How to Choose Champagne

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.

Sweetness Level

Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Dry, Dry, and Doux

Champagne Sweetness Levels Illustrated by Wine Folly
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.
Brut
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.
Dry
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.
Demi-Sec
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.
Doux
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.

Style

Standard, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé

Illustrations of bottles of Champagne Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs by Wine Folly
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.

Rosé

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.


Aging

Vintage vs Non-Vintage Champagne

Vintage vs Non-Vintage Champagne by Wine Folly
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.

Non-Vintage
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.
Vintage
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.

Regional Classification

Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Autre Cru

grand-cru-champagne-illustration
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.


Producer Classification

Récoltant Manipulant (RM), Négociant Manipulant (NM), etc.

grower-champagne-types-of-rm-nm
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.

Regional Terroir

Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Côte des Bar, etc.

Wine Map of Champagne France by Wine Folly

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.

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Champagne vs Prosecco: The Real Differences

Q: What are the real differences between Champagne vs. Prosecco and why does one cost so much more than the other? 

A: The quick answer is Champagne is from France and Prosecco is from Italy, but there are some other things to know about both wines –especially if you like bubbly wine.

champagne-bottle-gold-label-illustration

Champagne

Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France around the city of Reims about 80 miles (130 km) Northeast of Paris.

  • Made with ChardonnayPinot Noirand Pinot Meunier grapes
  • Produced using a costly method called the ‘Traditional Method’
  • standard pour of Brut Champagne has ~128 Calories (12% ABV)
  • $40 for a good entry-level Champagne
prosecco-blue-label-bottle-illustration

Prosecco

Prosecco is a sparkling wine made in the Veneto region of Italy around the city of Treviso about 15 miles (24 km) North of Venice.

  • Made with Prosecco (a.k.a. Glera) grapes
  • Produced using an affordable method called the ‘Tank Method’
  • standard pour of Prosecco has ~121 Calories (11% ABV)
  • $12-14 for a good entry-level Prosecco

Champagne taste notes by Wine Folly
Citrus Fruits, White Peach, White Cherry, Almond, Toast

Champagne Taste Profile

 Tasting Notes: Since Champagne is aged longer on the yeast particles (called lees), it will often have a cheese rind like flavor that in finer examples comes across as toasty or biscuity. Since the wines are aged in bottles under high pressure the bubble finesse is fine, persistent and sharp. Vintage-dated Champagnes often have almond-like flavors along with orange-zest and white cherry.

 Food Pairing: Since most Champagne is intensely dry and has high acidity it works wonderfully as an aperitif matched with shellfish, raw bar, pickled vegetables and crispy fried appetizers. Sipping Champagne with potato chips may sound low-brow, but it’s an insanely good pairing

Prosecco Taste notes by Wine Folly
Green Apple, Honeydew Melon, Pear, Honeysuckle, Fresh Cream

Prosecco Taste Profile

 Tasting Notes: Prosecco tends to have more present fruit and flower aromas which are a product of the grape. Because the wines are aged in large tanks with less pressure Prosecco bubbles are lighter, frothy and spritzy with less persistence. Finer Prosecco wines often exhibit notes of tropical fruits, banana cream, hazelnut, vanilla and honeycomb.

 Food Pairing: Prosecco leans more towards the sweeter end of the spectrum and because of this it’s an ideal match with cured meats and fruit-driven appetizers like prosciutto-wrapped melon and middle-weight Asian dishes such as Thai noodles and sushi.


champagne-vs-prosecco

Why Does Champagne Cost So Much More than Prosecco?

Technically speaking, Champagne is more expensive to make than Prosecco but one of the biggest factors in the big cost discrepancy is market demand. Because Champagne is perceived as a region for luxury wines it can command higher prices. On the other hand, we aren’t used to spending more than $20 for a bottle of Prosecco even though you can find exceptional Prosecco in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG and Colli Asolani DOCG regions.

champagne-vs-prosecco-europe-mapChampagne is a cooler growing region than Prosecco and thus makes less fruity, minerally wines.

This article is from Wine Folly: http://winefolly.com/review/champagne-vs-prosecco/

How Much Sugar in Brut Champagne?

After the yeasts are removed from each bottle, Champagnes are topped up with sweetened reserve wine, or liquor d’expedition. The level of sweetness of this wine determines the category of Champagne that will be made. As you will see, Categories overlap. A Champagne that is 1.4 percent sugar might be deemed a brut by one house but an extra dry by another.
Despite its beginnings as a fairly sweet beverage, most of the Champagnes now produced are brut. Brut Champagne is best drunk as an aperitif or with a meal. Champagne that is slightly sweet generally works better than brut after a meal. Extra dry is a good example. The wine is not truly sweet in the conventional sense but, rather, simply more round and creamy than brut. Moet-Chandon’s wildly popular White Star Champagne is not brut, as many believe.It’s extra dry.
Dry and demi-sec Champagnes, slightly sweeter than extra dry, are extraordinary wines to end a meal with and also unbeatable with fruit desserts. Only a few houses make dry and demo-sec Champagne: Veuve Clicquot, Moet Chandon, and Mumm are the top three.
Here are the categories of Champagne based on their sweetness:
Extra Brut:
Very very dry: 0-0.6% sugar
Brut:
very dry: less than 1.5% sugar
Extra dry:
offdry: 1.2-2% sugar
Sec:
Lightly sweet: 1.7-3.5% sugar
Demi-Sec:
Sweet: 3.3-5% sugar
Doux:
Quite sweet: more than 5% sugar

The Little Guys

So accustomed are we to hearing about and buying Champagnes from the well-known and well-established houses (Veuve Cliquot, Tattinger, Moet & Chandon, and so on), that it’s easy to miss the fact that scores of delicious Champagnes are made by small growers.

These growers, often family firms, make what might be called artisanal Champagnes fro the grapes they grow. As a result, a small grower’s Champagne is usually besed on a very uch smaller number of base wines that are blended together before the wine undergoes the second, bubble-inducing fermentation.

Fewer wines in the blend mean that a small grower has less flexibility in creating the flavour of its Champagne; rather its Champagne will necessarily reflect the terror where the grapes were grown. In the past, many small growers sold their Champagnes exclusively in France, but a number are now being exported (albeit in small amounts) and they are fascinating to taste. Among the producers to look for: Rene Geoffroy, Jean Milan, and Pierre Peters.

 

Opening a Champagne – Not with a BANG But a WHISPER

Opening Champagne is not difficult- and far more exciting- than opening a bottle of still wine. Each Champagne bottle is under 6 atmospheres of pressure, about the same as a truck tire. With so much pressure behind it, a cork can fly an astounding distance. But that’s only if you open the bottle incorrectly. The correct, safe, and controlled way to open and serve Champagne is:

1. Break and remove the foil, not the wire cage, from around the cork.

2. Place your thumb firmly on top of the cork to keep the cork from flying.

3. With your other hand, unscrew the wire (it takes about six turns) and loosen the cages. You actually don’t have to take the cage off completely.

4.Holding the cork firmly, begin to twist it in one direction as, from the bottom, you twist the bottle in the other direction. Contrary to popular opinion, a Champagne cork should not make a loud thwork! You’re supposed to ease the cork out, so that it makes just a light hissing sound. Unbidden, more than one older Frenchman has advised me that a Champagne bottle, correctly opened, should make a sound no greater than that of a contented woman’s sigh. Frenchmen are French men after all.

5. Holding the bottle around the base, pour. Fill each glass with about 2 inches of Champagne. Then go back and top them all up.

6. If there’s Champagne left, seal the bottle using a Champagne stopper and place it back in the ice bucket to refrigerator.

7. In Champagne, it’s considered rude to turn an empty bottle upside down in an ice bucket.

7939711-sparkling-wine-or-champagne-bottle-is-opened-photo-icon-for-celebrations-and-new-year

How dry is that champagne?

After the yeasts are removed from each bottle, Champagnes are topped up with sweetened reserve wine, or liqueur d’expedition. The level of sweetness of this wine determines the category of Champagne that will be made. As you will see, categories overlap. A Champagne that is 1.4 percent sugar might be deemed a brut by one house but an extra dry by another.

Despite its beginnings as a fairly sweet beverage, most of the Champagnes now produced are brut. Brut Champagne is best drunk as an aperitif or with a meal. Champagne that is slightly sweet generally works better than brut after a meal. Extra dry is a good example. The wine is not truly sweet in the conventional sense but, rather, simply more round and creamy than brut. Moet & Chandon’s wildly popular White Star Champagne is not brut, as many believe, it’s extra dry.

Dry and demi-sec (half-dry) Champagne, slightly sweeter than extra dry, are extraordinary wine to end a meal with and also unbeatable with fruit desserts. Only a few houses make dry and demo-sec Champagne: Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon, and Mumm are the top three.

Here are the categories of Champagne based on their sweetness:

Extra Brut: Very very dry: 0- 0.6% sugar (0 to 6 grams of sugar per liter)

Brut: Very dry: less than 1.5 sugar (less than 15 grams of sugar per liter)

Extra Dry: Off-dry: 1.2 to 2% sugar (12 to 20 grams of sugar per liter)

Sec: Lightly sweet: 1.7 to 3.5 % sugar (17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter)

Semi-sec: Sweet: 3.3 to 5% sugar (33 to 50 grams of sugar per liter)

Doux: Quite Sweet: more than 5% sugar (more than 50 grams of sugar per liter)