Last Updated on May 25, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
Types of Champagne – All About The Best Known Sparkling Wine in the World.
What makes Champagne so special? And how do you know which type of Champagne is right for you?
There are several elements to consider – Champagne is a multidimensional drink so, apart from the basic controls about what can be called Champagne, consider the following when picking the right type of Champagne for you
- Who has made the Champagne – a Maison, Co-operative or Grower Producer
- What mix of Champagne grapes have been used. The three most common are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay and all three are often blended
- Is your Champagne vintage or non-vintage?
- Where have the grapes in your Champagne come from? The Comité de Champagne classifies every village in the Champagne district and ‘Grand Crus’ Champagnes are from the very best villages.
- What dosage is added to your Champagne – that will help to determine how dry it is. Most of us today drink ‘Brut’ Champagne
- Are you drinking Champagne from a single variety – a Blanc de Blanc or Blanc de Noir – or a blend of two or more Champagne grapes?
- Are you drinking Rosé Champagne – and if so how has it been made.
All of these things will help to determine the style of Champagne in your glass. Learn more about the World’s favourite celebratory drink and discover the types of Champagne that work for you.
Table of Contents
Basics of Champagne
The first thing to understand is that Champagne can only come from a specific region of France. And, the second thing to know is that it has to be made according to the Méthode Champenoise, the official and traditional way of making Champagne.
So, to be labelled Champagne it must both be made according to the official Champagne method and come from the Champagne region of France.
Where Does Champagne Come From?
All Champagne comes from a specific geographic part of France. Grapes for Champagne and Champagne wineries all have to be located in the Champagne appellation. It’s an area of France to the North East with 34,000 hectares of land. The appellation spreads over five wine-producing districts within the historical province: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. Each wine-producing district is known for a specific grape type – so Côte des Blancs is best known for their Chardonnay, Marne for Pinot Meunier and Montagne de Reims for Pinot Noir.
And each wine district has a unique terroir that helps it produce best in class for the grapes grown in the area. The Montagne de Reims has a cool, chalky terrain that suits the Pinot Noir grape which adds backbone and body to the blend of a classic cuvée. The Pinot Meunier grown in the Marne Valley has more cold-weather resistance is particularly well suited to the soils of the Marne Valley which are a mix of clay and shale. Meunier adds roundness to the blend and helps the wine to mature faster. Chardonnay is predominant on the aptly named ‘Côte des Blancs’. It adds fragrance and minerality to Champagnes and matures at the slowest rate of the three main grape types.
In the mid-20th century, a system of rating was introduced to manage grape prices. This percentile system is known as the Échelle des Crus (“ladder of growth”). This system controls the price of grapes from each ‘crus’ or village. Grapes from vineyards in villages at the top of the ladder receive higher prices for their grapes than vineyards located in villages with a lower rating. A 100% rating is a Grand Crus while those villages rated between 90% and 99% are called Premier Crus. In reality, no villages are rated lower than 80%.
In 2015, the “Champagne hillsides, houses and cellars” were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. This recognizes the unique cultural landscape of the five French Champagne départements of Aisne, Aube, Haute-Marne, Marne and Seine-et-Marne. But, apart from being a UNESCO world heritage site, the Champagne region is a beautiful place to visit.
What is Méthode Champenoise?
Also known as the official or traditional method of making Champagne, this is a process where sugar and yeast are added to the wine, which then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.
This creates carbon dioxide and lees, dead yeast cells. Once the fermentation is complete, the lees is then removed from the bottles and replaced with a solution of wine and sugar. The whole process takes from 7 months to several years and is just one reason why Champagne is expensive.
Many other sparkling wines are produced using this method but only wine from the Champagne region can be called Champagne. Examples of wines that use the traditional method of production include Cava, English Sparkling Wines, Franciacorta from Italy and even Crémant from France.
An alternative method of making sparkling wine is the Charmat method where the ‘fizz’ is added to wine in pressurized tanks. This is the normal way of making prosecco and does not involve secondary fermentation.
Champagne Grape Varieties
Champagne can be made from six types of grapes. Chardonnay (around 30% of total production), Pinot Noir (around 38% of total production), Pinot Meunier(around 32% of production), Petit Meslier, Arbane and Pinot Gris grapes. The first three are by far the most common accounting for more than 99% of production.
Types of Champagne Producers
Champagne is produced through a number of different organisational structures. Perhaps the best know are Maisons de Champagne, which we recognise as Champagne brands, but there are also Cooperatives and Vignerons some of whom are ‘Grower producers’ or récoltant-manipulant.
- Maisons de Champagne. According to the Comité de Champagne, the industry’s governing body, there are 360 Champagne Houses. They include large producers like Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Taittinger and Dom Perignon who are known as ‘Grandes Marques Champagne Houses’ who have to fulfil a number of criteria. Maisons de Champagne can own some of their own land but they also tend to have long standing relationships with vignerons. These are known as negotiants agreements. Maisons de Champagne will generally own or buy grapes from a mix of the four principal Champagne AOC growths: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the Côte des Bar. The cellar master will be responsible for blending the still wines made from these grapes to create a cuvée or blend
- Cooperatives. These are generally made up of vignerons in the same geographical area who cooperate to produce their own label champagne. Nicholas Feuillatte is the best-known example.
