Culinary Arts

Learn About Champagne: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

May 1, 2019 • 7 min read

A wedding toast, a baby’s birth, a ship’s christening: momentous occasions call for Champagne, the most celebratory of bubbly beverages. Champagne gains its distinctive yeasty, nutty aromas from a yearslong process of fermentation and aging that creates a sparkling wine of unparalleled complexity.

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What Is Champagne?

Champagne is a white or rosé sparkling wine made primarily from the grapes chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. It is named after the Champagne region of France, where it is made. Champagne tends to be more expensive than other sparkling wines, so it has become a symbol of luxury and celebration.

Not just any sparkling wine can be called Champagne. According to EU regulations, this wine must be made in the Champagne region of France using a specific winemaking technique called the méthode champenoise. Champagne winemakers are so proud of this method that they have gone to court to protect the name, and no wine made outside the region can be called Champagne.

What Is the History of Champagne Making?

Champagne is the closest winemaking region to Paris and has been home to grape vines since at least the 5th century. Historically, the wines from Champagne were uncarbonated, light reds made from pinot noir. These early red wines would often begin refermenting in the bottle, creating carbon dioxide buildup that would sometimes cause the bottles to explode. While winemakers in Champagne tried to avoid this hazard, the peculiar bubbly wine became popular with the royal court in the early 1700s. By the 19th century, winemakers figured out how to control the carbonation process to create the Champagne we drink today.

How Champagne Is Made: Méthode Champenoise

What sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines is the way Champagne is made, called méthode champenoise. This process can be roughly broken down into six steps:

  1. Primary fermentation: The first part of the Champagne production process is to make an uncarbonated, highly acidic, low alcohol wine. The grapes grown in Champagne, a northern region defined by a cold and dark climate, tend to be high in acid and low in sugar, perfect for this first step. Each Champagne house buys grapes from many small growers across the Champagne region and vinifies them separately.
  2. Assemblage: The cellarmaster blends the various wines from the previous step to create a wine that is consistent with the house’s style. Assemblage is the key to creating Champagne that tastes the same year after year so consumers know what to expect.
  3. Tirage and secondary fermentation: The blended wine is put into bottles with a little sugar and yeast (a solution called the liqueur de tirage) and left to ferment for a period of months. This secondary fermentation increases the wine’s alcohol content by about 1.5% and traps carbon dioxide in the wine. This carbon dioxide is released in the form of bubbles when you eventually pop open the bottle.
  4. Aging: The wine is left to age on its lees, the dead yeast from the fermentation process. This is what gives Champagne its unique toasty, brioche-like notes. The lees will be removed after months or years of aging. As they age, the bottles are occasionally rotated a few degrees until the lees collect in the neck of each bottle, making their removal easier.
  5. Disgorgement: Called degorgement is French, this is when the lees are removed from the neck of the bottle so the finished wine will be clear and free of sediment.
  6. Dosage: Dosage is a mix of still wine reserved from the first fermentation and sugar which is added to the Champagne before it is sealed with the traditional, mushroom-shaped cork.

What Grapes Are Used to Make Champagne?

The main grapes used in Champagne production are chardonnay, pinot noir, and, to a lesser extent, pinot meunier (another red grape). Small amounts of arbane, petit meslier, pinot blanc, and pinot gris are also planted in the region, which, while technically allowed in the Champagne blend, are rarely used. Some terms you may see on a label include:

  • Blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”): a white Champagne made from black-skinned grapes, usually pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
  • Blanc de blancs: a white Champagne made from white grapes, usually chardonnay.
  • Rosé: pink Champagne made by blending still red wine into a sparkling white wine base, an unusual technique which is only allowed in Champagne.

The Champagne Scale of Sweetness: What Is Doux and What Is Brut?

Each Champagne house has a flagship wine, which is usually brut or extra-brut in style and which refers to the wine’s sweetness. Sweet Champagnes were popular in the past, but tastes have shifted leading winemakers to introduce “no-dosage” Champagnes, which are bone dry.

The sweetness levels of Champagne are:

  • brut nature (no dosage)
  • extra-brut (wines with up to 6 grams of sugar per liter)
  • brut (6–12 grams of sugar per liter)
  • extra-sec or extra-dry (12–17 grams of sugar per liter)
  • sec or dry (17–32 grams of sugar per liter)
  • demi-sec (32–50 grams of sugar per liter)
  • doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per liter)

What does Grand Cru and Premier Cru Mean in Champagne?

Champagne is a blended wine that is defined by its winemaking process more than by the individual terroir of vineyard sites or the characteristics of specific vintages. The large champagne houses, many of which date to the 19th century, buy their grapes from many small growers from the dozens of small villages of the Champagne region. These houses blend wines from dozens of vineyards to create their flagship cuvées (blends). There are two quality classifications in Champagne, based on the quality of grapes grown in each village:

  • Premier cru: Champagnes labeled premier cru must be made entirely from grapes from the 43 Grand Cru-rated vineyards. Premier cru vineyards are lower quality than grand cru
  • Grand cru: Champagnes labeled grand cru must be made entirely from grapes from the 17 grand cru-rated vineyards.

What is a Vintage Champagne?

The majority of Champagne is non-vintage, meaning that it is made from a blend of wines from multiple vintages. This allows each Champagne house to keep the style of their popular flagship wines consistent year after year.

Many producers also make a more expensive prestige cuvée from their best grapes of the year. In years of exceptional vintages, wines made from best grapes will be released as limited, vintage-dated Champagnes. These can age in the bottle for years longer than non-vintage Champagne.

What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

Unlike Champagne, which is a legally-defined winemaking style, sparkling wine is a broad category and refers to wine carbonated many different ways. These include the Charmat method (used for prosecco), and forced carbonation for lower-end wines. Pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat for short, which is a lightly sparkling, slightly sweet wine, produced via the méthode ancestrale, which involves only one fermentation. Crémant is a sparkling wine made via the méthode Champenoise but from regions of France outside of Champagne (where the production method is then called méthode traditionnelle).

Some French Champagne producers own wineries in California to make Champagne-style sparklers, and the prices for these domestic wines can be comparable to their French brethren.

What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Cava?

Cava is a sparkling wine from Catalonia, Spain. Cava is produced using the méthode champenoise, but since it is not made in Champagne, it is classed as a méthode traditionelle wine. Cava is made from the local Catalonian grapes macabeu, parellada, and xarel-lo. Good cava has citrus and stonefruit aromas but lacks the toasty nuttiness of Champagne. High quality cava can be found for a fraction of the price of champagne.

What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Prosecco?

Prosecco, made in northern Italy from the glera grape, is sweeter and fruitier than champagne, and is usually carbonated via the charmat method, which reduces costs by using a tank for the second fermentation rather than individual bottles like champagne.

How to Pair and Serve Champagne

When buying Champagne, look for the sweetness indication and pick a style that suits your occasion. Zippy brut nature and extra-brut wines and good for drinking as an aperitif, while brut Champagne has a richer texture that pairs well with food.

Champagne’s palate-cleansing effervescence goes with almost any dish, but it is best paired with oysters, lobster, and with roast chicken or cream sauce-based dishes. Brut rosé is an excellent pairing with brunch dishes like eggs or smoked fish.

Sweet Champagne works well after dinner with cheese or paired with fruity desserts, as long as the wine matches the dessert in sweetness.

Serve Champagne ice cold in flutes to admire the bubbles, or in white wine glasses if you’d like to capture more of the aroma. Non-vintage champagne is ready to drink when it is bottled, so don’t hang on to it.

Learn more about wine tasting and pairing from James Suckling here.