December 26, 2012

Champagne - a tour of styles

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 and versatile wines available.  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 as you wander through the bubbly section of your local wineshop.

In accordance with the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – AOC (a concept similar to Canada’s VQA system), only certain grape varieties are permitted in the production of Champagne.  Each grape imparts a different character trait to the wine and the three that you are most likely to come across are list below:

·     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) is dry wine
·     Sec (dry) is actually off-dry wine
·     Demi-Sec (half dry) is 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   

How to open a bottle of bubbly with style - Champagne Sabering video


  1. There are actually seven grapes permitted in Champagne wines, but the three you listed make up the overwhelming majority of what is planted there.

  2. While I don’t think I will modified the body of the post (for the sake of general interest reading), the other four varieties are: Arbanne, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Petit Meslier which as I understand make up less than 1% of the total vines planted in the Champagne region. Great catch though Beau and my mistake for not including them.

  3. Nice write up, Tyler.

    I used to be less of a fan of Champagne than I am now. What triggered me into drinking Champs on a more regular basis was trying some grower/producer bottlings that were heavy on the sur lie method. Having that extra dimension of toasty/yeasty/nuttiness really was just the thing for me. I try folks out now on N.V. Pierre Peters when they tell me they do not like Champs.

  4. I’ve only tried Pierre Peters Champagne once myself; it was a rosé, in San Francisco - quite nice. I must explore his other labels as well.

    Cheers for the comment!


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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine