People, are you all in the mood to celebrate? Well, you better be because you’re about to learn just about everything you’ll ever need to know about Champagne, the drink that’s become synonymous with celebration — as well as gnarly hangovers. And if you think Champagne is simply sparkling wine, you are absolutely dead wr— OK, you’re mostly right. But still, there’s more complexity to Champagne than just its having extra CO2 bubbles, sugar, and yeast relative to wine. Real “Champagne” is only allowed to be made in the Champagne region of France, for one thing. There are also a lot of strict rules that Champagne makers need to follow in order for their product to be considered genuine Champagne.
But we won’t only be covering legitimate Champagne from the Champagne region of France in this Ultimate Champagne 101; we’ll also be covering sparkling wine, the stuff that’s basically Champagne, but made anywhere else in the world. Once you’re done reading the below Champagne 101 guide, you’ll know about everything from how sparkling wine/Champagne is made to the different categories of sparkling wine/Champagne to how to store sparkling wine/Champagne to, of course, how to drink sparkling wine/Champagne like a true connoisseur. So grab yourself a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, a nice glass Champagne flute (or crystal if you roll like that…) and prepare to learn more about every partier’s favorite bubbly drink than you ever have before. Oh, one more thing: Make sure to point the Champagne bottle away from your face when you’re popping the cork. Eye injuries from poppin’ bottles are extremely rare, but nonetheless, they do happen. OK, now let’s get onto the fun stuff!
First up, we need to know exactly what Champagne is. According to Wikipedia, Champagne is “sparkling wine… which comes from the Champagne region of France. This means that real Champagne is made solely from grapes grown in this region. Real Champagne must also obey a strict set of regulations, which includes a mandatory secondary fermentation in the bottle, some particular vineyard practices, and some specific pressing methods. Almost all genuine Champagne is also made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, although there are a few other types that are used on occasion.
Sparkling wine as a general category encompasses wine that is characteristically “effervescent,” which basically means that it has a crapload of bubbles in it. And while genuine Champagne must derive its bubbles via a second fermentation in the bottle, sparkling wine can get its bubbles from pressurized tanks or even injections of carbon dioxide. These different methods aren’t totally trivial either — the size and amount of bubbles in a given bottle of sparkling wine will change depending on the way they’re produced in the bottle. Sparkling wine, again like Champagne, also has a specific, distinctive color palette, ranging from a pinkish huge to white. Flavor-wise, sparkling wine tends to be either sweet or dry, depending on sugar content.
In terms of an extremely brief Champagne history — the few bits you’ll need to know if you’re ever cornered at a New Year’s Eve party and commanded to demonstrate your vast Champagne knowledge — you’ll basically want to know that although the birthplace of sparkling wine is contested between France and England, it definitely originated in the 17th century. And while some people will tell you that it was undoubtedly the French Benedictine Monk Dom Pérignon who first discovered bubbly wine, that actually isn’t the case. In fact, there’s solid evidence that Christopher Merrett, an Oxford-educated English scientist was the first to outline the process of making sparkling wine via a second fermentation. But we’ll get more into that in the A Very Brief History of Champagne section below.
As far as the other historical highlights you’ll want to know off the top of your head, they include the explosion in popularity of Champagne after the Duke of Orléans adopted it as one of his favorite drinks in the early 18th century, the decrease in popularity of the drink after the French Revolution in the late 18th century (as it was a drink predominately enjoyed by the nobility), the establishment of the modern Champagne industry during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th/19th centuries thanks to new understandings of how yeast works as well as the invention of stronger glass bottles, the establishment of the national French railroad system in the mid 19th century, which allowed Champagne to be exported around the world, the devastation to the Champagne region during WWI and WWII, which saw the amount of Champagne being produced crater, and finally the regeneration of the industry since the 1950s, with sales growing steadily until today with around 300 million bottles being sold each year.
Before diving into our very brief history of Champagne, let’s make perfectly clear what the differences between sparkling wine and Champagne are. And really, we’re just rehashing what we mentioned above. Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are champagne (it’s the same deal with tequila being a mezcal, but not all mezcals being tequila). This is because, of course, real Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France — if it ain’t made in Champagne, France, it ain’t Champagne.
A look at one of the terroirs in the Champagne region of France. Image: Flickr / Daniel Jolivet
Genuine Champagne must also obey strict guidelines dictated by the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), which is official certification provided by the French government to Champagne makers (as well as makers of other products like wine, cheese, etc.). These guidelines cover everything from allowable grape varieties, pruning methods, maximum press yield permitted, minimum potential alcohol content of newly harvested grapes, a mandatory second fermentation in the bottle, and maturation times of 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage.
Yes, we know this isn’t Champagne, but nevertheless this is what an A.O.C. tag looks like. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
As a caveat, there do seem to be some exceptions to the rule that champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France — California sparkling wines, for example, are unquestionably referred to as Champagne in the U.S. These same Champagnes, however, would not be considered authentic by the EU, and of course France particularly.
Here’s the bottom line: If it ain’t made in the Champagne region of France according to AOC regulations, it ain’t Champagne; it’s just sparkling wine.
Now that we know what Champagne is and how it differs from generic sparkling wine, let’s take a quick yet comprehensive dive into the history of this bubbly deliciousness.
Let’s start our history of Champagne with its birth (duh, right?). As mentioned above, the exact birth location, as well as true discoverer, of Champagne is hotly debated. What is certain is that the first time grapevines were introduced to the Champagne region of France was around the 5th century. In fact, the name Champagne comes from the Latin word, campania, which referred to the similarities between the Champagne region and the Italian countryside of Campania. For most of the region’s history, however, wines made in Champagne weren’t referred to as Champagne, they were referred to as vins de Reims or vins de la rivère, which was a reference to the Marne river.