- Vignerons. These are owners of wine parcels – sometimes simply rows of vines, sometimes fields or vineyards. Vignerons may have a direct relationship with the Maisons de Champagnes, they may work within a cooperative or they may produce their own champagne in which case they are ‘grower-producers’. They can produce quite unique champagnes, but lack the flexibility of the Maisons de Champagne and Cooperatives to produce a consistent product since they generally don’t have the flexibility of wines to blend. Grower champagne is recognised by the letters RM for récoltant-manipulant on the label. We’ve visited a few grower-producers – Champagne Lacourte Godbillon in Ecueil and Champagne Météyer in the Marne Valley
But every Champagne producer can create a number of different types of Champagnes. Recognising the difference will not only help you understand which Champagnes will work best for each occasion but why some Champagnes carry a premium price tag.
The most common type of Champagne you will find is Champagne Brut NV. The term ‘Brut’ simply means dry and this Champagne has to have a dosage of 12 grams of sugar or less per litre. Each of the Champagne houses tries to maintain a distinctive style for their Champagne Brut NV, which in total accounts for 78.5% of exports. The letters NV after Brut stands for Non-Vintage. These Champagnes are made by blending wines from different years and crus. While they may not be cheap, the advantage of a Brut Non-Millésimé or Non-Vintage Champagne is that the cellar master can use his or her expertise to maintain a consistent quality by blending reserve wines, even if the weather conditions do not produce grapes suitable for a vintage declaration.
But, in reality, the scale of Champagnes from driest to sweetest, includes two champagnes that are drier. Brut Nature is also known as Brut Zero has 0-3g of residual sugar per litre and a zero dosage while ‘Extra Brut’ has between 0 and 6g per litre residual sugar. The main difference between Brut Nature and Extra Brut is that there is no dosage for a Brut Nature Champagne, the sugar that is in the wine is from the grapes
Extra Dry and Dry Champagne
All three Brut Champagnes have less sugar than ‘Extra Dry’ Champagne (wth 12-18g residual sugar per litre) and ‘Dry Champagne’ which has 17-32g of residual sugar per litre. But, both ‘Extra Dry’ and ‘Dry’ or ‘Sec’ Champagnes are seldom produced today. Champagne Taittinger Nocture is one example, I have a half bottle to drink at some point – it’s a non-vintage wine with between 17 and 20g sugar dosage per litre of wine. A blend of over 35 crus which is then aged on lees for four years, it should make an easy wine to enjoy with cheese or dessert.
The somewhat confusing labels come from the fact that our tastes have changed since Champagne first became popular and we now prefer drier Champagnes. The idea of Brut Champagne only really developed towards the turn of the 19th century from 1870 onward when it was developed by Pommery allegedly to cater for the British taste for dry champagnes
Demi-Sec and Doux
Demi-sec Champagne has a higher level of dosage (sugar) added of between 32-50 grams of sugar per litre (g/l) and is a blend of any of the Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes from the Champagne appellation. Containing 32-50 grams of sugar per litre, demi-sec Champagne is a good compromise between reduced sugar content and flavour. The name of this medium-sweet sparkling wine means half-dry.
A demi-sec Champagne works particularly well with desserts, due to its sweeter taste. Some of the Champagne houses are also trying to reintroduce this type of champagne as a drink to enjoy on ice. Moët et Chandon Ice Impérial is a good example. It’s blended to be enjoyed over ice and has a dosage of 45g per litre. But, the Champagne House still tries to create a wine that is true to its house style – ‘bright fruitiness, a seductive palate and elegant maturity’
Champagne labelled Doux is the sweetest produced, with more than 50 grams of sugar per litre.
Champagnes from specific grape types
Blanc de Blancs
Blanc de Blanc means white from white grapes and Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are made only from white grapes, usually 100% Chardonnay. These Chardonnay grapes give this Champagne a light, fresh flavour.
The grapes used in Blanc de Blancs Champagne are most commonly found in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne area. We’ve just enjoyed the 2014 Ayala Blanc de Blanc, which has just been released. Like many Maisons de Champagne, Ayala only releases a vintage Blanc de Blanc in suitably good years. This one is dry and minerally with hints of peach and passion fruit and a long lingering finish. 100% Chardonnay and made with grapes from the best vineyards in Côte des Blancs.
Blanc de Noirs
Made exclusively from red grapes, Blanc de Noirs Champagnes are less common. Made entirely from red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) these Champagnes are created by lightly pressing the grapes to avoid colouring the wine with pigment from the grape skins. The majority of Blanc de Noir Champagnes are made exclusively from Pinot Noir.
