Not all bubbly is created equal, so while “champagne” is often used as a general term to describe all sparkling wine, true Champagne can only come from the small northern region of Champagne, France. Born largely by accident and, more accurately, climate, Champagne was considered to be a faulty wine hundreds of years ago when winemakers were attempting to make Burgundy-like still wines. But winemakers came to embrace the style, hence the namesake “Champagne method” that must be always be used, and in adapting to their region’s unique conditions, Champagne producers do things just a little bit differently than the rest of the world. By understanding these quirks, as well as the nuances of each area within Champagne, it becomes easy to see why Champagne holds a class of its own in the world of sparkling wine.
Looking for a detailed breakdown of all there is to know about Champagne? Keep scrolling beyond our Champagne map!
Grapes of Champagne
Historically, Champagne has been characterized by the fact that is blended in every sense: a blend of grapes, a blend of vintages and a blend of regions. While this is now not always the case, it is true that each of the three major grapes of Champagne contributes its own attributes to a wine; thus, by combining all three, a complete Champagne is created. The “big three” are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, and while all three grapes are grown throughout Champagne, each sub-region has a grape that it tends towards, generally.
As the only major white grape in Champagne, Chardonnay has quite the category to represent, and represent it does. It contributes elegance, ageability and bright citrus flavors to Champagne blends. While 100 percent Chardonnay, or blanc de blancs, Champagnes can be austere and acid-driven in youth, they are some of the most long-lived, evolving with layers upon layers of complexity.
Shy in youth Pinot Noir is not! Because Champagne is such a cold region, Pinot Noir needs to be planted in areas that allow it to ripen fully, but regardless, it holds the most vineyard area in Champagne. Structure, richness and body come from Pinot Noir, so Champagnes with a lot of Pinot Noir can be fairly broad and in your face.
Pinot Meunier (also simply known as Meunier) used to be the “red-headed stepchild” grape of Champagne, but thanks to hipster wine geeks, that reputation isn’t quite as true anymore. Pinot Meunier is known for its aromatics and approachable fruit, acting as a bit of flavor-packed seasoning in Champagne blends. While formerly a rarity, some producers now specialize in 100 percent Pinot Meunier Champagnes, bringing us to the new, easiest way to spot a somm in the wild: just look for the person buying the all-Meunier bottle.
The “big three” by far dominate the plantings of Champagne vineyards, but there are four other grapes approved for Champagne production: Petit Meslier, Arbane, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.
The heart of Champagne country has long centered around and between the two major cities of Reims and Epernay, in the sub-regions of Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, and Vallée de la Marne. Two other sub-regions, however, have been gaining in prominence, and all five regions have their own distinct personalities to contribute to the land of Champagne.
Montagne de Reims
Located along a ridge that starts south of the city of Reims and curves back around toward Epernay, the Montagne de Reims has some of the most diverse soil in Champagne, making it home to all three major grapes in the region. However, the Montagne de Reims is most known for Pinot Noir, and its many Grand Cru villages are the sources for ripe, high-quality grapes used in the wines of large Champagne houses.
Côte des Blancs
Nope, this region’s name isn’t a trick; the Côte des Blancs does indeed specialize in white grapes (a.k.a. Chardonnay). Running south from the city of Epernay, the soil of this east and southeast-facing slope (or “côte”) has a higher amount of limestone-rich chalk than elsewhere in Champagne. This creates grapes with high levels of acidity – a natural fit for Chardonnay and Blanc de Blancs bottlings.
Vallée de la Marne
Located along the Marne river west of Epernay, the Vallée de la Marne is Pinot Meunier country. Because this region is prone to frost and is more dominated by clay and sand rather than chalk, Pinot Meunier works best, as it buds late and ripens early. Some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are planted here as well. While not as “new” as the Côte de Sezanne and Aube, the Vallée de la Marne is still evolving in its identity outside of being merely the land of Meunier.
Côte de Sézanne
Located just south of the heart of Champagne production, the Côte de Sezanne is like a baby Côte des Blancs. While well-suited to Chardonnay, the Côte de Sezanne’s soil isn’t as dominated by chalk. Therefore, wines are slightly lower in acidity but slightly higher in aromatic intensity. The Côte de Sézanne falls somewhere in between the “big three” regions and the Aube, identity-wise; it doesn’t have classic status, but there isn’t as much buzz around innovation and artisanal production. Who knows – maybe in five years the Côte de Sézanne will turn out to be the sleeper of the region?
Looking at a map, it might not be initially apparent that the Aube is part of Champagne; it’s actually closer to Chablis than it is to Reims and Epernay! The Aube, and its sub-region of Côte des Bars, is an up-and-coming region close to the city of Troyes, known for its terroir-driven grower-producers who are pushing against the mold when it comes to traditionally-accepted vinification methods. Pinot Noir dominates the vineyards of the Aube, as this is a warmer region with less chalk in the soil.
