Champagne 101

Knowledge is Power. We've brought together some of our favorite wine and Champagne resources here so that you can arm yourself with everything you need to know for the next time you're out to dinner, and you want to take charge of ordering the first bottle at the table. 

 

CHAMPAGNE 101

First things first: Champagne is... from Champagne

You're already here reading about Une Femme, so you probably know that the Champagne AOC in northern France produces the world’s most famous sparkling wine.  The word itself—Champagne—has become synonymous with sparkling wine, and true capital-C Champagne may only be produced in the small region of the same name in northern France.  Sparkling wine-making in Champagne dates to the 1700s, and remains one of the most important wine-making traditions in the world.


Champagne's Location

The Champagne region is one of the northernmost wine growing regions in the world—at a latitude similar to Seattle.  The region’s cool climate leads to high acidity in its grapes, an asset in the production of Champagne's particular style of sparkling wine.


Soil & Terroir

Most vineyards of Champagne are planted on chalky soils, which retain heat and provide excellent water regulation for the vines—and create a beautiful mineraility to the wines.  Below the ground, a large network of "caves" provides perfect storage conditions for the cellaring of wine for decades and beyond. 

 

The 3 Major Grapes of Champagne

  • Pinot Noir - your favorite thin-skinned red grape provides structure, weight, and power in many of the wines of Champagne.
  • Chardonnay -  Champagne’s longest-lived wines are often based on Chardonnay.  The grape tends to produce the most elegant styles of wine in Champagne. Our Juliette is chardonnay-dominant, with a blend of both pinot noir and meunier.
  • Meunier - Directly translated as “Miller’s Pinot,” Meunier is named for its characteristic speckled appearance—as if the red grapes’ leaves have been dusted with flour—contributes attractive fruitiness and youthful accessibility to the wine.  Many non-vintage cuvées contain a significant proportion of Meunier.

 

Styles of Champagne

  • Blanc de Blancs: Blanc de Blancs are Champagnes produced using only white grapes, and may be vintage-dated or NV.  The Blanc de Blancs category represents some of Champagne’s most age-worthy examples of Chardonnay. The wines are often austere and steely in youth, but they can develop an intense, toasty bouquet with maturity.
  • Blanc de Noirs: Blanc de Noir Champagnes are white wines produced solely from red grapes.  Blanc de Noirs can be powerful, rich and intense.
  • Rosé Champagne: Rosé Champagne is usually produced by blending red and white base wines prior to the second fermentation.  Vintage, NV, and prestige cuvées may also be produced in pink versions. A rosé prestige cuvée, a novelty in years past, is usually the most expensive and rare product a house offers.  

 

Grand Cru & Premier Cru Champagnes

Wine-producing villages in Champagne are classified for quality as grand cru (the highest designation), premier cru, or simply cru.  In Burgundy, single vineyards attain the rank of premier or grand cru; in Champagne, entire villages achieve that status. The 17 Grand Cru villages are held in the highest regard, and are located in the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, and Côte des Blancs.  If a producer makes a wine using fruit from only grand cru or premier cru village, she may use these terms on the bottle’s label.

 

The Champagne Method (or, how Champagne gets its pop)

Champagne gets its sparkle from a second fermentation in the bottle.  A still base wine is bottled with a small amount of liqueur de tirage: a mixture of wine, sugar, and yeast.  This causes a second fermentation, and the carbon dioxide produced by yeasts converting sugar to alcohol is trapped inside the bottle.


As the yeasts die, they form sediment (lees) inside the bottle.  Over time, the presence of lees in the wine contributes pleasant acacia, bakeshop, and croissant aromas.  Producers will age their better Champagne bottlings on the lees for a period of years. Part of Champagne’s appeal is visual, so producers “disgorge” the wines prior to sale.  In this process, the lees, which would create cloudiness in the final wine, are removed from the bottle.  A small amount of “dosage”, a liquid mixture of sugar and wine, is often added for balance or outright sweetness.

 

How Sweet Do You Like Your Wines?

The sweetness level of a Champagne is determined by the “dosage”, an addition of liquid sugar and wine occurring after disgorgement.  Most styles are “Brut,” or dry in style. Une Femme wines are brut—personally, we like our wines dry.


In order from driest to sweetest, the indicators are:

  • Brut Nature/Brut Zero = Absolutely bone-dry, with sugar content less than 3 grams per liter. These terms may be used only for products to which no sugar has been added after the secondary fermentation.
  • Extra Brut = Nearly bone-dry, with little to no dosage. Sugar content is between 0 and 6 grams per liter.
  • Brut = This category ranges from bone dry to wines with a little residual sugar, depending on the house style. Sugar content is less than 12 grams per liter.
  • Extra Sec/Extra Dry = These wine are really off-dry. Sugar content is between 12 and 17 g/L
  • Sec/Dry = Off-dry to semi-sweet. Sugar content is between 17 and 32 g/L
  • Demi-Sec = “Half Dry” Champagne suitable for many dessert courses. Medium sweet. 32-50g/L
  • Doux = Rarely produced dessert-sweet Champagne style. Sugar content is greater than 50 grams per liter.

