When you think of luxury and prestige, it is usually accompanied by a glass of Champagne. It doesn’t need to be New Year’s eve to indulge in a bit of fizz. (If you are French, you know that it makes an excellent apéritif, so there’s no need to wait once a year!)
Other countries may have their sparkling wines and proseccos, but in France and around the world, there is no denying that Champagne is the Grand Master.
But before you spend any more money, let’s find out exactly the different types of champagne and what we are drinking, shall we?
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Table of Contents
What exactly is champagne?
The word “champagne” is used to designate specific sparkling wines from the region of Champagne in France. The wine is fermented under seal directly in the bottle, rather than in a barrel, which results in those air bubbles.
More than that, a Champagne is an “assemblage” of different wines. So the quality depends not only on the grapes but also on the Cellar Master. Like a composer writing music, the cellar master puts the different notes together to create a scintillating blend.
With so much dependence on his/her skill, it is no wonder that a classification system was needed to give connaisseurs an idea of what they should expect.
Wines have been produced in the area as early as the days of the Roman Empire. But the name “Champagne” became famous due to 2 men. The first was a monk named Dom Perignon in the 17th-century in the outskirts of Reims, who came up with the idea of matching grapes together to come up with particular notes (rather than throwing random grapes together).
The 2nd was his successor, Dom Grossard in the 18th-century, who proclaimed Dom Perignon as the “inventor of Champagne” to augment the prestige and the history of their church and of their sparkling wine.
This clever bit of marketing made it stand out from other older sparkling wines in Limoux and other parts of France.
Today the name Champagne is officially protected in France and through international treaties with an “AOC – appellation d’origine contrôlée“.
☞ READ MORE: Visiting Reims: The Capital of Champagne
the Prestige Classification
Depending on the variable of soil and climate, certain vineyards in the Champagne region are considered to be more favorable to champagne production (assuming that they are using the officially sanctioned production process!)
These designations are based on the location of the villages that the grapes come from:
- Grand cru – the most prestigious designation
- Premier cru – 1st cru
- Deuxième cru – 2nd cru
- Troisième cru – 3rd cru
- Quatrième cru – 4th cru
- Cinquième cru – 5th cru
As you can imagine, the prices for a Grand cru are significantly higher than for the lower designations.
Even after the “cru” designation, not all champagne is created equal. Certain Cellar Masters and Châteaux specialize in certain flavors and are consistently better than others.
1. Champagne Brut
Drinking a glass of champagne brut in a flute glass, this is champagne we are used to. The Champagne Brut is the most common type that is sold, as authorized under the AOP/AOC standard.
“Brut” means “gross” or more precisely “pure” in this context. In champagne terms, it means that there is very little sugar added into the wine during the fermenting process.
A Champagne Brut is typically aged at least 1.5 years.
2. Champagne Demi-Sec
A Champagne Demi-Sec (“half-dry”) is a champagne with a higher dosage of sugar in it, compared to a Champagne Brut.
It is usually recommended that this type of champagne be served with dessert.
3. Champagne Rosé
Since champagne is an assemblage of wines, Champagne Rosé includes a small amount of red wine (usually Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier) to give it a light pink color.
The amount of red wine used will influence how pink the champagne is, ranging from light pink to a darker pinkish-orange.
The champagne rosé is often served in a tulip glass since it allows for the the fruity aromas of the rosé to develop.
4. Champagne Blanc de Noir
Champagnes that are made exclusively from red grapes are called Champagne Blanc de Noir (“white of black”). The grapes used are the same Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grape varieties as in the champagne rosé, but the skin is taken off before being pressed so that it doesn’t color the champagne.
5. Champagne Blanc de Blanc
Champagnes that are made exclusively from white grapes are called Champagne Blanc de Blanc (“white of white”). It is usually made from Chardonnay grapes.
6. Champagne Brut Millésimé
Another exclusive variety of champagne is the Champagne Brut Millésimé, which means that the grapes used were all from the same harvest. This becomes in case in years when the harvest was particularly exceptional, so a millésime is declared.
A Champagne Brut Millésimé is typically aged at least 3 years and will include the year of production on the label (unlike other champagnes).
High-end champagnes like the Champagne Millésimé are usually served in a tulip glass, since the wide point of the glass develops the aroma and the narrow top keeps them from escaping.
7. Champagne Sans Année
A Champagne Sans Année literally translates to “champagne without a year”. It is a vintage champagne that has been aged for several years and is very good.
While the Champagne Brut Millésimé has the grapes harvested from the same year, the Champagne Sans Année has grapes from different years. Given the capriciousness of climate, this is done so that the particular champagne becomes a signature of the champagne house and has a consistent taste year over year.
The Cellar Masters of the most prestigious champagne houses will combine many different vintages from a “bank” of reserve wines from previous years to develop these vintage champagnes and keep the taste consistent. (Keeping the taste consistent is actually quite difficult.)
Since these are signature champagnes, the taste is usually more complex and long-lasting.
8. Champagne Préstige Cuvée
And finally the most exclusive one: Champagne Préstige Cuvée. It is the best of the best and “the crown jewel” made from the richest crop of grapes in the vineyard.
At least 75% Blanc de Noir grapes and the bottle is a true demonstration of the savoir-faire of that Champagne house. A Champagne Préstige Cuvée is typically aged at least 5 years, if not more.
Now, the wide glass coupe of champagne as shown above is actually terrible for champagne, because it lets the bubbles escape too easily. Nevertheless, this is the old traditional glass of champagne that luxury establishments often use to give that air of “je ne sais quoi“.
The Champagne Alternative: What is Crémant?
From the luxury to the budget variety: Champagne connaisseurs may sniff their nose at crémant being on the same list as champagne, but there is a case to be made for trying a crémant. If you like bubbles, but you don’t have the budget for champagne, you can try a crémant.
The designation “Champagne” is protected for grapes produced in the Champagne region of France, but the same traditional method of making champagne is used in several other regions of France to make crémant.
As the production process is the same, crémants have their own protected AOC/AOP designations in Alsace, Bordeaux, Loire, etc. So while crémant may not have the same prestige as champagne, it will certainly make your wallet happier.
☞ READ MORE: Easy Guide to the French Wines
So now you know your champagne! The different designations, appellations, and levels of prestige will be marked on the bottle. You can learn more about how to read the French labels on bottles of wine and champagne here.
And now to celebrate, feel free to open a bottle of bubbly and tickle your tastebuds 😉
¹ Meaning: To health! Cheers!
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