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“I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”
-Madame Lily Bollinger

The region of Champagne, just an hour-and-a-half east of Paris, is made up of five growing regions. From north to south, they are the Montagne de Reims, the Vallé de la Marne, the Cote des Blancs, the Cote de Sezanne, and the Aube. The grapes used to create Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, struggle to ripen here in this cold, wet, northerly climate. Even when they do, they are still very highly acidic. The wine made from them would be hard to drink on its own, but this lean, acidic juice is just perfect for the production of Champagne.

The Champagne name is proprietary, and may only be used for sparkling wine produced according to specific techniques made in the region of Champagne. Champagne is one classic French wine region that seems a shade less threatened by New World competition than most others. There are many alternatives to Champagne but Americans are inclined to drink sparkling wine for celebrations and on the last leg of the holiday season. On these occasions many alternatives to Champagne have yet to develop the same degree of "label appeal" as famous Champagne brands.

For a price, Champagne simply does deliver the ultimate quality, but not always at the level of some mass market, non-vintage cuvées. Warmer new world climates are a better bet for consistent quality from one vintage to the next but the Champagne region's long growing season at its northerly latitude frequently produces greater intensity of flavors in the wines that bear its name. Although some commendable measures have been taken to improve the base quality of Champagne, the region can also make thin, tart, and uninteresting wines at the lower price levels. However, much of this wine is sold through French supermarket chains at a price that most American consumers do not associate with high quality Champagne.

The ability of even modest non vintage cuvées to improve with extra bottle age is something that champagne drinkers should not disregard. Champagne generally ages in a much more predictable manner than any red wine. The yeast from the secondary fermentation that is suspended in the wine undergoes a transformation to produce aromas that are described as anything from "biscuity" to resembling burnt coffee. These aromas are quite distinct from base oxidized flavors that are also desirable when they impart a nutty character as they would in a mature Chardonnay. Most of the better non vintage cuvées shipped to the United States could frankly use an extra six months to a year of bottle age (with the conspicuous exception of Bollinger) to bring on more of the aforementioned characteristics. If you have anything approximating a wine cellar you would do well to buy your new year's supply of Champagne early.

Champagne is much more than a drink. The region still produces most of the world's finest sparkling wines and still manages to command a significantly higher price for them than rival wines from the Old and New World. Champagne began promoting itself as a regional brand before the modern concept of brand was understood. Such a good marketing job has been done that many consumers, particularly American ones, no longer consider champagne as a wine, but as something special requiring a sense of occasion. Champagne is a wine of course; a sparkling wine that has gained its bubbles by a secondary fermentation of still wine in the bottle in which it is sold. Champagne certainly deserves to be drunk more uniformly throughout the year as a fine wine in its own right. Relative to European drinkers, Americans often have a long way to go before they would typically consider drinking champagne (or sparkling wine) with a meal or routinely as an aperitif.

Grape Varieties

Three grape varieties are legally used in Champagne and all three are generally used in a Non-Vintage or Vintage wine.

Pinot Noir (37% of planted acreage)
Pinot Noir produces a rich, fruity and broad style when it is used as the majority of a blend. Black grapes produce white wine, as the juice is not allowed to remain in contact with the skins.

Pinot Meunier (37% of planted acreage)
Pinot Meunier, a black grape with genetic links to Pinot Noir, adds softness and an early maturing element when it is used in a champagne blend. It is generally considered a less noble variety though it is widely used in Non-Vintage blends.

Chardonnay (26% of planted acreage)
Chardonnay adds a racy, fruity character and gives a wine acidic backbone to age as well as a distinctive piercing fruit flavor. In the Champagne region Blanc de Blancs are made entirely from Chardonnay.

At the bottling stage champagne is nearly always sweetened by the addition of a small sweetened dose of wine, called the dosage. The vast bulk of champagne (including all Vintage releases) is of the "Brut" level of dryness: Dry to the palate though very lightly sweetened. The exact level of dryness of a brut style will vary from producer to producer. The indicators of sweetness that you can find on a Non-Vintage label are as follows:

Extra Brut: Un-sweetened. Acidity is too much for most people at this level of dryness.
Brut: Lightly dosaged to be dry to the palate.
Extra Dry: An off-dry style.
Demi Sec: Perceptible sweetness is evident.
Doux: Markedly sweet.

