What is Champagne? Champagne is sparkling wine made from grapes grown within the region designated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in France as being Champagne. Today the reputation of Champagne is unrivalled in the bottle, and consumers worldwide now have an insatiable demand for these wines. So much so that demand has outstripped supply and Champagne prices are starting to soar. This demand has also seen the border for the Champagne region reviewed and expanded in a very controversial decision.
There are many different types of Champagne produced and a large number of Champagne houses. To help you navigate through the increasing array of options, I have explained a few of the key terms below;
Often referred to as the house style, a non-vintage Champagne is made year in and year out from a blend of many vintages. The aim of the blending process is to give a consistent style. The blend, as well as being from wines of many vintages, can be a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, in proportions that suit the Champagne producers style.
Vintage Champagne can only be made from grapes grown in a specific year. Vintage Champagne can be a blend of the three varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Unlike non-vintage Champagne, vintage Champagne ages very well and benefits from time in the cellar. Like the Port houses in Portugal, the Champagne producers review each year and decide whether they will ‘declare’ a vintage year. Even in a declared vintage year for the region, not all producers will make a vintage. Some, like the Champagne house of Salon, have even higher standards and very rarely produce any wine. Vintage champagnes are unique and very special. They give you a little picture of that year, that vineyard, and the skill of the producer neatly packed into a bottle.
Blanc de Blanc Champagne
Meaning ‘white of white’ Blanc de Blanc style champagnes are only made from Chardonnay grapes. This style can be produced as a non-vintage or as a vintage style. Typically, this style of Champagne is a lot leaner and shows more lemon, lime, chalk characters. With age, vintage Blanc de Blanc is magnificent.
Champagne starts its life as a still wine, once in the bottle a secondary fermentation takes place. To remove the sediment from the bottle, the neck is frozen, the cap removed and the sediment (now frozen) comes out. The bottle is then topped up with dosage - this adds the desired level of sweetness to the Champagne. The amount in each wine is different from house to house. Zero Dosage Champagnes are those where no dosage is added, these are bone dry examples. Often described as the salad without the dressing, allowing you to perhaps see all the faults that the dosage covers.
The top production of the house, these wines are the very best from each Champagne producer.
There are four different types of producers in the Champagne region. Négociants - producers that do not necessarily own all their vineyards and buy in some, or all, of the fruit they use for production. The Champagne region is made up of 299 houses with 1205 brand names. These houses own 10% of the vineyards they use yet are responsible for 69% of the sales. This in itself could be the key to why, until recently, we only hear about the big houses. Then there are Cooperatives – an impressive 67 selling cooperatives in Champagne, with 2234 brand names. There are Buyers Own Brands - labels created by Négociants for specific retailers. Finally, Grower Champagnes. Someone who owns the vineyard, grows the grapes, makes the wine and markets the wine. Grower Champagne houses tend to be far smaller in production, 4000 – 150,000 bottles the range in general. Compared to 200,000 cases for Perrier Jouët, and they are a small big guy. Grower Champagne producers, due to this small size and vineyard link, tend to be very village specific. Unlike the big names with their impressive blending across the region, Grower Champagne houses are terroir focused. Each grower has a unique story of place and the characteristics of that to share.