Who's Who and What's What: Navigating Champagne Styles at Your Local Wine Store

Champagne — a word that evokes emotions of celebration, fun and good times. Champagne — a single word, a single wine region, a region rich and diverse with many styles to choose from. How do you decide what brand or style to buy? Need some help navigating the Champagne shelves of your local wine store? Read on to find out more...

I may sound like a broken vinyl record but I need to reiterate that Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. So the term French Champagne is really rather redundant of sorts. Unfortunately, a lot of cheap sparkling wine sold in the United States is sold as American Champagne. There is no such thing as American Champagne. Lesson number one. A frightening statistic is that Over 45 percent of the sparkling wines sold in the United States are mislabeled "Champagne," according to the official Champagne Bureau (CIVC).

Champagne comes in a number of different styles, some defined by sweetness or dosage levels, some defined by grape variety and some defined by quality.

There are also different types of Champagne producers, and it can be useful to understand the differences between what is termed a 'Champagne House / Négociant', a 'Grower/Producer' and a Cooperative.

Who's Who: Choosing Between Different Types of Producers

There are three main types of Champagne producers. These are:

  • The Champagne House - A Champagne House is a Champagne producer who may or may not have its own vineyards, but also buys in a large proportion of its grapes from growers. Most of the well known brands fall into this category such as Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Laurent Perrier, Perrier Jouët, Pol Roger, Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Gosset, Krug, Louis Roederer, Billecart Salmon, Taittinger, Mumm, Piper Heidsieck etc. Some of these do not own any vineyards and some such as Louis Roederer, own almost enough vineyards to be self-sufficient and consider themselves growers.
  • The Grower - A Grower/Producer is typically a smaller, more artisanal entity that produces smaller volumes and all from its own vineyards (though legally they can buy in up to 5%). In the past most growers sold their grapes either to the bigger Champagne Houses or to the cooperatives. Today, more are independently making, branding and selling their own Champagnes. Many of these growers have quite a cult following in the United States, particularly among sommeliers. Some of the most well known growers on the US market include Pierre Peters, Egly Ouriet, Pierre Moncuit, Larmandier-Bernier, Vilmart et Cie and Gaston Chiquet.
  • The Co-op - A co-operative is a Champagne producing entity owned by the members, and produce Champagne under its own brand name. The most important co-operative Champagne brands selling in the US are Nicholas Feuillate and Jacquart.

What's What: Choosing Between Sweetness or Dosage Levels

Traditionally Champagne has had a dosage (a mixture of sugar and wine) added just before bottling to balance its natural high acidity, which is accentuated by the bubbles. The most common dosage style is Brut, which means that it can have between 6 -12 grams of residual sugar/liter. In practice it is generally around 9-10g/l. Today you increasingly notice a category (small but growing) of Champagnes labeled Extra Brut, Brut Nature or Zero Dosage. Extra Brut means that up to 6g/l dosage may be added. Brut Nature and Zero Dosage mean the same thing - no added dosage. These very dry Champagnes can be a little austere for some palates and have a small but dedicated following.

Styles labeled Sec (meaning dry) and Extra-Sec (extra-dry) are actually sweeter than Brut style. So be careful, unless you want a sweeter style.

What's What: Choosing Between the Many Different Styles — Where Non-Vintage Reigns

Most Champagne is non-vintage (i.e. not vintage dated). This means it is a blend of more than one year. Typically it comprises a dominant base year with between 10-20% wines from older vintages (or 40% as in the case of Champagne Charles Heidsieck). These wines are generally a blend of the three most important Champagne grapes, namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Non-vintage accounts for about 80% of Champagne produce's annual sales. Non-vintage Champagnes retail for between $40 and $60 per bottle.

In contrast Vintage Champagne blends only account for about 2% of production. These are wines made from grapes from a single vintage and only produced in vintages deemed good enough. These wines are aged for much longer on the lees and are more autolytic in character. One Champagne House — Salon, only produces vintage Champagne — which means that it does not produce Champagne every year.

Other Champagne styles, and typically more expensive than the non-vintage blends, include Rosé, which is very popular in the United States. In fact, according to the CIVC, the United States is the number one export market for rosé Champagne. Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs are two styles that are made in very small quantities.

Blanc de Blancs, which translates as 'white from whites' means that the Champagne made solely from Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs, which means 'white from blacks', means that the Champagne is made entirely from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, or a blend of both. Blanc de Noirs Champagnes used to be as rare as hens teeth, with Bollinger's incredibly rare Vieilles Vignes being the reference point. Today, as more Grower Champagnes appear on the market we see a wider offering of Blanc de Noirs styles. They tend to be more full-bodied with a rounder mouthfeel than other styles.

Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs many be non-vintage or vintage dated and retail for between $50 and $100+ per bottle, depending on the producer.

At the top end of the spectrum we have what is called Prestige Cuvée or Tête de Cuvée Champagne. Moët's Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer's Crystal are the two most well known and important Prestige Cuvée Champagnes, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Prestige Cuvée Champagnes are defined by their extreme selection process — only the best grapes, from the best vineyards, in the best years are considered good enough.

These wines are made in small quantities, aged at least seven to ten years on the lees, and justifiably very expensive. They are extremely age-worthy, but unfortunately most are consumed far too young. Other less expensive, but excellent, Prestige Cuvée Champagnes to consider, if splashing out big time, are Charles Heidsieck's Blanc de Millénaires, Henriot's Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, Taittinger's Comtes des Champagne and Gosset's Célébris. Prestige Cuvée Champagnes retails for between $150 and $300+ per bottle.

Having navigated the different styles, I will take you on a tour of the plethora of non-vintage brands on the market next week, and pick out some under-rated, under-valued gems such as this recent Wine of the Week, Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

Related: Festive Champagne and Sparkling Wines to Ring in 2010

(Image: gualtiero boffi for Shutterstock)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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