Vintage or not?
Contrary to most wines, Champagnes are generally marketed without any mention of their vintage: 80% of shipments are made up of non-vintage brut, the Champagne region’s standard bearer. Traditionally, production of these fine bubbles strives for a very consistent and recognizable taste.
To ensure consistency, houses blend several vintages, looking to strike the perfect balance between acidity, maturity, freshness, aromatics, etc., all in the hopes of producing their very own signature style. This access to an “endless reserve” of vintages also allows producers to add a level of complexity to their bottles (thanks in part to the more developed notes of older vintages), and manage any variations in yields by ensuring greater regularity of volumes.
While some artisanal houses produce some vintage cuvées each year, vintage Champagne is only produced in years when the quality is exceptional. A vintage Champagne must be entirely composed of grapes grown that year and must be aged at least three years, as opposed to the 15-month minimum required for non-vintage.
The seven varieties
More often than not, Champagne is made from three main varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. In most cases, houses use a blend of all three grapes, although sometimes a single variety may be used. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier represent close to 70% of the region’s harvested grapes. Although the three aforementioned varieties tend to be the Champagne stars, seven are in fact permitted. The other four – used rather infrequently – are Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane.
Blanc de what?
Most Champagne (approximately 90%) is white, although it is mainly made from black grapes. These grapes tend to produce wines that are richer, more robust, while white grapes result in wines that are livelier, tauter, with a more highly developed mineral profile. When Champagne is made entirely from white grapes (Chardonnay, except for rare exceptions), it is referred to as a “blanc de blancs” (white of whites). When it is made from black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier), it is described as a “blanc de noirs” (white of blacks).
Hillsides and vintages
From north to south, and from Reims to the village of Les Riceys, Champagne vineyards cover approximately 150 kilometres as the crow flies. This large terrain, coupled with ample sun exposure and distinctive soils, is the ideal environment for creating considerable differences in the wines produced and the types of grapes harvested. The limestone hills of Côte des Blancs are entirely dedicated to Chardonnay (no surprise there!), while Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bars are home to Pinot Noir. Pinot Meunier prefers the clay soils of Marne Valley. Within these four main areas lie twenty smaller regions (Avize, Ambonnay, Montgueux, etc.), each with very distinctive characteristics. Together, these prized communes produce more than 300 individual vintages, many of which are made entirely from a single parcel. As a result, the region’s winemakers may label their bottles grand cru or premier cru.
How sweet it is…
Do you prefer your Champagne dry and lively, or charming and robust? More than any other wine, Champagne clearly expresses this element of style on its labels thanks to a categorization based on the levels of residual sugars it contains. Winemakers calibrate these levels of sugar with precision during the final stages of production. During disgorgement—the removal of sediment from the bottle—a small quantity of dosage liqueur or liqueur d’expédition (a mixture of sugar cane and reserve wine) is added to the bottles. The amount of dosage added determines how sweet a Champagne is and under which category it falls:
- extra brut between 0 and 6 grams of sugar per litre
- brut less than 12 grams of sugar per litre
- extra dry between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per litre
- dry between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per litre
- demi-sec between 32 and 50 grams of sugar per litre
- doux more than 50 grams of sugar per litre
When no dosage liqueur has been added and the residual sugar is less than 3 grams per litre, Champagne may be labelled as brut nature, zero dosage, or no dosage.