Currently at least four out of every five bottles of Champagne sold are classified as Brut Non-Vintage. The Brut part (see dryness/sweetness box below) designates the amount of residual sugar in the wine and can be anything between 0 to 15 grams per litre but typically in most of the major brands is somewhere between 10 and 12g/l. The level of dosage used in Brut styles has however gradually been coming down following a decade or so of global warming with higher summer temperatures and longer sunshine hours resulting in riper fruit. Average potential alcohol levels are up too. Stylistically there has also been growing interest in bone dry ‘Extra Brut’ styles (residual sugar 0-6g/l) and non-dosé Champagnes which have no sugar added at all when they are disgorged (see Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle).
Multi-vintage might be a better descriptor than ‘non-vintage’ as these wines are typically made from one harvest year base plus reserve wine from two or more previous harvests (to understand why this is done see ‘blending’).
While non-vintage Champagne is a blend of two or more harvests, vintage Champagne must be made 100% from the year indicated on the label. Vintage Champagne, which represents less than 5% of production, is only generally elaborated right across the appellation in years when the climate is particularly kind, especially in the last crucial weeks running up to the start of picking. Vintages are widely declared by a majority of producers perhaps three or four times a decade, but these are not necessarily evenly spaced out.
The classic illustration of this came at the end of the eighties when three high-class harvests materialised one after another — 1988, 1989 and 1990. There was then a gap until the classic 1995 vintage before conditions were truly and widely favourable again, which was immediately followed by another great but entirely different style of vintage in 1996.
(All the other Champagne styles described below can be either vintage or non-vintage.)
A Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made entirely from white grapes, and the vast majority will be all Chardonnay, although there are other varieties, including Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier found in miniscule quantities in some parts of the appellation, particularly in the Côte des Bar, the most southernmost region. A Blanc de Blancs style, especially one made from the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs like Avize or Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, may possess great ageing potential. When youthful the style does tend to be unforthcoming and is often quite austere but it can develop toasty richness with age.
Blanc de Noirs
Literally white wine made from black grapes, in the case of Champagne either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. Tends to be a richer, fuller style but good examples are not that easy to find, partly because few of the large houses make it. Two good producers that do are Drappier and grower Serge Mathieu, producers which are both based in Champagne’s southernmost production region the Côte des Bar, where Pinot Noir is widely planted.
The co-ops Mailly Grand Cru and Beaumont des Crayères also make fine examples.
Nearly all pink Champagne is made by blending in a little red wine – between 5 and 20% — with some white Champagne. As a rule of thumb, the more red wine you use the darker the hue of your rosé. In Europe, this method of making a rosé wine is only allowed within the Champagne appellation. Pink fizz may also be made by the saignée method, where pigment to colour the wine is literally bled from the skins (most rosé table wine is made like this), but partly because this is more difficult to do and control the resulting colour of the wine, few use it. [The best-known house that does is Laurent-Perrier.] Some smaller producers today use a combination of the two methods.
Partly because better, softer and fruitier styles are now more widely being made, rosé Champagne has been the fastest growing sector of the champagne market over the past few years since the Millennium. In the UK, the largest single market for pink Champagne, sales jumped by over 20% year on year for six consecutive years between 2001 and 2006. They hit a peak of 3m bottles in 2007 and now account for 8% of all UK champagne sales. Rosé champagne is even more popular proportionately in Japan accounting for one in every seven bottles consumed. Unvintaged rosé Champagne is invariably more expensive than its white counterparts and is often priced at a similar level to vintage champagne. The rosé versions of the top prestige cuvées fetch some of the highest prices seen in the appellation.
Most producers, large and small, make a wine they’d put in this category. Typically the top of the range, usually the most expensive wine and often with glitzy packaging or sold in a distinctively shaped bottle, this will be their effort to produce the best, the most impressive champagne from the grapes they have access to. The prestige cuvée is, or certainly should be, the ultimate expression of wine made from grapes selected in the appellation’s best-situated vineyards. In some respects this sector is defined by Champagne’s icon brands, Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug, but other top producers make wines of similar quality and complexity.
Single vineyard wines
Most champagne is made by blending together grapes from different vineyards but interest has grown in recent years in wines made from grapes picked on certain very particular individual sites that have been found over the years to produce something special. These may be walled vineyards or Clos as they are called both here and further south in Burgundy. The most obvious example of this you can easily see in Champagne today is Philipponnat’s (vertiginous) very steep, south-facing Clos des Goisses in the highly rated 99% premier cru village of Mareuill-sur-Ay. The wines from Clos des Goisses reflect the perfect exposure of this site and are certainly as worthy of attention as other more widely famous single vineyard champagnes like Krug’s Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay, the latter of which commands the highest price for a Champagne that is regularly made.
Further single vineyard wines are coming onto the market all the time as winemakers learn more about individual sites they use, partly through the wider practice of keeping such wines with an interesting character separately for longer before beginning blending.
Levels of sweetness/dryness in Champagne (dosage levels)
Brut Nature or Zéro dosage: residual sugar 0-2 grams per litre
(may appear on labels as Brut Zero or Ultra Brut in the case of Laurent-Perrier’s wine which is the best known example).
Extra Brut: residual sugar 0-6g/l
Extra Dry: 12-20g/l
Doux: 50 + g/l