The Marne River, which runs through the Champagne region of France. Image: Flickr / Dan Dickinson
In the 17th century, as things progressed, and the region continued to produce wine, the Champenois (people inhabiting Champagne) began to become envious of the the wines being made in Burgundy, which had a better reputation. As a result of this envy, the Champenois attempted to make wine that was just as good, but had trouble due to the colder climate of the region. Due to this colder climate, the wines produced in Champagne were lighter bodied and thinner than those made in Burgundy. In other words, they sucked.
A vineyard in Côte de Beaune, Burgundy. Image: Wikimedia / Stefan Bauer
But these colder temperatures didn’t only affect the quality of the wines produced in Champagne, they also caused the fermentation happening in the wine cellars to halt prematurely, which resulted in wine being bottled with dormant yeast cells. When temperatures would warm up in the spring, the dormant yeasts would start fermenting the sugars in the bottle again, which resulted in the creation of CO2 bubbles. While this was obviously a primitive form of Champagne, at the time it was seen as a gross defilement of the still wine the Champenois were trying to produce. On top of that, the CO2 bubbles caused the bottles they were in to explode due to the increase in pressure. Because of this perceived diminishment of quality, as well as the whole exploding bottles thing, the Champenois tried as hard as they could to rid the bottles of the bubbles. One of those people was a guy by the name of Dom Pérignon, who wouldn’t necessarily invent Champagne as we know it, but would come up with some inventions that were necessary for its creation.
In the late 17th century, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, was in the same mindset as the rest of the Champenois — he wanted to rid his region’s wines of their dastardly bubbles. The fastidious monk tried everything he could to rid his region’s wines of their bubbles, but it was to no avail. Even though he had failed at achieving his goal, however, he still produced some inventions that would be necessary to eventually produce Champagne as we know it. These inventions included stronger glass bottles as well as ropes that could be tied around the bottles’ corks to keep them from popping off. Dom Pérignon also created many of the vinicultural practices that are still used to make Champagne today, including methods of transforming red-skinned grapes into white-ish colored Champagne.
A statue of Dom Perignon. Image: Wikimedia / Victor Grigas
In terms of who’s actually credited with inventing Champagne, that honor goes to Christopher Merrett, an Oxford-educated English scientist who presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 outlining cider makers’ use of sugars in their products to make them bubbly and more drinkable. Merret noted that this addition of sugars to the cider makers’ product resulted in a second fermentation process, which would lead to the key difference between sparkling wine and still wine: those lovely little bubbles. Ask French people about Merret, however, and they’ll probably deny that he indeed deserves credit for Champagne’s conception. We leave it up to you to decide who you want to make angry….
Cruising into the 18th century, we see Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans, become the Regent of France. This particular Regent greatly enjoyed the sparkling wine being made in Champagne, and due to his enormous influence on the country, helped it to become extraordinarily popular. This marked the first time Champagne took off as a popular alcoholic drink.
A portrait of Phillipe II, the Duke of Orléans. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
During this period smaller, private wine producers and merchants began to dominate the Champagne-making scene, which resulted in the establishment of “houses” such as Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck and Taittinger. These houses not only serviced France’s newfound thirst for bubbly wine, but also brought Champagne to royal courts across Europe.
Despite the rise in Champagne’s popularity, by the end of the 18th century, non-sparkling wine still made up over 90% of the wine being produced in the Champagne region. Then came the French Revolution, which hit Champagne production hard thanks to its association with the bourgeois. Champagne producers were still trying to push their product, however, and were so enthusiastic — yeah, let’s say “enthusiastic” and not “super greedy” — that they even sold their products to whoever won the battles between France and Russia when Napoleon eventually decided to invade the latter.
Although Champagne increased greatly in popularity in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the necessary technological leaps were made for the industry to flourish. For example, French scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal made it known that Champagne “sparkled” because it was placed into sealed bottles before the fermentation process was complete. Chaptal also noted that the bubbles were the result of the sugar in the wine.
A portrait of Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
Stronger glass bottles, which came about thanks to Brits’ coal-fired glassmaking methods, were also invented during this period, which were hugely critical because Champagne bottles kept exploding (thanks to that intense pressure from the gaseous bubbles). It wasn’t only individual bottles that were exploding either — often times if one bottle of Champagne exploded in a cellar, it would cause a chain reaction and explode a huge number of the other bottles.
On top of stronger bottles and a better understanding of fermentation, corking machines also helped to make corking bottles easier and more efficient. There were also other inventions that made bottling Champagne more efficient, including techniques for ridding bottles of dead yeast after secondary fermentation was complete.
Sparkling wine producers in California disgorge and recork bottles of bubbly. Image: Wikimedia / Marion Doss
Along with a bunch of new inventions that made the Champagne production process safer and more efficient, the Industrial Revolution also saw transportation methods improve. The French national railroad system connected Reims with the rest of France, which meant that it was now connected to coastal ports. This led to an opening of worldwide markets, which, of course, meant a massive increase in the drink’s popularity. By the 1850s Champagne production was averaging 20 million bottles a year.
Heading into the 20th century, Champagne began to take a foothold in popular culture, despite seriously ravaged crop yields in the region thanks to a phylloxera epidemic, as well as issues with mold and mildew. These problems resulted in the loss of 96% of crops between the years of 1902 and 1909, which, obviously, is a crapload of lost crops.
During the beginning of the century, Champagne producers were also facing serious issues making money because of several reasons, including the aforementioned lost crops, as well as widespread poverty in France. Grapes being grown in the Champagne region were also increasing in price at this time, which forced Champagne producers to import cheaper grapes from other regions in the country. Producers who didn’t import their grapes from outside of the Champagne region turned on those who did, saying that they were only producing faux Champagne. This clash, as well as all of the economic turmoil, eventually exploded into riots, which the French government had trouble controlling. This would all soon become moot anyway, however, as World War I soon broke out….
