Varietals Guide

“What are the different types of Champagne?”

When most people buy a Champagne, a fair amount don’t even know what they are getting when they go to the register – with most purchasing done by price and/or brand.

Because image is everything, a houses’ marketing approach can further confuse buyers, with bottles covered with catch words like “Rich” and gaudy, colourful bottle wraps which seem much more in vogue than a plainly labelled one.

With most people buying Champagne for a gift or celebration, a bit of knowledge goes a long way toward making a better choice in terms of cost vs quality which should benefit the drinker’s tastes.

Thankfully, all champagne labels must have descriptions explaining what is going on inside the bottle. This gives some indication how it is made and how it’s going to taste. Once you know how to decipher them, the Champagne world is your oyster.

There are three key criteria for understand the varietals of Champagne; Year of Production, Sugar Content and Grape Blends.

To help you out, here is a crash course in the many varieties of Champagne:

Year of Production

Vintage or Millesime

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Typically, the best grapes from any annual harvest are used to make a Houses’ higher-end wines – known as Vintages. They are defined by having a year on the label that highlights the harvest season – not the year they go on sale or are brought out of the cellar.

Typically, due to the quality of grapes, vintage wines can be cellared longer than Non-Vintage which are typically “Drink-Now” wines.

Vintages are typically more expensive than Non-Vintage because the juice quality is typically higher – although a bad harvest year can produce some duds compared to a mixed year blend that leans on wines from a good harvest.

At the ultra-fancy end of the vintage are the “Prestige Cuvee” styles – made using the very best of the years harvest. This is where Champagne becomes very expensive, with a few names you might recognise; Dom Perignon, Roederer Crystal, Veuve la Grande Dame, Comtes de Taittinger and Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque to name a few.

As for the word “Millesime” – it’s another term used in place of vintage – and used by houses like Mumm, etc.

Non Vintage or NV

The most common of all champagnes. So much so that the words Non-Vintage (or NV) don’t even make the label!

Non Vintage is primarily made by mixing wines from differing years to make a drinkable blend that ultimately makes it to your local bottleshop. The most average grapes from the year’s harvest (the bulk of them) that typically isn’t awesome enough to make quality Vintage wine is mixed with stored wines (good and bad) saved from previous years (known as “reserves”) to make the final mix.

Made in yearly batches, an NV wine will predominantly made from grapes of that year’s harvest – and this is known as its “base”. Some years are much better than others so a NV wine with a base from a good season can often be excellent value, and other years it may well be terrible – it depends on what the house can do!

Sugar Content

Brut

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Brut is a French word for “Dry” which reflects the sweetness style of Champagne. Dry typically meaning; not very sweet. This is typical of Chardonnay wines – the grape which Champagne most usually has in its blend.

Brut wines typically have 8g to 12g per litre sugar mixed in for a hint of sweetness (the addition of sugar is called “Dosage” in the local lingo) to make them more palatable. Extra Brut style has even less at around 4g of sugar per litre and Brut Nature (aka; Brut Zero) is the most extreme because absolutely no sugar is added. Extra and Nature are not overly prevalent in the market, but more and more houses are offering these varieties.

Sec and Demi-Sec

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A bit of a hark back to the original days of Champagne where they were plied with sugar to make them dessert wines; Sec and Demi-Sec are sweeter varieties of Champagne. Sec is slightly sweeter than Brut, and Demi-Sec (Half-Sweet) is sweeter again with around 45g per litre of sugar added (4-5 times more than Brut).

Doux

doux

Quite rare, Doux is the sweetest version of Champagne but it is plied with sugar syrup. Veuve Clicquot Rich is the most notable Doux Champagne with 60g of sugar per litre. It specifically made for mixing into cocktails – not for parading around obnoxiously trying to declare you are “Rich” because you can buy a bottle of VCP. This is mostly ironic because “Rich” is significantly different to standard VCP NV which is most famous for being consistently dry.

Grape Blends

Rose

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For most people this is captain obvious stuff right here; Rose = Pink Champagne. It’s pink because red wine is blended with white wines and thus the colour Rose is born. Red wine notes typically show through in these Champagnes.

Although champagne is typically made with two red grape varieties (Pinot Mernier and Pinot Noir) they are not red in colour because the grapes are pressed very gently and the skin doesn’t transfer colour to the juice. However, for Rose the red wines used to blend pink Champagne are specially made with exposure to the skins to get both the colour and flavour. Rose is more expensive because a good base Red wine from Champagne costs a mint.

Blanc de Blancs

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This is pure Chardonnay grape Champagne, reflecting the “White on White” translation of its name. “Chardy” is the only white grape used in Champagne production.

What does make Blanc de Blancs a great style, is that the wines are a meticulous blend of grapes from different areas within Champagne.

As the blend suggests, these Champagnes are quite dry and zesty.

Blanc de Noirs

BDN

Inverse to Blanc de Blancs, Blank de Noirs is only made from the “black” (read; red) grapes that make up a Champagne – Pinot Noir and Pinot Mernier. These are typically wider in fruit profile compared to Blanc de Blancs.

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