Champagne Guide: Styles, Sweetness, Quality, Food Matches and Differences from Other Sparkling Wines

While most people still reserve a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve and the occasional toast while out for dinner, you really don’t need a formal reason to pour yourself a glass of bubbly.  In fact, Champagne is one of the most food friendly wines available and I encourage you to sip bubbles just for the shear pleasure of the experience.

Sparkling wine is made throughout the world but the name Champagne is reserved only for the wines from France’s chilly northern wine making region of the same name.   The following guide will clarify a few Champagne related terms that you might come across on store shelves over the next couple of weeks.

In accordance with the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – AOC (a concept similar to Canada’s VQA system) only three grape varieties are permitted in the production of Champagne.  Each grape imparts a different character trait to the wine and they are listed below along side their element of style:

•    Chardonnay (white) – Finesse and Elegance

•    Pinot Meunier (red) – Body and Richness

•    Pinot Noir (red) – Fruitiness

The term Blanc-de-Blanc will appear on the label to indicate that only Chardonnay was used in the making of the wine.  And while less common, Blanc-de-Noirs signifies when the wine is made using only Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, both dark-skinned grapes.

There are several terms used to describe Champagne but these are the most common styles:

•    Brut (natural) = dry wine

•    Sec (dry) = off-dry wine

•    Demi-Sec (half dry) = slightly sweet wine

The term Brut implies a dry crisp wine, whereas Sec and Demi-Sec show increasingly more sweetness and body. The vast majority of Champagne and sparkling wines produced and those which are available at the LCBO are dry (Brut).  Incidentally, all Champagne is fermented dry; it is the addition of the dosage (a mixture of cane or beet sugar and wine) that balances the wine’s natural acidity and dictates the final degree of sweetness.

Vintage vs. Non-Vintage Champagne:

Using a process known as assemblage, Champagne is normally a blend (cuvee) of vintages and therefore in theory the wine should always taste the same.  Let us not forget that the climate in the north of France is not exactly conducive to the growth of grapes and therefore bad vintages are more frequent than not.  For this reason, the blending of vintages is essential to create a consistent product from one year to the next.

Vintage Champagne on the other hand is actually the oddball and as the name states, these wines contain only the must from the specified year on the label and are produced only in top vintages.  If you have grown accustom to a particular taste from your favourite Champagne house, their vintage bottling may seem a bit ‘different’ at first.

Delaying the run-off of the crushed grape juice (must) and separation from the Pinot Meunier and/or Pinot Noir skins will result in a slight red stained wine – we know this as Rosé Champagne.

In terms of cellaring potential, Champagne is ready to drink when you buy it.  Though like many other high quality wines, a year or two spent in the bottle will allow the wine’s potential hard edges to soften. High-quality Champagne will evolve from lively, citrusy, and fresh toward a creamy richness after 5-10 years in the cellar becoming fully mature as it approaches 15-20 years of age.  Any longer, and the bubbles begin to dissipate.  Additionally, and since the CO2 within the bottle maintains an adequate degree of moisture, Champagne and sparkling wines need not lie on their sides.  You can store your bubbly bottles upright while you wait for the wine to age.

When serving Champagne and contrary to common practice, the cork should be removed carefully and without a great froth of bubbles.  Simply put: a great deal of effort went in to putting the bubbles into the wine, let’s not waste then on the ‘pop’.  Unless of course, you have just won the Grand Prix – then ‘shake and spray’ everyone around you!

“Champagne is from Champagne.  Bubbles from elsewhere, however good, cannot be called Champagne.” – Hugh Johnson

Cheers,

Tyler

 

Tyler is the founder of North of 9 Fine Wine, a member of The Guild of Sommeliers, and the guy behind @TheVirtualTaste on Twitter. Together with his collection of wine aficionados, the North of 9 Tasting Group assembles online once per month to sample and discuss wine from around the world.

From Tyler: We endeavour to promote and educate those who enjoy a really good glass of wine through our non-biased ‘eTastings’.

Rarely will I publish a review of a wine that I did not enjoy. My taste is purely individual, as is your own. If I write about a particular wine, I do so because I also want you to try it.

 

You can also watch Natalie’s wine pairing video with champagne and potato chips.

 

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