Wine Basics – Champagne

Champagne is many people’s default celebration wine, making it one of the most popular wines in the world.  It is also one of the most misunderstood.

Let’s get something out of the way at the beginning.  If it’s not from the Champagne region of France, it’s not Champagne.  Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the region of the same name in north-eastern France.  There are three grape varieties allowed in Champagne, two red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunnier) and one white (Chardonnay).  Most are made with a blend of all three but some, called blanc d blanc are made with Chardonnay only.  Blanc d noir wines are made with one or both of the red varieties.  Rose Champagnes are most often made by allowing the juice from the red grapes to sit on the skins for a short time and gain some color.  I have been told that some houses vinify a red wine and blend it but I cannot confirm this.

Champagnes can be classified according to how dry they are with extra brut being the driest followed by brut, extra dry, dry and demi sec.  At one time fully sweet Champagnes were popular but now tastes tend to the dryer ones.  Also, be aware that the dryness designations are not official.  They are used by the makers and one house’s brut can be less dry than another’s extra dry.

A third way of dividing Champagnes is into vintage and non-vintage.  A vintage Champagne is made entirely of grapes grown in one year.  Many Champagne houses only make vintage wines in years they consider particularly good.  Vintage Champagnes are meant to show the different characteristics of the year they are made.  In this they are very different from the non-vintage wines.  Non-vintage or NV wines are blended from more than one year with the goal of making a wine that tastes the same from one bottle to the next year after year.  This is no easy task when you are dealing with wine which naturally varies by year.

There are a few other things to consider.  One is premier cuvee wines.  There are not any particular requirements for a premier cuvee.  It is simply the wine that the Champagne house considers its best.  Many, such as Dom Perignion are vintage wines.  Some are not.  They all carry a premier price tag.

A final note on growers’ Champagne;. most Champagne houses buy at least some of their grapes from others.  If all of the grapes in a given wine were grown by the maker, you have a grower’s Champagne.  Most growers’ Champagnes are made by smaller makers.  They can be less consistent than the NV wines from the big houses but they can be very characterful and interesting.  Cheers.

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