Choosing a bottle of Champagne can be stressful for a couple of different reasons. In the first place, Champagne is not cheap, so it’s not a purchase to fool around with. Additionally, Champagne’s production methods, regional differences, and labeling jargon can make it quite intimidating to most of us. The notes below will help you identify the important things to pay attention to when choosing a bottle of Champagne. So, whether you love a creamy, toasty style of Champagne or like it dry and lean, you’ll be able to pick out your next bottle of Champagne with confidence.
To get started, let’s get one thing out of the way: not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Champagne specifically refers to sparkling wine made in the region of Champagne, France. The reason it’s worth mentioning is because this guide is specifically about this French Champagne. If you’re interested, there are other guides on Cava, Crémant, and Prosecco too.
Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Dry, Dry, and Doux
All Champagne is labeled with a word that indicates its sweetness level. The sweetness in Champagne is unlike sweetness in wine because this sweetness comes in the form of a sweetened “dosage” (a mixture of wine and sugar or grape must) that’s added to the wine at the end of its second fermentation (the part that makes the bubbles). The reason there is a dosage in Champagne is because the acidity is usually soo high, the wine would otherwise be undrinkable. Just so you know, most Champagne is produced with a Brut level of sweetness. Here are the sweetness terms and what they mean:
- Brut Nature
- Bone Dry (0–3 g/L sugar). No added sweetness with 0–2 sugar calories per 5/oz serving.
- Extra Brut
- Bone Dry (0–6 g/L sugar). A touch of added sweetness to balance Champagne’s naturally high acidity. 0–5 sugar calories per glass.
- Dry (0–12 g/L sugar). The average Champagne dosage is usually around 6–10 g/L which adds body to the Champagne although, coupled with the high acidity level, it will taste dry or even bone dry. Brut Champagne adds just 5–7 sugar calories per glass.
- Extra Dry
- Fruity (12–17 g/L sugar). The level of sweetness is still low enough that Extra Dry Champagne will usually taste mostly dry, but with a distinctly more fruit-forward character. Adds 7–10 sugar calories per 5 oz pour.
- Off-Dry (17–32 g/L sugar). A fruity and somewhat sweet style of Champagne with a richer body and texture. Adds about 10–20 sugar calories per glass.
- Sweet (32–50 g/L sugar). A noticeably sweet style of Champagne that is perfect alongside desserts or cheeses and nuts. Adds 20–30 sugar calories per serving.
- Sweet (50+ g/L sugar). A dessert-style of Champagne that is now relatively rare to find. Very sweet fruit flavors and pairs nicely with creamy desserts (without chocolate). Adds over 30 sugar calories per 5 oz glass.
Standard, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé
There are 3 grapes used to make Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) and how these grapes are used (or not used) determines the resulting style. If Champagne doesn’t have a style listed, you can assume that the producer made it in the standard style, which is a blend of all three grapes in a blanc (white) style.
Blanc de Blancs
(AKA white of whites) This is a blanc style Champagne made with 100% white grapes. In Champagne, this means it will be 100% Chardonnay. There are, of course, a few rare exceptions to this rule with a few very rare grapes (in the same region) including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Arbane, but for the most part, Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs typically have more lemon and apple-like fruit flavors.
Blanc de Noirs
(white of blacks) This is a blanc style Champagne made with 100% black grapes. In Champagne, this means some combination of just Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Blanc de Noirs typically have more strawberry and white raspberry flavors.
The pink style is made usually by blending blanc Champagne with a teensy bit of red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier wine. The red wine made for Champagne is very different than the Pinot Noir you might think of. Its purpose is to provide pure fruit flavors such as strawberry and raspberry in the taste, along with little to no tannin and very high acidity. It doesn’t take a lot red wine to make rosé, in fact, several producers use 10% or less Pinot Noir for their rosé Champagne.
Vintage vs Non-Vintage Champagne
One of the least talked about and most important factors that plays into the taste of Champagne is how long it’s aged. Aging Champagne on “tirage” (as they call it) gives it more bready, toasty, and nutty aromas – highlights of great Champagne. The best producers with the nuttiest wines are known to age their wines on “tirage” for as long as 5–7 years before release. Even though tirage time is usually not listed, the vintage style will give you a clue.
- Aged for a minimum of 15 months. Non-vintage (NV) Champagne exists so that producers can make a consistent house style each year (regardless of the quality of that year’s harvest). So, if you buy an NV Champagne, you can expect it to be a fruitier and less yeasty style of Champagne.
- Aged for a minimum of 36 months. On special years when the harvest is good, producers will create a special single-vintage intended to age for a longer period, and that will usually develop into a creamy and yeasty style of Champagne.
Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Autre Cru
Another feature on many bottles of Champagne is the commune name signifying where the grapes were grown. There are hundreds of communes, but only 42 have Premier Cru vineyards and just 17 have Grand Cru vineyards and are labeled as such. These classifications mean the vineyards have demonstrated their ability to produce exceptional wine grapes that make high-quality Champagnes. Of course, many experts believe that there are several “autre” crus (other crus) which are equally worthy, but if you have a wine with one of these classifications listed, it’s going to be a pretty good bet.
Récoltant Manipulant (RM), Négociant Manipulant (NM), etc.
If you’re one to support independent producers, there’s a useful notation on a Champagne label. Champagne classifies its producers and there are essentially 3 types of producers in Champagne: Maisons (big guys), Cooperatives (medium guys) and Vignerons (little guys).
Maisons are the big Champagne houses (Moët, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier, Bollinger, etc.) and they source their grapes from all over Champagne. Here are the label terms often associated with Maisons and other large producers:
- NM “Négociant Manipulant” A producer who buys all or some of his grapes from other growers. Anything less than 94% estate fruit must be labeled NM. Maison Champagne is labeled with this producer class, but it’s not entirely uncommon to see grower Champagne under this classification as well.
- MA “Marque d’Acheteur” aka ‘Buyer’s Own Brand’ A large retail or restaurant that buys a finished wine and sells it under their own private label. If you’ve ever seen a supermarket have their own brand or a fashion brand, this is probably MA.
- ND “Négociant Distributeur” A buyer who labels and distributes Champagne that they neither grew nor produced.
Cooperatives are in specific villages in Champagne and make a cuvée with multiple growers in the same region (Nicolas Feuillatte, etc.).
- CM “Coopérative Manipulant” A grower’s co-op that pools resources and produces wine under a single brand.
Vignerons are grower-producers, or a single family/person who grows his own grapes in a specific place and makes his own wine.
- RM “Récoltant Manipulant” A grower-producer who uses a minimum of 95% estate fruit. This is classically considered the Champagne grower-producer type, although, it’s possible for a Maison to use this classification on a sub-label or brand.
- SR “Société de Récoltants” A union of growers who shares resources and collectively markets their own brands.
- RC “Récoltant Coopérateur” A grower-producer who has their own Champagne brand made at a co-op facility.
Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Côte des Bar, etc.
The last and most in-depth discussion pertaining to choosing Champagne relates to where the grapes were grown. There are 5 main growing regions of Champagne and each is known for some distinct qualities. Of course, there are many exceptions to these rules, but for the most part, you’ll find Champagnes from the various regions to follow these traits.
Montagne de Reims
A hill south of Reims with many sloping vineyards that face south or southeast that allow wine grapes to achieve optimal ripeness. The focus here is on Pinot Noir which leads to a more full-bodied style of Champagne with bigger, richer flavors. The area contains 10 of the 17 Grand Cru vineyards including Ambonnay, Bouzy, Verzy, Verzenay, and Mailly-Champagne. For example, the prestigious Champagne brand, Krug, uses grapes from the Montagne de Reims.
Vallée de la Marne
The valley along the Marne river has many slopes planted with vineyards. There is just one Grand Cru vineyard here, Aÿ, which is located right outside of the city called Épernay. The focus in Vallée de la Marne is on the Pinot Meunier grape, which has an easier time ripening here (because it can be cooler) and produces a rich style of Champagne with more smoky and mushroomy flavors.
Côte des Blancs
This is a slope that faces east and collects the sun. Côte des Blancs is primarily planted with Chardonnay and contains the remaining 6 Grand Cru vineyard areas of Champagne. This is Blanc des Blancs country, producing some of the finest single-varietal Champagne wines on the market.
Côte de Sézanne
South of the Côte des Blancs is another slope which has many vineyards on it, with a similar dominance in Chardonnay. Despite the potential to this region, you’ll mostly find these wines blended into larger Maisons.
Côte des Bar
This region is far from the rest of the Champagne on the border between Champagne and Burgundy. This area is mostly planted with Pinot Noir and produces a richer style of Champagne, similar to that of Montagne de Reims. However, because the area is a relative newcomer in making Champagne, it doesn’t have a single Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyard to demarcate its quality. Côte des Bar is a great place to look for exceptional value.
Last Word: Nothing To Lose
If you are a fan of sparkling wine, Champagne is the benchmark of quality and well worth a taste. Regardless of what you buy, just remember this: worst case scenario is you hate it and turn it into a delicious mimosa. We won’t tell anyone. Promise.