What Is Champagne? A Guide to Sparkling Wine

published Nov 16, 2022
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If you’re looking for a bottle of wine fit for a celebration, chances are you’ve encountered Champagne. But what is Champagne — beyond a fizzy, fun beverage? The TL;DR answer: Champagne is a type of sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. Although other varieties of sparkling wine — including Prosecco and Cava — are frequently misidentified as Champagne, only bottles made in that region can claim the title (it’s a Kleenex/tissue or Q-Tip/cotton swab situation). And that’s the reason Champagne is always capitalized: It doesn’t just represent a wine, but the geographical region it comes from.

Champagne has a reputation for being fancy and luxurious. Although it certainly can be, it’s not just a special-occasion wine. In fact, wine drinkers can choose from a variety of bubbly bottles that cover just about every budget and flavor preference you can imagine. In this article, featuring expert insight from Anna Walsh — the wine retail manager at Dedalus, a wine shop and specialty food market in Stowe, Vermont — we’ll talk about how Champagne is made, what Champagne tastes like, how much it costs, and what other types of sparkling wine are worth checking out.

How Is Champagne Made?

After the grapes are harvested, sorted, and pressed for juice, all wine is fermented in either steel tanks or wooden barrels. What sets Champagne apart is a second fermentation and aging process; this occurs after it has been blended for consistency and bottled. This second fermentation and aging process is called Méthode Champenoise, and requires a daily quarter turn of each bottle by hand to redistribute the lees — the sediment created as a byproduct of the fermentation process. Bottles of Champagne must be aged for at least 15 months, but some winemakers age them for years.

After that, the bottles undergo dégorgement, in which the lees are collected in the neck of the bottle and removed, while the crystal-clear, now-bubbly Champagne remains. It is then corked. (Psst: Here’s how to open that bottle of Champagne without all the “rogue cork” drama.)

The official Champagne-making technique is used by winemakers all over the world, but unless they are in Champagne, France, it’s (usually) called Méthode Traditionnelle.

What Kind of Wine Grape Is Champagne Made From?

There are a few different types of grapes used to make Champagne, and they’re all strictly regulated by France’s wine governing body, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC. The three most common Champagne grapes are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Sometimes, these grapes are blended by winemakers to create a proprietary, brand-consistent taste. Champagne containing exclusively Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier is called Blanc de Noirs. If a Champagne has been made with only Chardonnay grapes, it’s called Blanc de Blancs.

Although Chardonnay is the only white grape used in Champagne, bottles made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are typically white in color because the grape juice is fermented and aged without contact with the skins. 

What Is Rosé Champagne?

Sparkling rosé (from all over the world) can be made by fermenting red wine grapes with their skins for a brief period of time. The longer this skin contact period, the deeper the color will be. However, French rosé Champagne is typically made by blending a small portion of still red wine into the bottle. Rosé Champagne is not always sweet, despite its candy-colored hue.

Is Champagne Sweet?

Champagne can fall anywhere on the super dry to very sweet spectrum. The amount of sweetness in any wine, including Champagne, is dependent on the residual sugar — aka how much sugar is left over after the fermentation process. All Champagne is required to list its classification, so you can be sure the description is an honest indicator of residual sugars. To choose the right bottle for your preference, it helps to know the terminology used to identify sugar content. Here are the classifications you’ll find on labels when shopping for Champagne.

Brut Nature: The driest of the dry, this type of Champagne can by regulation contain as a maximum of just 3 grams of sugar per liter.

Extra Brut: Just a touch sweeter, this variety is more commonly found in liquor stores and wine shops in the U.S. than Brut Nature. It can have up to 6 grams of sugar per liter, but is far from sweet-tasting.

Brut: With up to 12 grams of sugar allowed per liter, Brut is a moderately dry Champagne that’s popular worldwide. If it’s a noticeably sweet taste you’re after, this is still not the bottle for you!

Extra Dry or Extra Sec: Just to be a touch confusing, Champagne labeled Extra Dry or Extra Sec is actually a little sweeter than Brut varieties — between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter are allowed.