German soldiers on the front at the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
World War I, which took place between 1914 and 1917, saw the Champagne region lose over half of its population, with one particular region losing two thirds of its people. Vineyards, Champagne production facilities, and Champagne warehouses were also, of course, devastated, which seriously hindered the industry. As a silver lining to this horrible situation, underground caverns used for Champagne storage were repurposed as bomb shelters. So yeah, Champagne has, indirectly saved a bunch of lives. Something to toast to besides the new year, if you’re looking for an another excuse to drink some bubbly.
After World War I, the French government wrote and passed laws that would eventually allow for the AOC to come into existence. The AOC, as noted above, implemented strict regulations for Champagne producers to follow, which helped to standardize quality and production practices.
Despite the end of World War I and the establishment of laws defining what exactly was and was not Champagne, growers and producers from the Champagne region again faced serious obstacles — one of the biggest being, of course, Prohibition in the U.S., which knocked out one of Champagne’s largest markets. This was compounded by the elimination of Russia as a go-to market thanks to the Russian Revolution, as well as the global economic downturn during the Great Depression.
A bottle of Champagne being used to christen a U.S. battleship in 1944. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
Following all that madness came World War II, which brought further devastation to the Champagne region. This time around the devastation wasn’t as bad as the first world war, but more vineyards and Champagne producers were still destroyed by invading Germans. The period after World War II saw Champagne bounce back in popularity, with the market growing steadily until today.
Today, things are looking mighty bright for the Champagne industry. Over 300 million bottles are sold each year as of this writing, and the AOC is even considering enlarging the area in which genuine Champagne can be produced to meet growing demand. As of this writing there are 19,000 growers selling grapes to 300 or so Champagne houses, which is obviously amounts to a ton of Champagne, especially considering the fact that this number doesn’t even include all of the sparkling wine that’s sold around the world each year.
Champagne in the 21st century is synonymous with celebration. Image: Flickr / Simon Williams
Despite overall worldwide growth of Champagne markets, there are a few pockets of diminished demand. In the UK, for example, demand is down (again, as if this writing), which could be considered especially problematic because it’s one of the largest importers of Champagne. But the overall picture for Champagne is pretty rosy, especially considering the growth that’s expected for the market in the coming years.
OK, now that we know what Champagne is and how it’s changed throughout history, let’s turn to how the stuff is actually made. And while there a lot of caveats, the basic process boils down to the following steps. (We’ll be focusing exclusively on the methode Champenoise for this guide, as it’s the official process for making genuine Champagne. Obviously there are tons of other ways to make sparkling wine, but if you know how Champagne is made, you pretty much know how any sparkling wine is made.)
First up we have the stage where the cuvée is selected and pressed. For the 95% of you who don’t know what cuvée is, it’s the base wine used to make a particular Champagne. A given cuvée can be made from a single grape variety, such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, or it can be a blend of several different grape varieties. Pinot noir is a red grape variety that produces a white wine (just get rid of those grape skins to make this happen), Chardonnay is a white grape variety that produces white wine, and Pinot Meunier is another red grape variety that’s also often used.
If you see the word “cuvée” on a bottle of Champagne, or anywhere else, know that that’s a reference to which grape varieties were used. Image: Flickr / Dominic Lockyer
Once a grape variety or blend of varieties has been selected, it’s then time to get to pressin’ the grapes in order to leech out their precious, precious sugary juices. The grapes are loaded into presses — which sometimes look like the one pictured below — and then pressed until all of their juices are extracted and gathered.
One example of a wine press. Image: Wikimedia / Sanjay Acharya
Now that the cuvée has been gathered and pressed, it’s time for the first fermentation. During this step, the pressed grape juice is placed inside temperature-controlled vats made of stainless steel, where they’re fermented for weeks at a temperature of around 64-68 degrees Fahrenheit (18-20 degrees Celsius). Some Champagne producers will also initiate a malolactic fermentation process at this point in order to reduce the acidity of the wine. (Malolactic fermentation is simply the process of turning the malic acid that’s naturally present in grape must into a softer-tasting lactic acid.)
Fermentation of Pinot Noir grapes. Image: Flickr / Pipers Brook Vineyard
If you’re wondering what “fermentation” is exactly, it’s basically the process by which yeast, which is a single-celled fungus, consumes the fermentable sugars in the grape juice, turning it into ethanol (the booze that gets you drunk), CO2, and a few other organic compounds.
After the first fermentation step, it’s time to blend the wines! This step is often referred to as “assemblage” and is basically about exactly what you think it’s about: blending wines. This blending process is undertaken by the head cellar (chefde caves in French) and aims to achieve the best wine flavor profile possible. (The wines are blended in giant vats that contain massive, sweeping mechanical arms.)
Now that the wines have been blended, it’s time for the signature step that makes Champagne Champagne: the second fermentation. Well, it’s almost time. First, the blended wine and liquer de tirage, which is basically the name for a combination of yeast, wine and sugar, are combined — this step is known as tirage. After the wine has been blended with the liqueur de tirage (which is what will induce the creation of bubbles in the bottles), it’s then placed into wine bottles and capped to begin the process of making bubbles.
During this step the bubbles are produced thanks to the fact that the yeast is munching on the fermentable sugars and creating, in part, CO2.
Once the wine has been bottled, it’s then stored horizontally in a cool cellar (which is usually around 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Over the next few weeks — often times around five weeks — the yeast does its thing by munching on the fermentable sugars and creating CO2 bubbles (and ethanol), which are kept in the bottles thanks to the fact that the bottles are capped. As a side note, this creates a ton of pressure inside of the bottles; in fact, the pressure inside any given bottle at this point is about the same as that of a bus tire.
Champagne bottles in pupitres. Image: Flickr / Jordi Payà
Although this second fermentation only takes roughly five weeks, the wine bottles are left to age in the cool cellars for at least 15 months for non-vintage Champagnes and three years for vintage. Allowing the wines plus dead yeast (dead yeast in this context is referred to as “lees”) to age for these long periods of time greatly affects the final Champagne’s flavor profile. This is because dead yeast cells collapse and combine with the wine, imparting yeasty flavors as well as creamy and complex textures. And no, these storage times are non-negotiable, as they’re dictated by the AOC. Sometimes pricier Champagnes are aged for much longer than the minimum time requirement, however, with this step lasting anywhere from five to ten years in some cases.
