Champagne: An Exploration of Style
Within the world’s most famous sparkling wine appellation, many sub-styles exist. From sweetness level to vineyard parcel, the permutations are numerous. Explained herein are some of the possibilities.
Vintage, Non-Vintage, Multi-Vintage, Semi-Vintage
“Vintage” Champagnes are made entirely with fruit from a single harvest, and must be aged for a minimum of three years in the winery cellars. Fine versions often exceed this requirement, sleeping for five to ten years or more before release. Typically, only a handful of years per decade are chosen for vintage wines, when growing conditions are most favorable. In such years, the winery must still hold back 20% of the harvest.
“Non-Vintage” wines combine juice from multiple harvests. Often, three years are blended, with one year taking a majority role. Non-vintage blends can make up the bulk of a winery’s annual production, and many epitomize a “house style”. In the case of a challenging year with weaker fruit, those lacking qualities are buoyed by stronger blending components, giving justification to the 20% reserve requirement on “vintage” years. Non-vintage wines require a minimum 12 months of aging in the cellar.
“Multi-Vintage” is a term used by some houses to infer that although the blend is from multiple harvests, each component has the quality and concentration worthy of single-vintage labelling. In this mindset, the blend is creating synergy of the multiple years, rather than masking underperforming juice as might occur in bulk “non-vintage” production.
“Semi-Vintage” is a term made-up for this article, and represents a unique occasion where a wine comes entirely from a single harvest, but does not meet the aging requirement for vintage labelling. Such an approach highlights the freshness and vibrancy of youthful wine, rather than the depth and intensity of qualities derived from longer cellaring.
As a cool-climate region, Champagne generally produces tart wines. Sugar in various forms is an important part of the classic recipe, added toward the end of the production cycle. “Dosage” amounts have varied over the years, with older times favoring more sweetness, and modern times edging to drier expressions. Common sweetening agents include beet sugar, or unfermented grape must.
Brut Nature / Brut Zero / Brut Sauvage: Sweetener is not added, and unfermented sweetness is allowed up to 3 grams per liter.
Extra Brut: up to 6 grams per liter residual sugar.
Brut: up to 12 g/L
Extra Dry: 12 to 17 g/L
Sec: 17 to 32 g/L
Demi-Sec: 32 to 50 g/L
Doux: over 50 g/L
Blending of Grapes
The most common varieties in Champagne production are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. Also allowed, although quite rare, are Petit Meslier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
Most Champagne blends have a majority of Pinot Noir, followed by Chardonnay and Meunier. Producers may choose to advertise the components of the blend on the rear-label, although many will not.
Blanc ou Rosé
Blanc styles are “white sparkling wines” made from white or red varieties. Blended blanc styles are the most common in Champagne, with Pinot Noir adding broad structure, and Chardonnay finesse. The other grapes may be included too, but usually in small amounts, or none at all.
Blanc de Blancs encompass wines made entirely from white grapes. Often this means Chardonnay, but not always. There are cases in which Blanc de Blancs are made from the other white varieties such as Petit Meslier, or a blend of them, but usually it’s just Chardonnay.
Blanc de Noirs wines are made from red varieties, but avoid pigmentation through gentle pressing that reduces contact with colorful grape skins. A blanc de noirs is usually made from Pinot Noir, sometimes Meunier, or rarely a blend of both.
Rosé Champagne wines can be among the most special (and expensive) of any house’s production. Fixing the color consistently is a big challenge, as is striking a perfect balance in the blend, between various components. The classic Rosé style of Champagne blends still base wines, white and red, which is a unique method in all of France, not allowed elsewhere. This technique is favored by most producers, especially the NM houses. Such wines can range in color from very pale salmon, to deep magenta.
Another version of Rosé is called Saignée, which uses maceration on skins to achieve its color. Favored more by the RM set, these wines tend to be more wild, brambly, and intense.
Vineyard Source: non-rated, 1er Cru, Grand Cru, Clos
There are five sub-regions of Champagne, including the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte de Blancs, Sezannais, and the Aube.
Specific vineyard areas in Champagne are rated in a unique way, wherein the village name itself is given status. Unlike other regions of France where single vineyards or entire estates are rated, the village-rating system a less-common method.
Premier Cru and Grand Cru villages exist in every region, except for the Sezannais and Aube. The reasoning behind omitting the latter two is both geographic and political, and has been debated over time.
Clos vineyards are areas enclosed by stone walls, at least in theory. These are not numerous in Champagne, and often represent the most expensive wines of houses who own them.