Non-Vintage Brut is the most important category of champagne. The vast bulk of champagne is Non-Vintage and the healthy sales of this category are what keeps the Euros flowing in the region. A typical Non-Vintage cuvée will be composed of wine from two of the most recent vintages blended together, with a very small amount of older vintages. The demanding task of a champagne blender is to keep a typical house style by blending many different batches of wine. Quality does vary, at least from year to year if not batch to batch. A succession of good vintages will result in great Non-Vintage champagne with inverse consequences for a run of lesser years.

Vintage Brut champagnes are the product of a single vintage. Champagne houses may decide to not produce a Vintage Brut if the quality of the vintage is poor and good inventory of a better vintage allows them to meet demand for their vintage wine.

Blanc de Blancs are made from 100% Chardonnay. The style is typified by a brilliant green-gold hue, concentrated apple flavors, and racy acidity. In time, the best of such wines take on a nutty character much like fine Burgundy. Only the finest Chardonnay fruit from Champagne can successfully be used for Blanc de Blancs and it will generally be from the Côte de Blancs region.

Rosé champagne generally gets its color from a proportion of red wine, conventionally made from pinot noir, being added to the blend. The more difficult method involves allowing the must to remain in contact with the skins for just long enough to get a pink hue. In style expect anything from a pink bright fruity wine or anything up to a copper hued, rich, and faintly Burgundian wine.

The tête de cuvée is the ultimate expression of a Champagne house and it is usually accordingly expensive and lavishly packaged. Overall the Champenois maintain an outstanding quality at this level, particularly from fine vintages. Tête de Cuvées may be Rosés or Blanc de Blancs or a conventional blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.

Champagne has only one appellation: Champagne. Nonetheless, the region does have a highly developed Cru system that rates each vineyard for its potential quality. The appellation of Champagne is composed of five sub-regions, which contain communes rated as Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or bearing no cru designation. The Champagne from big-name producers that most consumers are familiar with is generally a highly blended product made from fruit sourced from many of Champagne's sub-regions. Such champagnes may contain significant amounts of Grand Cru fruit, particularly in the more prestigious cuvées. When one sees "Grand Cru" on a label, the name of the commune will also be marked. Such champagne is invariably a grower champagne from a small producer who owns holdings in one commune.

For the connoisseur that is prepared to seek out quality and character, grower Champagnes are well worth tracking down. These Champagnes are often denoted with the initials RM on the label, meaning Recoltant- Manipulant. A grower Champagne has been vinified by the owner of the vines, often on a very small scale by a family concern. Only a handful of the hundreds produced make it through to the U.S. market, but they can often be found in good wine specialty stores. Serge Mathieu and Jacques Selosse are examples of particular grower labels that are noteworthy for rivaling and exceeding the big name brands in quality. The most prestigious grower champagnes come from the exclusively Chardonnay planted Côte de Blancs sub-region of Champagne. Grand Cru communes such as Avize, Chouilly, Crammant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus supply the region's most sought-after grapes and are the source of the finest grower champagne.

Many US drinkers of Champagne are missing a lot of its potential pleasure and complexity by drinking it too young. Most good Champagne can age respectably, even Non-Vintage cuvées. Exactly how old one should drink any wine is a matter of individual taste. Indeed, most houses are releasing wines these days with respectable bottle age, so the yeast in the bottle has autolyzed to produce some bready, biscuity aromas and flavors, and the acids have softened a little. It can certainly do no harm to purchase newly released, Non-Vintage Champagne and allow this maturation to progress for another six months to a year. Some of the better Non-Vintage cuvées can cellar for far longer than this. Good, cool cellaring conditions are essential, as Champagne is quite sensitive to heat, more so than most still wine. (Wine/Appellations)