A look at wine lees yeast. Image: Wikimedia / Agne27
The period after the second fermentation, the time when the bottles of bubbly wine sit on the shelves in the cool cellar for a year-plus on end is referred to as “riddling” or remuage in French. During this riddling process, the wine bottles are slid into special racks — which are known as “pupitres” — that keep the bottles tilted downward (with the top of the bottle faced down) at a 45 degree angle. Every few days the bottles are turned, either by hand or by a machine, and then placed back onto the pupitres at slightly steeper angle. This is done in order to collect the dead yeast in the neck of the bottle, toward the opening. Once the bottles have all been turned enough so that they’re perpendicular to the floor, with all of their yeast sediments collected in their necks, it’s then time for disgorgement.
After the riddling/racking process is complete, it’s then time to get all of that dead yeast sediment out of the bottles. But you can’t just dump out the dead yeast because then you’d lose a lot of good Champagne in the process. Instead, the dead yeast is removed via a process known as “disgorgement.” This works by taking the bottles filled with bubbly wine and dipping their necks into a freezing brine solution that’s about -8 degrees Fahrenheit (-22 degrees Celsius) for roughly five minutes. This ultra-cold solution freezes the dead yeast buildup in the neck of the bottle, so that it’s a single chunk of dead-yeast-ice. Once that’s done, the bottles are then flipped upright and the corks are popped out. Due to the pressure inside of the bottles, once the corks are removed, the frozen chunk of yeasty sediment shoots out, leaving behind a bunch of bubbly that’s totally cleared of dead yeast.
Dead yeast frozen in the tops of sparkling wine bottles. Image: Flickr / Please the Palate
Side note: The above process is the modern method of disgorgement and is known as Dégorgement à la glace. There is also an older, more outdated method known as dégorgement à la volée, which basically follows the same procedure except no ultra-cold solution is used.
Following disgorgement, Champagne producers will add a mixture of reserve wines, sugar, and brandy — known as the “dosage” or liqueur d’expedition — to the bubbly wine in order to achieve whatever the desired sweetness is. Note that which ingredients go into the dosage depends on the Champagne producer, although it almost always serves to sweeten the final product.
Champagne bottles being shaken by machine to properly mix in the dosage. Image: Wikimedia / Tomas er
And finally, we have the recorking step, which is simply when a fresh cork is placed into the Champagne bottle and then secured in place by a protective wire cap. This isn’t necessarily the end of the line for Champagne, however, as it’s often aged once again for anywhere between a few weeks to several years before being shipped off to stores.
Side note: There’s obviously a little bit more that goes into the final stages of making a bottle of Champagne, including labeling the bottles, but in terms of how the stuff inside of the bottle is actually made, this about covers it!
Now that you know what Champagne is, where Champagne comes from, and how Champagne is made, it’s time to learn all about the way this bubbly deliciousness is categorized. And while Champagne isn’t as complicated as wine, beer, or whiskey in terms of styles and categories, there are still a solid handful of differentiating factors to know if you want to pass as a true connoisseur. Those differentiating factors are as follows:
The first thing you’ll want to know is the difference between a vintage Champagne and a non-vintage Champagne. This distinction is not only helpful if you want to sound knowledgeable, but also important for protecting your wallet.
Although you may think that “vintage” refers to the age of a given Champagne, that’s not the case. Instead, the vintage designation is reserved for Champagnes that were produced from a single year’s grape harvest.
Vintage Champagnes still aren’t produced every year, however, as they’re only produced from years that have had especially good harvests. In fact, most Champagne houses only make three to four vintage Champagnes a decade.
Unsurprisingly, vintage Champagnes tend to be a lot more expensive than non-vintage Champagnes, although that isn’t always the case.
A bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon. Image: Wikimedia / THOR
Non-vintage Champagnes are those made from a blend of grapes from harvests from different years. As mentioned in the How Champagne Is Made section above, non-vintage Champagnes are aged for 15 months (versus three years for vintage).
In general, the key thing Champagne producers are looking for with non-vintage Champagnes is consistency. This means that Champagne houses want their NV blends to taste the same year to year, which makes sense, right? If you can’t be special, at least be consistent.
A bottle of non-vintage Champagne. Image: Flickr / Lou Stejskal
Along with the vintage versus non-vintage categories and the different levels of sweetness, you’ll also want to know the following five styles.
BLANC DE BLANCS
Blanc de Blancs are wines — which will eventually be used to make Champagne — made wholly from white grapes. For genuine Champagne this means that it’s made from 100% Chardonnay, although there are extremely rare exceptions that use Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Arbane.
Side note: Blanc de Blancs often age very well, so don’t feel bad about keeping one of these bad boys in your cellar for years.
An example of a Champagne made from blanc de blancs wine. Image: Flickr / Lou Stejskal
BLANC DE NOIRS
Blanc de Noirs — which translates to “white from blacks” — are wines that are made from black (read: red) grape varieties. Despite the fact that Blanc de Noirs are made from dark-skinned grapes, the resultant Champagne is still light in color.
In regards to genuine Champagne, this style means that the cuvée is made from either only Pinot Noir or some combination of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. In general, Blanc de Noirs have a flavor profile that has significant notes of strawberry and white raspberry flavors.
A bottle of Champagne made from Blanc de Noirs wine. Image: Wikimedia / Agne27
Rosé is a pink-style Champagne that’s made by blending blanc Champagne with just a bit of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier wine. (These are one-off red wines, however, and are made especially for Champagne production.)