Dry or Sec: This type of Champagne can have between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per liter (it’s a big range, so it’s helpful to research bottles if you have a strong preference). 

Demi-Sec: Sliding up a little higher on the sweetness scale, demi-sec Champagne can have up to 50 grams of sugar per liter. If you like sweet wines like blush or white zinfandel, this is a good match for you.

Doux or Sweet: With 50-plus grams of sugar, these dessert-y wines are sweet, with an almost syrupy texture. 

If you don’t yet know what kind of Champagne you like, Walsh suggests starting with Extra Brut — even if you usually reach for bone-dry wines. “Because Champagne’s acidity is so high, you really want some sweetness to cut through it,” she explains. It’s a balancing act of flavors.

Is Champagne Expensive?

“You can get a great bottle of Champagne for $50. You can get an exceptional bottle for a couple hundred and on up,” says Walsh. But price isn’t everything. Sometimes, an expensive bottle just means you’re paying for the name recognition of a big house (in other words: a flashy, popular brand).

“Instead of spending $50-$70 on a commodity bottle of Champagne from a big name, try a bottle in the same price range from a small grower or producer. Your money goes a lot further,” she suggests. Wine merchants love to help you find those hidden gems, so ask!

Should Champagne Be Served in a Flute?

Champagne is often served in narrow, thin glasses called flutes. Flutes help a glass stay fizzy for longer, because the bubbles take longer to disperse in a tall, narrow vessel. But some wine experts argue that a flute is not the best wine glass for Champagne, because it’s hard to sniff out all the aromas over such a small surface area. (That’s why bold red wines are typically served in large, bulbous glasses).

Classy coupe-style glasses are sometimes used; they provide a more aromatic experience but fall flat faster. For a good compromise between the two styles, check out tulip glasses, which have a wider, flared mid-section and a tapered mouth. 

Stemless glasses aren’t ideal for Champagne, because the heat of your hand can warm the wine. A standard wine glass will get the job done. Ultimately, there’s no need to break the bank or attempt to create a “perfect” experience. Says Walsh, “I think there’s something actually really lovely about drinking Champagne from a coffee mug.”

What Are the Other Types of Sparkling Wine? 

Although real Champagne can only come from Champagne, France, there are plenty of other interesting and affordable sparkling wines.

Crémant: Crémant is sparkling French wine made in the Méthode Traditionnelle. In other words, it’s from France … just not from Champagne. One of Walsh’s favorite bottles of non-Champagne bubbly falls under this category: Crémant du Jura. She explains, “It has the same grape varieties of Champagne and is made in the traditional method like Champagne, but the wines from Jura can be quite oxidative, giving them a bit of honeyed richness that I find so beautiful with those tiny mousse-y bubbles.” 

Prosecco: Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine. It’s regulated by Italy’s wine governing body, and made from Prosecco wine grapes (yep, Prosecco is actually a type of grape!). Prosecco can be Brut, Extra Dry, and Dry — remember that Brut will have the lowest amount of sugar.

Cava: Cava is a sparkling wine from Spain. Typically, Cava and Prosecco are more affordable than Champagne, although there are price outliers in all categories. Cava is made using the Méthode Traditionnelle, which makes it a good substitution for Champagne.

Pét-Nat or Pétillant Naturel: Pét-Nat is sparkling wine that has been bottled during the first fermentation, and without added yeast or sugars. The naturally-occuring sugars in the grapes are what provide the “fermentation food,” which results in the bubbles. Pét-Nat can be made from any wine grape, and it’s trending among new-school winemakers (despite being an ancient method). Pét-Nat wines have a reputation for being a little funky or wild-tasting in comparison to their buttoned-up bubbly cousins.

Other Sparkling Wines: Winemakers around the world make sparkling wines using a combination of the above techniques, or some other innovative ones. Some sparkling wines are made simply by adding CO2 to the bottle after fermentation — much in the way you’d use a DIY sparkling water maker at home.