Decoding the Champagne label
If it weren’t enough to understand the grapes and sub-regions of Champagne, then come all the (often confusing) terms on the label. Don’t all wines have vintages? Is a Blanc de Noirs a red or a white? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
Champagne house vs. Grower-producer (or, who is making my wine?)
Champagne house (“Négociant Manipulant”)
Unlike wineries in every other part of the world, historically the largest Champagne producers did not grow their own grapes or own their own vineyards. Instead, these Champagne houses would purchase all or most of their grapes or base wines from smaller grape-growers before blending, inducing secondary fermentation, aging and selling this wine under the house’s label. The majority of the region’s production comes from these Champagne houses, which tend to have larger-scale production, more international recognition (you probably recognize the names Veuve Clicquot and Moet & Chandon) and a focus on consistency from year to year. While the Champagne house concept isn’t super-trendy today, these houses were responsible for Champagne becoming as popular and colloquial as it is today.
Grower-producer (Récoltant Manipulant)
As the name suggests, grower-producers are producers that both grow grapes and produce Champagne from those grapes, like any other international winery. The rise of these grower-producers in the past five to 10 years has really fueled Champagne’s recent resurgence and a new diversity of styles and bottlings. Unlike the Champagne houses’ focus on consistency, grower-producers tend to highlight the differences, producing more single-vintage, single-vineyard, single-variety Champagnes. Unfortunately, many of these grower-producers are tiny, so their wines can be hard to find; in fact, only a tenth of all grower-producers export any wine at all!
Vintage vs. Non-vintage
Champagne is a bit of a world oddity in that the majority of its wines are not made from a single vintage — hence the term “non-vintage Champagne.” A Champagne producer almost never bottles the entirety of a single vintage and will instead hold some of this Champagne as “reserve wine.” Non-vintage (NV) Champagnes, therefore, typically consist of a base vintage blended with several reserve wines. The purpose of non-vintage Champagne is the ability to create a “house style” that can be replicated year after year, creating a consistent Champagne that loyalists can depend on regardless of vintage variation. While some producers decide to produce grand, ageable non-vintage Champagnes, the majority of these bottles are meant to be consumed young and fresh.
Vintage-dated Champagne is exactly what it sounds like: Champagne produced entirely from a single vintage and labeled as such. These bottles, almost always more expensive than their non-vintage counterparts, only account for a small percentage of Champagne production and are only produced in the years deemed best by each individual producer. Vintage Champagne also has longer aging requirements (three years in bottle versus 15 months for non-vintage), which also adds to this higher quality (and price) level; not only is the wine produced from a single, excellent vintage, but it also gains more richness and complexity from this “sur lie” aging.
While many cannot be labeled with a vintage because they do not follow the aforementioned aging requirements, many grower-producers these days are bottling more single-vintage Champagnes. Look for an “R” followed by two numbers on the back of the bottle; this unofficially indicates the vintage.
Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and Rosé
Blanc de Blancs
Blanc de blancs literally translates to “white from whites,” or Champagne made only from white grapes. Since Chardonnay is the only major white grape grown in Champagne, blanc de blancs wines are almost always 100 percent Chardonnay. While steely, citrus-driven and laser-sharp in youth, blanc de blancs Champagnes tend to be some of the most long-lived, developing pillowy, honeyed richness with age.
Blanc de Noirs
Blanc de noirs, or “white from black,” is the opposite of blanc de blancs: a white Champagne made from the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (either blended together or from a single grape). Making white wine from red grapes may not seem to make much sense at first, the key is in the vinification: since pigment is held in grape skins, the juice is pressed off the skins right away. Still, blanc de noirs Champagnes can have a silver or even rose-gold color, due to the slight skin contact. These Champagnes tend to be rich and powerful in youth, though approachable because of their often red-fruited aromas and flavors.
With the rise of the popularity of rosé has come the rise in popularity of rosé Champagne. Interestingly, Champagne is one of the only regions in the world where rosé may be made by blending red and white base wine. Some producers do choose to make rosé Champagne in the saignée method, leaving the juice in contact with the grape’s skins for an extended period of time.
Other Champagne terms
Dosage is a mixture of sugar syrup and wine that is added to a Champagne right before permanently corking it for sale. While no- or low-dosage Champagnes are uber-trendy these days, the purpose of dosage is to balance acidity, so every Champagne needs something different. The wine is then labeled with a sweetness level, ranging from bone dry (Brut Nature and Extra Brut) to dry (Brut) to off-dry and sweet (Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux).
Tête de Cuvée
More popular among Champagne houses than grower-producers, a tête de cuvée (or prestige cuvée) is the top Champagne that a producer will make. It is usually (but not always) vintage-dated, aged for an extended period of time and made only in the best years. The price matches the prestige of this cuvée, hence why most of us aren’t popping bottles of Dom Pérignon and Cristal on a daily basis.