The most special wines created by a Champagne house are often their “Tête de Cuvée” labels, which combine amazing fruit and detailed winemaking with elaborate packaging and marketing. Growers often have high-end labels, but are less likely to adopt the glamor of “tête de cuvée” packaging. For example, the “Fiacre” wine by Chartogne-Taillet looks quite similar to their junior wine “Sainte-Anne”, in contrast to the cellophane-gift-boxed Cristal Vinothèque Rosé by Louis Roederer, which visually outshines their “Brut Premier”.
Some growers have teamed-up in the “Club Trésors” aka “Special Club”. Nearly thirty members strong, each winery makes their own unique wines, with Special Club labels and bottles reserved for the best wine made by each producer. Thus, each Special Club wine is unique, but unified by a shared vision for excellence, and marketing approach that can resonate with consumers.
The largest producers in Champagne are négociants, who mostly use fruit purchased from other landholders, using negotiated contracts. These houses do often have their own vineyards, but generally the majority of their wines come from purchased fruit. Such producers usually favor big, rich styles, with higher dosage, although such a broad statement can be debated. Labelling and packaging is often elaborate: if there is an expensive “tête de cuvée” found in a gift box, chances are that it is from a NM: Négociant Manipulant.
Growers are increasingly important in modern the Champagne region. These producers are famed for growing their own vines, and producing their own wines. A small margin of 5% is allowed for non-estate fruit purchases. Production levels are generally small, and stylistic trends feature minimal label designs, low dosage, organic viticulture, and saignée rosé production. Should you find yourself at a hip “wine studio” in Manhattan, chances are that they will proudly feature the RM: Récoltant Manipulant.
The “micro NM” trend has emerged in recent years, with producers who buy fruit from growers, but make wine in the spirit of growers. As with the famous and rare RM wines, these micro-négoce labels are expensive, Instagram-worthy treats.
CM wines elevate small growers, by unifying their production under a single brand. These wines usually offer great value and consistency, but with a sacrifice to the detail and finesse, as often happens with bulk production. The charm of Coopérative Manipulant is indeed a dichotomy.
Marque d’Acheteur labels are great for large-chain groceries, who desire a company brand for the masses. Such MA wines are produced under private contract, and are equal in quality to the generic hot dogs and potato chips sold by the same store brand.
There are three other producer categories which exist in theory, but until a real-world examples emerge, their description herein will be eschewed. These include Récoltant Coopérateur, Société de Récoltants, and Négociant Distributeur.
Having covered the basics of Champagne styles, things will now come together by referencing real-world examples. The various aspects will come together, to show what is possible, and highlight the fact of incredible diversity within the Champagne paradigm.
Non-Vintage, Blanc Champagne Blends, Various Sweetness Levels
- NV Brut Nature, Georges Laval, Premier Cru Cumières
- NV Extra Brut, Jacquesson, Cuvée n° 741
- NV Brut, H. Billiot, Grand Cru Ambonnay Cuvée Julie
- NV Extra Dry, Piper-Heidsieck
- NV Sec, Jacques Selosse, Exquise
- NV Demi-Sec, A. Margaine, Premier Cru Villers-Marmery
- NV Doux, Veuve Clicquot, Rich
Vintage and Non-Vintage, Rosé Champagne, Various Sweetness Levels
- NV Brut Nature Rosé, Lelarge-Pugeot, Rosé de Saignée
- NV Extra Brut, Vouette et Sorbée, Saignée de Sorbée
- 2015 Brut Rosé, Geoffroy, Rosé de Saignée
- NV Extra Dry Rosé, Pommery, Pink POP
- NV Sec Rosé, Taittinger, Nocturne
- NV Demi-Sec Rosé, Nicolas Feuillatte, D’Luscious
- 1990 Doux Rosé, André Beaufort, Grand Cru
Here is a theoretical road that a Champagne lover may go down, as they dig deep into the region. Such a path commonly starts with CM and NM labels, and then heads deep into RM territory.
- Nicolas Feuillatte
- Veuve Clicquot
- Armand de Brignac
- Dom Pérignon
- Pol Roger
- Louis Roederer
- Bruno Paillard
- Jean Milan
- Henri Billiot
- Jean Vesselle
- Paul Bara
- Marc Hébrart
- Pierre Péters
- Olivier Horiot
- Ulysse Collin
- Vouette et Sorbée
- André Beaufort
- Bérêche et Fils
- Emmanuel Brochet
- Frédéric Savart
- Jacques Selosse
- Georges Laval
- Cédric Bouchard
- Jerome Prevost
- Marie-Noëlle Ledru