Basically, when it comes to Rosé Champagne, you just to need to know that what sets it apart is its pinkish hue, which comes from either blending a particularly significant amount of red wine with a white wine base or from briefly leaving the grape juice that will be used to make the Champagne’s wine in contact with red grape skins for a short period of time.
Glasses of rosé sparkling wine. Image: Flickr / Jameson Fink
Prestige Cuvée is a top tier (usually relatively expensive) Champagne that’s made from the best grapes from a particular producer’s vineyards. This type of Champagne is the hallmark of legendary brands such as Dom Pérignon and Cristal and Krug.
A bottle of prestige cuvée Champagne. Image: Flickr / Pierre M
SINGLE VINEYARD WINES
Single vineyard wines are exactly what you think they are: wines made from grapes picked from a single, celebrated vineyard.
Next up, you’ll want to know what the differences between Brut Nature, Ultra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec, and Doux are. And basically, it’s all about level of sweetness, i.e. sugar content.
BRUT NATURE (BONE DRY)
Brut Nature translates to “naturally raw,” and contains no added sugar in the dosage used to make it. (Check above if you need a reminder of what a “dosage” is.) Although there’s no added sugar in the dosage, however, Brut Nature can still contain up to three grams of sugar per liter.
Brut Nature is also referred to as Extra Brut, Brut Zéro, Brut Sauvage, or Non Dosage.
0 – 3 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Brut Nature Champagne. Image: Flickr / Dale Cruse
ULTRA BRUT (VERY DRY)
Ultra Brut, which literally translates to “extra raw,” is like Brut Nature in that it has no added sugar to its dosage. It’s allowed to have more residual sugar, however, with up to six grams per liter.
0 – 6 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Ultra Brut Champagne. Image: Flickr / Benoit Tarlant
BRUT (VERY DRY)
Brut Champagnes are those that contain up to 12 grams per liter. If you’ve ever heard “Brut” and “Champagne” used interchangeably, that’s because Brut Champagne accounts for 90% of Champagne sales.
0 – 12 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Brut Rosé. Image: Flickr / Harry Heng
EXTRA-DRY / EXTRA-SEC
Extra-Dry — or Extra-Sec — Champagne still tastes mostly dry, although it’s obviously a bit sweeter than Brut, Ultra Brut, or Brut Nature. Extra dry Champagnes also tend to have a distinctly fruit-forward flavor profile.
12 – 17 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Extra Dry Champagne. Image: Flickr / Edsel Little
DRY / OFF-DRY
Dry or Off-Dry Champagne is a fruitier, sweeter style of Champagne relative to the others listed above. It’s also usually richer in body and texture.
17 – 32 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Off-Dry Champagne. Image: Flickr / Tim
Demi-Sec is sweet enough that you’ll definitely notice the sugar content when you take a sip. This style of Champagne is perfect for drinking with desserts or cheeses and nuts.
33 – 50 grams of sugar per liter
A bottle of Demi-Sec Champagne. Image: Wikimedia / Dacouar
Doux, like Demi-Sec, is a dessert Champagne, although it’s much sweeter. It’s usually paired with creamy (non-chocolate) desserts.
Over 30 grams of sugar per liter
The last must-know topic pertaining to the different types of Champagne relates to where the grapes used to make them were grown. There are nine notable growing regions of Champagne and each is known for producing its own distinctive bubbly.
MONTAGNE DE REIMS
Montagne de Reims Champagnes are made from grapes picked from a hill south of Reims. Montagne de Reims Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir grapes and tend to be more full bodied and richer in flavor relative to other Champagnes.
A picture of Montage de Reims. Image: Wikimedia / Pline
Côte des Blancs are Champagnes made with grapes from Côte des Blancs area of Champagne, which is south of Epernay. These Champagnes are made with wine that’s made primarily from Chardonnay grapes.
Côte de Sézanne are Champagnes made from grapes from the Côte des Sézanne area of Champagne. They’re usually made from wines made from Chardonnay grapes, although wines produced from this sub-region also often find their way into other wine blends.
The Côte des Bar region of Champagne is on the border of Champagne and Burgundy. Champagnes from this region are usually made from Pinot Noir grapes and are richer than other styles of Champagne.
Vallée de la Marne Champagnes are those made from the valley along the Marne river. These Champagnes are made from Pinot Meunier grapes, and are noted for their rich flavor profile that exhibits strong smoky and mushroomy notes.
A picture of Vallée de la Marne. Image: Wikimedia / Pline
Troyes are Champagnes made from the Troyes sub-region of Champagne, which is located on the Seine river about 90-ish miles southeast of Paris.
Champagnes with the AOC Rosé des Riceys designation are those made in the villages of the Les Riceys commune in Champagne. These Champagnes are made from rosé wines produced from Pinot Noir grapes. These Champagnes are unique in that their first fermentation is in stainless steel tanks — although they’re sometimes aged in wood.
Vallé de la Vesle are Champagnes made from wine that comes from grapes grown in the Vallée de la Vesle commune in Champagne.
Vallée de l’Ardre Champagnes are those made in the Vallée de l’Ardre sub-region of Champagne. (Duh, right?)
A picture of Vallée de l’Ardre. Image: Wikimedia / Vassil
Along with differentiations based on style, harvest used, and sweetness level, Champagnes can also be categorized based on who produced it; that is, what size operation produced a given bottle of Champagne. Those three Champagne producer sizes are as follows:
Maisons are the largest Champagne houses. Some producers that fall under this category are Moët, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, and Perrier. Maisons source their grapes from all over Champagne.
A look at a Maison. Image: Wikimedia / G. Garitan
You can recognize Champagnes made by Maisons by the following labels:
NM stands for Négociant Manipulant, which is a producer who buys some or all of their grapes from other growers. Any Champagne that uses more than 6% of wine produced from third-party grapes must be labeled NM.
MA stands for Marque d’Acheteur, which translates to “Buyer’s Own Brand.” This is Champagne that is bought by a large retailer or restaurant and then resold under said retailer or restaurant’s own brand.