Champagne Styles


  • Non-Vintage (NV): Generally brut, the NV cuvée represents a house’s signature style, and the blender’s job is to ensure its consistency from year to year. Some people also to non-vintage wines as “multi-vintage.” Une Femme's Champagne is NV, and represents a blend of several years' harvests.
  • Vintage: Vintage wines are superior offerings from a single harvest.  As the wines are aged in a producer’s caves for a longer period of time than NV bottlings, they often display a greater “leesy” character.  Respectable houses only produce vintage wines in good years.
  • Prestige Cuvée (Tête de Cuvée): Usually the finest and most expensive bottling that a house offers, the prestige cuvée is typically (but not always) vintage-dated and aged for a number of years prior to release.  Prestige Cuvées are usually only released in superior vintages.  Many of the large houses produce prestige cuvées from their own vineyards—even single vineyards in exceptional cases.  Prestige cuvées may be Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, a blend or Rosé in style.  

 

The 5 Main Regions of Champagne:

  1. Montagne de Reims: Champagne’s northern-most region, situated around the city of Reims, and is the premier region for Pinot Noir. 
  1. Vallée de la Marne: The Marne Valley surrounds the Marne River, and includes the town of Epernay, where meunier is the favored grape of the region. 
  1. Côte des Blancs: The most prestigious region in Champagne for Chardonnay grapes (hence the "blanc")
  1. Côte de Sézanne: Located just south of the heart of Champagne production
  1. The Aube (Côte des Bars): That bridge between 

 


    Types of Producers

    Grower-producers grow their own grapes & vinify their own wines. They're the small producers who craft Champagnes from vine to bottle. Our Juliette Champagne is a grower-producer Champagne made by the historic Gonet-Medeville family. 

    In Champagne, large brands, known as négociants, purchase many of their grapes from networks of smaller growers; and many smaller estates, known colloquially as “grower-producers” grow their own fruit for vinification.

    The larger houses may enjoy more consistency from year to year but the smaller estates may offer a more individual product.  Négociants, such as Moët et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, can be identified by locating the initials “NM” on a small code on the label of the bottle.  Large houses are generally centered in Reims and Epernay, and are often open to visitors.  


    Additional Sparkling Wine Making Methods


    Méthode Champenoise

    Outside of Champagne, traditional makers use this method, which mimics that of the original. While the exact aging requirements and grape varieties may change, the traditional method mirrors the méthode Champenoise and has at its heart the principle of a second fermentation in the bottle. The méthode traditionnelle has been adopted throughout France and worldwide as the most successful approach to quality, ageworthy sparkling wine production. 


    French AOP Regions for Crémant Wines

    In France, there are seven AOP regions for crémant wines produced by the traditional method: 

    1. Crémant de Bordeaux
    2. Crémant de Bourgogne
    3. Crémant de Loire
    4. Crémant de Limoux
    5. Crémant de Die
    6. Crémant du Jura
    7. Crémant d’Alsace. 

    The encépagement varies widely according to the appellation, and the limit on pressing is less strict (100 liters from 150 kg, or 2,666 liters from 4,000 kg) but otherwise the wines are produced by the method prescribed for Champagne. Other appellations in France producing traditional method sparkling wines include Vouvray, Montlouis-sur-Loire, and Saumur in the Loire; and Vin de Savoie and Seyssel in Savoie. 


    Fully sparkling wines from the aforementioned appellations will be labeled mousseux, whereas lightly sparkling wines are labeled pétillant. 


    Italy, Spain & Germany

    In Italy, the best traditional method sparkling wines are produced in Lombardy, within the DOCGs of Franciacorta and Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico. All Spanish Cava and the highest quality German Sekt are produced by the traditional method. 


    Méthode Ancestrale

    Also known as the méthode rurale, this is the oldest and most rudimentary of sparkling wine making procedures. A single fermentation begins in tank, but the wine is transferred to bottles before the process is complete—liqueur de tirage is unnecessary. Yeasts continue to ferment the remaining sugars in the bottle, giving the wine its sparkle. The residual sweetness of the finished wines varies by appellation, but dosage is not allowed. Typically, the wine is disgorged, filtered and re-bottled in clean glass prior to sale. Bugey Cerdon, Clairette de Die Méthode Dioise Ancestrale, and Gaillac Mousseux Méthode Gaillaçoise are examples of the style.


    The Charmat Process/Cuve Close/Tank Method: 

    Developed by Eugene Charmat in the early 20th century, the Tank Method is quicker, cheaper, and less labor-intensive than the traditional method. After the wine undergoes primary fermentation, liqueur de tirage is added to the wine, provoking a second fermentation, which occurs in a pressurized enamel-lined tank, or autoclave, over a matter of days. Once the appropriate pressure is reached (usually 5 atmospheres), the wine is chilled to arrest fermentation. Some appellations require the wine to remain in tank for a minimum period of time, such as one month for Asti DOCG. The wine is then filtered and bottled, usually with a dosage. The lack of extended lees contact in the tank method is not suitable for making quality wines in the style of Champagne. The bubbles, or bead, in tank method wines will be larger and coarser, and the wine will have a less uniform texture than wines made by the traditional method. However, this method is appropriate and even preferred for sparkling wines emphasizing fruit and varietal aromatics rather than the flavors derived from autolysis. Most Asti DOCG and Prosecco bottlings are produced in this method.


    Continuous Method/Russian Continuous Method: Developed in the USSR, this method is similar to the tank method, but the base wine is pumped through a series of interconnected (continuous) tanks while undergoing the second fermentation. Liqueur de tirage is constantly added to the wine, and lees accumulate in the first several tanks, offering a higher degree of autolyzed flavors than the standard tank method. The majority of German Sekt is produced by either the tank method or the continuous method.