.5% residual sugar – will taste slightly sweet
  • Demi-sec:  between 3.5% and 5% residual sugar – will taste somewhat sweet
  • Doux:  greater than 5% residual sugar – will taste sweet

Brut is by far the most popular style.  You’ll notice that it tastes dry, despite having a level of residual sugar that would normally lend some sweetness.  This happens because acid reduces our perception of sugar.  Champagne is very acidic, and needs a little sugar to provide balance, but we don’t notice it as easily because of the acid.  (More on that here.)  In my local Spec’s, 50 different varieties of Champagne are sold; 47 of them are Brut, 2 are Extra Brut, and 1 is Demi-sec.  

Opening the Bottle

Contrary to what the movies tell us, it is a bad idea to let the cork pop out and fly across the room!  Besides being dangerous, you lose a lot of bubbles (and wine) that way.  Remember, there is as much pressure in that bottle as in a car tire, so when you remove the cage, keep your hand on the cork.  It really can fly out at any time!  Try to hold the bottle at an angle and ease the cork out gently and quietly.  Covering the cork with a cloth usually makes this easier.  

General Champagne Terms
  • Blanc de Blanc – Champagne made only from white grapes (therefore, only Chardonnay)
  • Blanc de Noirs – Champagne made only from black grapes (therefore, only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier)
  • Cuvée de prestige or Tete de Cuvée – the best Champagne that a Champagne house produces
  • NV – non-vintage; most Champagnes are a blend of several vintages (years); if a Champagne has a stated vintage, that is a sign of very high quality
  • Rosé – pink Champagne
  • Sur lie – aged “on the lees,” meaning in contact with the dead yeast cells, yielding bready aromas and flavors


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  2. P.S. Here's a cool video on the Disgorgement part of the process: