Even with all its associated prestige, the world of champagne doesn’t just stop at the vintage stuff — bubbly comes in many styles and levels of quality, making navigating between bottles a sometimes byzantine task for the champagne neophyte. Here’s a quick guide to picking out a bottle.
What is legally champagne?
To call a sparkling wine champagne, the grapes used to make the wine must first be grown in the region of Champagne, which is characterised by its limestone or chalk-dominant soil. Meanwhile, the winemaking is governed by a set of rules set by an organisation called the Comite Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, which determines everything from viticultural requirements and how the grapes are pressed, to how long the wine has to be in contact with the lee. All these help maintain a certain level of quality for the wine coming out of the region — which can then be called champagne.
Non-Vintage VS Vintage champagne
This is the first classification that most people are familiar with. A large majority of champagne sold on the market is Non-Vintage, or NV champagne, which is made using wine from different years, which are blended to maintain a consistent house style through the years.
Vintage champagne, like fine wine, is usually only made when the quality of harvest for a particular year is exceptional. This results in a bubbly that’s complex, and worthy of ageing — anywhere from 30 years to a century. Consequently, the price for vintage champagne is much higher, and can be wildly variable based on rarity and quality of a vintage.
The word “cuvee” refers to a batch of wine, usually blended. The prestige cuvee, or “tete de cuvee” in French (“head of the blend”), is the flagship, or the peak of what a champagne house can produce. Prestige cuvees have their own names, and are almost always vintage champagnes, made with the best grapes and with utmost care. Famous examples include Dom Perignon from Moet & Chandon; Cristal from Louis Roederer; Tattinger’s Comtes de Champagne; and Krug’s Grande Cuvee.
Some houses are so exclusive that they basically only produce prestige cuvees — Champagne Salon only produces one label, a blanc de blanc, and averages only four vintages every decade.
Most Champagne is made from a blend of chardonnay, a white grape, and two black grapes, Pinot noir and pinot meunier — and each varietal brings a different thing to the party. Pinot noir gives the wine heft, aroma, and complexity; chardonnay gives it elegance and freshness; while pinot meunier works like a top note, contributing floral and fruit aromas.
Pinot blanc, pinot gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier are grown in Champagne as well, and are usually used in small amounts to adjust blends, or to help rectify poor harvests of the three main grapes.
Champagne producers that want to highlight particular qualities of a grape will sometimes make bubbly in the following styles — all of which can be vintage or NV.
Blanc de Blancs
Champagne that’s made using only white grapes, predominantly chardonnay. As such blanc de blancs are usually leaner, displaying a stronger focus on acidity and minerality – making it a great choice to go with food, and especially champagne’s best friend, oysters. Well made, blanc de blancs — just like fine chardonnay — have tremendous ageing potential, developing nutty, floral, and toasty characters with time.
(Related: Where to go for oysters and Champagne)
Blanc de Noirs
Much less commonly found is this champagne made purely from black grapes like pinot noir and pinot meunier (blanc de noirs means “white from blacks”) — which results in more fruit-forward, “meatier” wine compared to a blanc de blanc. Champagne Bollinger’s prestige cuvee, Vieille Vignes Francaises, is a blanc de noirs.
While rose champagne has been around for some time (reportedly first made by Ruinart in the 18th century), its dry, pink version only found popularity starting in the 1990s. Just like still rose, the sparkling version can be made either by blending a red and white wine; or letting the grape juice sit on its skins during pressing.
(Related: 5 of the best Grower Champagnes to check out)