It’s quite a rare Champagne – we were lucky enough to visit the Maison de Champagne at Billecart Salmon, where we finished our first dinner off with the 2002 vintage of their very special Blanc de Noir, Billecart-Salmon Clos St-Hilaire. This wine is made with grapes from pinot noir vines planted in one specific field or ‘clos’. Aged on lees for 15 years and with zero dosage, it was a fine and delicate end to the meal.
You can still find non-vintage Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blancs, though.
Vintage and Non-Vintage Champagnes
Champagne Millesime or Vintage Champagnes
In addition to sweetness or dosage and blend of grapes, the third dimension is connected with age. But, it’s not about ‘older is better’ rather about the judgement of the Champagne Cellar Master in deciding how to manage the quality of grapes he or she has available each year and how well they will age.
To declare a vintage, the Cellar Master must be convinced that it is possible to produce an excellent Champagne worth of ageing without adding any ‘reserve’ wines into the blend. All champagne producers keep reserve wines from previous years as a way of managing the blend. But a vintage Champagne can only contain grapes from the current year of harvest. The resulting wine has to be aged in bottle for a minimum of three years (more than twice the required ageing for non-vintage champagnes), but many houses will age their vintage wines for much longer before releasing them. Really old vintage champagnes are rare and expensive.
I’ve tried two in my lifetime – one a bottle of vintage Krug that was around 40 years old when we opened it and the other, Billecart-Salmon Nicholas François 1988 a heritage bottle which I tried in 2019 at Maison Billecart-Salmon. To keep this type of champagne in a good state for such a length of time, it should really be cellared – and few people these days have the space for that. In both cases, the colour of the champagne was darker and more concentrated, while the mousse was finer.
Non-Vintage Champagnes are not necessarily made from a single year’s harvest. Instead, the still reserve wines held in the Champagne Producer’s cellars are used to create a cuvée where any nuances of production or weather are compensated for by blending. This is a very important part of the Cellar Master’s trade – particularly for the Grandes Maisons, where the Brut NV is usually made to a particular house style every year. So, for example, when you buy Taittinger Brut NV it should taste the same, whether it was bottled three years ago or five. You may well develop a preference for a particular house style or a particular type of Champagne. If I am pressed I’ll usually say that I like Pol Roger, which is best known for being Winston Churchill’s favourite! But, the truth is I like most Champagnes – and, given the chance, will pick the one which I feel matches best with the occasion.
Rosé Champagne – standing apart.
While the popularity of pink Champagne or rosé Champagne is growing, the first rosé Champagne was introduced in 1764 by Ruinart. Today it’s a popular way to enjoy your fizz and this type of Champagne can be made by one of two methods. Either a small amount of still red Champagne wine is added to the blend of white wines after the first fermentation, or red champagne grapes are macerated in their skins before fermentation (like the Laurent Perrier mentioned below). Rosé Champagne can be vintage or non-vintage and can be a blend of any of the Champagne grapes. Some Rosé Champagnes, like Champagne Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé are made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes. Others like Perrier-Jouët’s Blason Rosé are made by blending a variety of champagne grapes. In the case of Blason Rosé that’s 25% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir (including the added red wine) and 25% Pinot Meunier.
Vintage Rosé Champagnes are a particular treat for me – I love Billecart Salmon’s 2007 Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon 2007, which is a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend using Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines. It’s a low dosage for a rosé and some Pinot Noir is pressed and blended as a red wine to create the rosé. There’s a bottle hiding in my cupboard for the next very special occasion!
Summary – Different Types of Champagne.
It should be obvious by now that Champagne is a complex drink. The more you explore, the more you learn. And, for me, the options are part of the charm of this fascinating drink. I love the different house styles of the Maisons de Champagne. But, I also love grower Champagnes, where you’ll find a house style which is also affected by each year’s harvest and by what reserve wines the vineyard holds in stock.
The blend of Champagne grapes is one of the most important factors that affects each type of Champagne. The dosage another factor. I’m drawn to lower dosage Champagnes these days.
Rosé Champagne has it’s own complexity – with two basic production methods complementing most of the elements that go into making all Champagnes.
While dosage, blend of grapes and ageing account for much of the differences in types of Champagne, there’s more of course. The wine used for Champagne can be oaked in various types of barrels and casks. The pressed grapes can be slow-fermented over an extended period of 3-4 weeks to help retain aromatics and freshness. Malolactic fermentation can be used to soften the acidity of the still wines. And, in the case of the Maisons de Champagne, the sheer number of wines used in the initial blending is part of the house secret. Then, while there are minimums for ageing on lees, many champagne producers extend the period, often more than doubling the 15 months required for a non-vintage champagne.
And, with Champagne there is no right answer – it’s all about personal taste. For me, that’s a great excuse to drink more and find out exactly what I like!
There are more features on London Unattached about individual Champagne Houses we’ve visited or where we’ve had guided tastings. For the definitive guide to all types of Champagne, check the website of the Comité de Champagne – the body which governs all Champagne production in France