Understanding What’s in Your Champagne Glass

All it takes is your senses to enjoy a great bottle of wine. But to appreciate a great bottle of wine, you need a bit more. You need to understand something about how certain kinds of grapes grown in a certain place or places became the liquid that was just poured into your glass. To consistently pick wine that you will like takes even more knowledge. You have to understand how some of the variations in farming and winemaking affect the flavor of the wine in your glass. This is true of red and white Burgundy, red Bordeaux, Zinfandel, California Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot noir … and it is true of Champagne.

Understanding Champagne means having certain information and knowing what it means. At its most basic, it means knowing the blend of grapes used, the percentage and character of the reserve wines, knowing how much time on the yeasts a cuvee had, and knowing the grams of sugar added per liter of wine in the dosage. In a more perfect world, it also means knowing where and how the grapes were grown and how the base wines were made and treated before the cuvee was made.

The BLEND seems pretty straight forward but is sometimes a question with a fuzzy answer. A grower might tell you that his Brut Tradition is 50% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Noir … and you’d have no reason to doubt him. A representative of Veuve Clicquot might tell you that his Brut NV is 50-55% Pinot Noir, 15-20% Pinot Meunier, and 28-33% Chardonnay … and, because of the ranges involved, you might think “he doesn’t really know what’s in that bottle.” And you’d be correct. The more red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) in a blend, the more red fruit notes are likely to come through in the wine. If a large portion of the red grapes are Pinot Meunier, the wine is likely the wine is to express a “biscuit” character. The more Chardonnay in the blend, the more citrus and tree fruit will express in the wine. In Champagne due both to soli and climate, red grapes grow better in some areas and Chardonnay grows better in other areas. The other grapes allowed to play in the Champagne pool are Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. All are “white” grapes although, if ripe enough and allowed to do so, Pinot Gris can produce a sort of coppery colored Rosé. Together that represent less than 1% of the total plantings in Champagne but seem to be drawing renewed interest from some of the more artesinal if the grower-producers. It is rare to find a Champagne containing one of more of these other varieties.

RESERVE WINES are wines kept in long-term storage by a Champagne house to blend with wines from the most recent vintage to add richness, depth, and a house style to the new cuvee. Reserve wines can be kept separate by vintage and variety but more often than not, an estate grower of Champagne will have several large wooden cuves (tanks) – often traditional German ovals – in which they maintain a “solera” of reserve wines. The wooden part is important because these tanks breath a bit and so allow a subtle interaction between the tank’s contents and the natural flora and fauna (yeasts, molds, and bacteria) peculiar to each cellar. The idea of the solera is equally important as each producer draws down anywhere from 10-to-50% of their reserve wines each year for use in their cuvees. What is taken from each cuve is replaced with wines from the current vintage which refresh the cuve but are also flavored by many vintages of wine added over the previous years.

Reserve wines are an important part of a Champagne house’s style as they most accurately reflect the terroir of the cellar as will a sort of institutional memory melding all the houses vintages. Reserve wines with their layered complexity, development, and depth also add richness, texture, and dimensionality to the cuvee. A Champagne house’s reserve wines are its identity and character. The percent used in a particular cuvee goes along way toward determining the flavor profile of the finished wine.

TIME ON THE YEASTS is typically measured in years or months and refers to the length of time between the bottling and start of the second (in-the-bottle) fermentation and the disgorgement. During this time, the wine ages and develops in its bottle in the cellars. With the bottles are on their sides, the spent yeasts from the bottle fermentation slowly form a sediment which continues to interact with the wine adding richness and toastiness and texture. The longer the wine is in contact with the yeast lees, the richer and more developed it is. The legal minimum for Champagne is 15 months but most quality producers go for at least 2 years while 5 or 6 years is not uncommon and over 20 years is not unheard of. As with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing. Some Champagnes don’t have the necessary raw materials to absorb extended lees contact any more than some white Burgundies have the stuffing to absorb aging in 100% new oak.

The DOSAGE refers to the amount of sugar that is added to the Champagne after riddling and disgorgement. The sugar is added to help balance the high levels of acidity often found in Champagne. An under-considered part of that dosage is the medium in which the sugar is dissolved. The dosage for Champagne could range from less than 0.2% (less than 2 grams-per-liter) to more than 5% (more than 50 grams-per-liter). While the EU defines the dosage range for “brut” as less than 15 grams-per-liter, most quality Brut Champagne is dosed at less than 10 grams-per-liter. The best Bruts from the top producers typically run around 6-8 grams-per-liter.

The liquid the sugar of the dosage is dissolved in is one of the great secrets of most Champagne houses. Some use champagne base wines, some use reserve wines, some use a special reserve they keep in smaller barrels, some use Champagne aged for years in bottles, some are reported to use a small amount of Cognac or even Calvados (apple brandy) or perhaps some combination of two or more of the above. Each house uses roughly the same medium for their dosage from year to year and so it (along with reserve wines) is an important part of a Champagne’s house style.

WHERE AND HOW THE GRAPES WERE GROWN can only come into play when the producer controls all of their grape production which includes farming practices ranging from commercial chemical based agriculture to organic farming and even biodynamics. If a Champagne house is buying grapes or wines to use in their cuvees, they likely know where the grapes came from but likely don’t “know” everything that was (or wasn’t) done in the vineyard. If a house are buying bottles champagnes sold sur lattes, they don’t even necessarily know where the grapes were grown or what was done in the winery. However, if a grower is making Champagne only from grapes he grew, he is in control of his farming practice and is more likely (if only due to self interest) to be using sustainable practices with less or even no chemicals and maybe leaning toward organic farming or even biodynamics (both very hard to achieve in Champagne). In all of Champagne, (with a very few exceptions) only grower Champagnes have the potential to reflect a specific terroir or even the general terroir of a single village. That special specificity of place is one of the values idiosyncrasies of grower Champagne.

HOW THE BASE WINES WERE MADE AND TREATED is where the wider world of wine making intersects with Champagne. How ripe were the grapes when picked? How were the grapes crushed and pressed? Was there skin contact with the juice? How many times was the press cycled? How much pressure was used? Was the juice settled before fermentation? Was the juice fermented in stainless steel tanks or wooden barrels or a combination of both or some other vessel? Was the wine allowed to go through malo-lactic fermentation? In what and for how long was the new wine stored/aged before being blended into the cuvee? Everyone of these question effects the fruit and richness and development and flavor and texture of the finished wine. If you prefer focus, look for stainless steel and no malo-lactic. If you prefer richness, look for barrel fermentation and aging with full malo-lactic.

Gather and combine the information above with some practical tasting experience and you can pretty well predict what a particular Champagne is going to taste like. If you’ve ever wondered why I include so much technical detail in my notes, now you know. I want you to understand why a wine you liked (or didn’t like) tasted like is did and I want you, from available information, to learn to predict (if you want to) what a wine is likely to show.