Traditional-method sparkling – made via a second fermentation in bottle – is made in regions around the wine world, and yet Champagne continues to enjoy the widest recognition, thanks to its esteemed history, the power of its brands and its range of styles.
This is determined by the amount of residual sugar in the dosage – a mixture of sugar and wine added to the Champagne before the final bottling. Brut, by some distance, is the most popular. The most rasping category is brut nature, which also goes by the name zero dosage and, as the wording suggests, contains no added sugar. The next rung on the ladder is extra brut (0-6 grams of sugar per litre) before we hit the ubiquitous brut (less than 12g/L). The confusingly titled extra dry category contains between 12g and 17g/L, followed by the increasingly sweet sec, demi-sec and doux bottlings.
The art of blending different grapes is vital in maintaining ‘house style’, and ironing out vintage variation. While there are seven permitted varieties, the dominant triumvirate is Chardonnay (which gives citrus, acidity and finesse), Pinot Noir (red fruits and body) and Pinot Meunier (bright, youthful fruit).
Blanc de noirs on a label means it has been made only from dark-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir and/or Meunier. The former trumps Meunier for popularity, with sought-after examples including Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay and Billecart-Salmon’s Le Clos St-Hilaire. Blanc de blancs is crafted from pale-skinned grapes and almost certainly means it’s pure Chardonnay.
While the term ‘vintage Champagne’ is largely self-explanatory (all grapes coming from one year), non-vintage (NV) Champagne requires a bit more unpacking and is where a Champagne house’s chef de cave (cellar master) earns their corn. The arguably unachievable goal of NV is to create a house style which remains consistent, year after year.
While NV is a marriage of grapes, crus (vineyard sites) and vintages, the blend will still be dominated by a foundation wine that comes from a single, recent harvest. This is seasoned with reserve wines from older vintages which bring more evolved flavours and richness.
The ambition of NV may be to remain true to a signature style, yet in reality vintage variation – not to mention the manner in which NV is incrementally released to market – means that this is probably a pipe dream. In recognition of this, many producers (including Bruno Paillard, Jacquesson and, more recently, Krug) mark the labels of their NVs – in varying degrees of prominence and clarity – with the base wine’s vintage.
Rosé Champagne can be made using a couple of different methods such as direct pressing and short maceration. The latter involves leaving red grapes to macerate for 24-72 hours before pressing, thereby extracting colour from the dark skins. Although some Champagne is made this way, most is created by simply adding about 15% of still red wine (usually Pinot Noir) to the blend of base wines. Top houses own vineyards dedicated solely to the growing of premium red grapes.