ND stands for Négociant Distributeur, which is a buyer who re-labels and distributes Champagne that they had no part in producing.
If Maisons are the big dogs, cooperatives are the medium-sized dogs in the Champagne-making game. A given cooperative is made up of specific villages in the Champagne region that make a cuvée that pulls grapes from multiple growers in the same region.
A look at a cooperative. Image: Wikimedia / Daniel Jovilet
You can recognize Champagnes made by cooperatives by the following designation:
CM stands for “Coopérative Manipulant,” which is a grower co-op that pools its resources in order to produce Champagnes under a single brand name.
Vignerons are Champagne producers that are made up of a single family or person that grows their own grapes in a specific spot and makes their own Champagne.
A look at a Vigneron. Image: Flickr / Daniel Jolivet
You can recognize Champagnes made by vignerons by the following designations:
RM stands for Récoltant Manipulant, which is a grower-producer that uses 95% of its grapes from its own estate.
Note that it’s possible for a Maison to use this RM designation on a sub-label or brand.
SR stands for Société de Récoltants, which is a union of growers that shares resources in order to create its own brand of Champagne.
RC stands for Récoltant Coopérateur, which is a grower-producer that has its own brand of Champagne made at a cooperative facility.
The following are 12 terms that you’ll want to know to pass as a genuine Champagne connoisseur. Note that these terms are just here to fill in what isn’t already been covered in the other sections.
Acidity: Acidity describes the sour or tart taste of a given Champagne. (This term is also, obviously, applied to many other things, including wine.) Champagne and other sparkling wines usually have a higher acidity than still wines.
Aftertaste: Aftertaste describes the taste you have in your mouth after you finish your sip of Champagne.
Appearance: In regards to Champagne and sparkling wine, appearance generally refers to the amount of “bead” present. See below for definition of bead.
Atmosphere: A way of measuring the pressure inside a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.
Bead: Bead is a term used to describe the groups of bubbles at the top of a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine.
Binning: Binning describes the process of storing newly bottled sparkling wines or Champagnes in bins rather than wine cases. (This takes place during the racking step mentioned in the How Champagne Is Made section above.)
Bouquet: Bouquet describes the smell and taste of a sparkling wine or Champagne. Specifically, it refers to how the flavor profile has been adjusted by the lees aging period.
Charmat Process: The Charmat process produces sparkling wine or Champagne in large quantities by executing the second fermentation in large tanks rather than individual glass bottles. Producers who choose this process are usually looking to save money.
Cremant: Cremant is a category of sparkling wine or Champagne that contains a lesser amount of carbonation relative to other sparkling wines/Champagnes.
Jeroboam: A jeroboam is an oversized Champagne (or wine) bottle. I.e. it’s a gigantic champagne bottle. Although jeroboams are always gigantic, there is no official size that it must meet.
Maceration: In the context of Champagne, maceration describes the process of soaking grape solids (skins, pulp, etc.) in their own juice before the juice is fermented. This is undertaken to achieve a darker Champagne color, as well as a somewhat altered flavor profile.
OK, you are now deep into your Champagne journey and you know everything from what Champagne is to where it comes from to how to make it to how to categorize it. Next up? The good stuff!!! Yes, people, it’s now time to get around to actually drinking some Champagne. So let’s go ahead and learn how to drink Champagne like the snobs do so you can feel fancy even when downing a bottle of Andre straight from the B.
Before you even pop the cork on your bottle of bubbly, let’s make sure you’re going to pour it into the right kind of glass. Check out the four options below to figure out which one is right for you, your Champagne, and your special occasion.
The flute is the go-to glass for drinking Champagne, and sparkling wine in general. The flute is elegant, recognizable, and is sized perfectly for a proper serving of Champagne. It also has that long stem, which is critical because it allows you to hold the glass without warming up the Champagne with all of your dang hand heat!
One example of a Champagne flute. Image: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
The Champagne tulip glass is similar to the classic flute, although it has a narrower top and a wider bowl. As with most other glasses that slope inward at the top, the Champagne tulip’s shape is meant to capture aromas and send them directly into your little nostrils. This more direct delivery of aromas should help to amplify the entire drinking experience, as smell is closely intertwined with taste.
One example of a Champagne tulip glass. Image: Flickr / decar66
The Champagne coupe — sometimes referred to as a Champagne saucer — is one of the most iconic cocktail glasses out there. Despite how iconic it is, however, it’s still not nearly as popular as it once was in the 20th century. It’s still a standard option for Champagne sippin’ though, especially on an occasion like New Year’s Eve that calls for only the fanciest of glassware.
The one small downside to the coupe is that it doesn’t deliver the same visual appeal as the flute or tulip — both of the latter types of glasses better display Champagne bubbles thanks to their tall, elongated bowls.
One example of a Champagne coupe glass. Image: Wikimedia / Krista
STEMLESS CHAMPAGNE GLASS
Finally we have the stemless Champagne glass, which (ultra duh) doesn’t have a stem. Despite the lack of a stem, and thusly the lack of an ability to keep body heat away from the Champagne, the stemless glass still manages to maximize taste and aroma thanks to its concave bowl shape. The fact that it doesn’t have a stem also means that it won’t tip over as easily as the other types of glasses.
Now that you’ve picked the right Champagne glass for whatever your needs are, it’s time to make sure that whatever you’re pouring into said glass is the right temperature.
So what is the right temperature? Not as cold as you’d think; most experts suggest a range between 47 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or 8 to 10 degrees Celsius). If the Champagne being served is colder than this, aromas are inhibited. If the Champagne being served is warmer than this, then the wine loses some of its brightness and crispness.
We’ll go deeper into storage temperatures in the How to Store Champagne section below, but as far as serving is concerned, keep within the temperature range listed above.
In terms of how to get your Champagne into this ideal temperature range, consider investing in an ice bucket. If you have one of those, all you need to do is grab your bottle of Champagne and let it chill in the ice bucket filled with ice for roughly 20 minutes.
Side note: If you don’t have an ice bucket at your disposal, then store the unopened bottle on its side on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator for about four hours.
Also, don’t ever store your Champagne in the freezer. While the odds of it exploding are very low, the taste will be negatively affected due to the CO2 bubbles being absorbed into the surrounding liquid. And nobody likes flat Champagne, right?
Let’s take a second to talk about that all important step between chilling and pouring, uncorking! Seriously, this is the “money shot” step of opening a bottle of Champagne, right? So do it right.
According to experts — who admittedly have safety in mind more than looking cool — you should follow the below steps to open a bottle of Champagne (or sparkling wine) correctly:
1. Remove the foil. There’s usually a tab you can pull to help with this.
2. Loosen the wire cage around the cork. Do this by flipping down the wire “key” that rests flush with the bottle — it’s at the bottom of the cage that encloses the cork.
3. Place a dish towel over the top of the bottle. This is done for safety in case the pressure inside the bottle causes the cork to shoot out.
4. Hold the cork, twist the bottle. Yes, this is counterintuitive, but this way you get even more reassurance that the cork won’t fly out and hit somebody in the face. Speaking of which, when you’re opening your bottle of Champagne, point it away from people for the love of Dom Perignon!
HOW TO SABER A BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE
OK, yes, we’re also going to tell you how to saber a bottle of Champagne. We do not recommend this method, though!! You’re an adult of drinking age, however, so the decision is up to you.
If you do decide to use a blade to open your ‘pagne, here’s how to do it:
1. Grab your Champagne bottle and saber (or other sword type).
2. Make sure your bottle is chilled to a lower temperature than is usually advised — somewhere between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This colder temperature will help to make the bottle more brittle, and therefore more easily sliced open. Make sure that the entire Champagne bottle is this cold, not just the base.
3. Remove the foil covering from the cork/top of the bottle.
4. Loosen the wire cage around the cork, and pull it up so there’s a bit of space between the top of the cork and the top of the wire cage. Then re-tighten the bottom of the wire cage around the top lip of the Champagne bottle.
5. Hold onto the bottle by its punt — the dip in the bottom of the bottle — and point it away from anything that’s alive or that you don’t want broken.
Champagne bottles showing their punts. Image: Flickr / Stig Nygaard
6. Find the vertical seam running up the side of the bottle; the point where the seam and the lip of the bottle meets is where your saber will do its slicing.
7. Hold your saber flat against the seam, with the blade pointed away from you, then pull it back slowly toward your body. Once the saber’s wound up, quickly slice it away from your body, along the seam, and strike the lip at a slight angle with the blade. (Make sure you’re holding the saber firmly, but not strangling it….)
8. Make sure you know where the glass top landed so nobody steps on it, then get to pouring!
Now that you’ve picked your favorite type of Champagne glass, made sure you have your bubbly chilled to just the right temperature, and opened your bottle, it’s time to get to pourin’! Correctly, like a connoisseur would…. (Or y’know, like the butler who serves a connoisseur would.)
To pour Champagne correctly, follow these steps:
This one’s pretty simple: Just make sure to hold your Champagne glass by its stem — if it has a stem, that is. By doing this, you won’t get finger prints on the bowl of the glass, and you won’t inadvertently heat up the bubbly with your dang body warmth.
Holding the flute by the stem will also make you look classy AF.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A CHAMPAGNE STOPPER
Yes, your bottle of Champagne is opened and you’re pouring and drinking, but there’s still one more thing you need to do to make sure you’re consuming like a genuine connoisseur: use a stopper.
Seriously, it sounds trivial, but plugging your Champagne with a stopper between pours will make sure to preserve flavors, aromas, and bubbles. (Even with a stopper, however, you’re still looking at a day max to enjoy your opened bottle.)
Although it’s not really necessary to go deep into how to pair Champagne with food — that’s a lot more important when it comes to wine and beer — there are still some general tips that you may want to know about in case you’re chomping down on some finger foods while sipping on your Champagne.
Champagne and food! Image: Flickr / alh1
In general, you’ll want to know that rich seafoods like oysters and caviar pair especially well with champagne, as well as rich, fried foods like fried chicken and truffle fries. Oily, fatty, and salty foods, like juicy burgers, tacos, or even pizza can also pair well with Champagne, and even help to bring out its fruitier notes.
In general, brut Champagne pairs well with the following:
– Nuts, particularly almonds
– Potato chips (remember how we said oily/salty foods are great?)
– Scrambled eggs
– Buttered popcorn
– Various cheeses, including but not limited to: gouda, Parmesan, cheddar, and goat cheese. Aged, hard cheeses are usually best.
Some Champagne and cheese. Image: Flickr / Lisa Sunde
– Almost any pasta or risotto dish, particularly those that are made with a creamy sauce. (Tomato-based sauces are usually a no-go due to the fact that they’re high in acidity and so too is the Champagne.)
– Fish and seafood, particularly lobster
– Mixed berries
– Pound cake, angel food cake, or other lemony desserts pair well with Demi-Sec.
And finally, when it comes to drinking Champagne like a true connoisseur, remember this most important rule of thumb: Celebrate something and have fun! Really, Champagne is a drink made for toasting, so always find some reason to celebrate before tipping your glass and pouring that chilled bubbly down your gullet.
Alright, we now know what Champagne is, where it comes from, how it’s made, how to categorize it, and how to drink it, which leaves us with one more thing to learn: how to store it. And while this may not be the sexiest part of the whole Champagne-learning process, it’s still very important. Nothing is less sexy than a flat bottle of bubbly.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you keep your Champagne in good condition for as long as possible:
As with wine, Champagne, or any other type of sparkling wine, should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place away from heat, light, excessively cold or warm temperatures, and vibration (from say, a washing machine). If you have a wine fridge, then this point is moot, but if you don’t, then make sure you keep your Champagne in a cellar or cellar-like room at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit with 70% humidity.
The perfect Champagne cellar. Image: Flickr / ADT Marne
In general, you’re fine storing Champagne bottles on their sides. This isn’t usually the case with still wines because their corks need to stay wetted from the wine inside the bottle, but with Champagne, there’s more than enough ambient humidity from the heavy carbonation to keep the cork moist.
Champagne and other sparkling wines can also be stored on their sides, although some experts say this could cause an issue with very long-term storage due to “cork taint.”
Finally, when it comes to Champagne storage, make sure you store your bottles for the right period of time and no longer. So what is the “right period of time”? Good question! Answer: It depends.
As a general rule of thumb, the higher quality the bottle of bubbly, the longer you can store it for. So if you have a top shelf Dom that you’re saving for a special occasion that probably won’t be coming for another year or two, go ahead and save it. But some bottom shelf brut that you picked up on a Friday night to celebrate a random Friday, that you’ll want to drink within a few weeks after buying.
Don’t let your Champagne bottles get this old and dusty! Unless they’re super fancy…. Image: Flickr / Sarah Stierch
This is the case because Champagnes already come aged. Remember how we discussed vintage and non-vintage Champagnes, and how they both must be aged for certain periods of time? Yeah, well, there’s a reason for that: Producers want you to be able to buy a bottle of their Champagne and drink it at peak quality as soon as you buy the bottle — isn’t that nice of them?
The reason nicer bottles of Champagne can generally be stored for much, much longer periods of time is because they’ve been handled with much more care than their cheaper brethren. And if a cheap bottle has already been exposed to too much light and heat, some more time aging in a dank basement or your roommate’s closet ain’t going to make it any better; it’ll only make it worse, in fact.
Bottom line: If you have a nice bottle of Champagne you’re saving for a special occasion, don’t worry about keeping it in a cellar or cellar-like room for weeks, months, or even a year or two. If it’s a cheap bottle, try to drink it as soon as possible after you buy it.
Before sending you all off to drink some Champagne and delicious Champagne cocktails — like the five listed below or ten above — let’s talk briefly about where this bubbly, celebratory drink is going in the future.
First of all, things are looking mighty bright for the Champagne/sparkling wine sector. According to reports put together by industry experts, Champagne and sparkling wine sales are expected to see “unprecedented and uninterrupted growth” until at least 2021. For reference, roughly 24 million cases of bubbly were sold in 2017; that number is expected to balloon up to a whopping 217 million cases by 2021. That’s just about a ten-fold increase, if you’re keeping track.
Right now, France accounts for half of those 24 million cases sold, although according to experts that share will diminish in the coming years as new, big players such as Russia, the US, Italy, the UK, Argentina and China further develop their own sparkling wine — *cough* faux Champagne *cough* — markets.
Despite the expected growth of the Champagne industry noted above, it will still face plenty of challenges, chief among them the issue of climate change.
Again, according to experts, climate change has severely damaged many recent harvests in France’s Champagne region, forcing growers and producers to seek out new sources of grapes from areas that previously went unused. On top of that, new growing techniques are also being researched.
A vineyard in Champagne during winter. Image: Flickr / Benoit Tarlant
For example, in 2017, some French growers said that they lost up to half of their harvests due to bizarre weather patterns that included consecutive frosts and hail over the course of the last four years. Increased average temperatures also cause grapes to produce more sugar as well as less acidity, which is important for the crisp character of many types of Champagne.
But growers are doing their best to overcome these obstacles, by, for instance, breeding new types of grapes that are more heat resistant than the grapes that are grown in Champagne right now. But figuring out exactly what type to breed is most formidable is going to take years and some current growers don’t think that’ll happen before they retire.
Finally, in terms of the future of Champagne and sparkling wines, we have the emergence of organic and biodynamic bubbly. And what, pray tell, are “biodynamic” and “organic” Champagnes and sparkling wines? Let us tell you!
First of all, when it comes to organic Champagnes and sparkling wines, you’re basically talking about what’s not used to make them. As of right now, many winemakers, especially large-scale ones, use added sulfites (organic compounds) to maintain a wine’s freshness and also decrease the effects of oxidation. Unfortunately, while sulfites can be used for this purpose, they can have negative effects on people’s health. Well, some people, as they can literally have a sulfite intolerance — not exactly an allergy to sulfite, but it will cause them to feel ill. Winemaking can also become more organic by skipping out on the pesticides and fungicides, which can negatively affect both people’s health and the environment. (Keep in mind that when we talk about winemaking here, we’re talking about the wine that will eventually be used to make Champagne/sparkling wine.)
Chardonnay grapes being harvested in a biodynamic fashion. Image: Flickr / Stefano Lubiana
Along with organic Champagnes and sparkling wines, “biodynamic” bubbly is also expected to become a lot more popular in the future. What is a biodynamic Champagne, you ask? It’s somewhat hard to say — while there are definitely winemakers who make wines in a biodynamic way, everybody agrees that the biodynamic method doesn’t have any effect on taste. Not only that, but unlike the “organic” moniker, the biodynamic label doesn’t necessarily mean that any particular chemicals have been avoided; the same guidelines that qualify a wine as organic are often followed though.
Ultimately, all biodynamic really seems to mean is that the wine that will be used to make the Champagne or sparkling wine was made in a way that’s pleasing to the universe and in balance with nature. And no, we are not kidding. Makers of biodynamic wines take into account things like the lunar cycle and astrology to help determine the best time for harvesting their grapes. They also have phases of growth that they follow, which themselves are reflections of the elements, earth, wind, fire, and water. So yeah, be prepared for biodynamic Champagnes and sparkling wines to hit the shelves en masse. Wait, actually they’ll taste the same as normal wines, so you won’t need to be prepared for them; instead, prepare yourself for rising Champagne costs, ’cause those are coming too.
3. MIMOSA SLUSH