Most of the Champagne produced today is “Non-vintage”, meaning that it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages. Most of the base will be from a single year vintage with producers blending anywhere from 10–15% (even as high as 40%) of wine from older vintages. If the conditions of a particular vintage are favorable, some producers will make a “Vintage” wine that must be composed of at least 85% of the grapes from vintage year. Under Champagne wine regulations, houses that make both vintage and non-vintage wines are allowed to use no more than 80% of the total vintage’s harvest for the production of vintage Champagne. This allows at least 20% of the harvest from each vintage to be reserved for use in non-vintage Champagne. This ensures a consistent style that consumers can expect from non-vintage Champagne that doesn’t alter too radically depending on the quality of the vintage. In less than ideal vintages, some producers will produce a wine from only that single vintage and still label it as non-vintage rather than as “vintage” since the wine will be of lesser quality and the producers have little desire to reserve the wine for future blending.
A cuvée de prestige is a proprietary blended wine (usually a Champagne) that is considered to be the top of a producer’s range. Famous examples include Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, and Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. Perhaps the original prestige cuvée was Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, launched in 1936 with the 1921 vintage. Until then, Champagne houses produced different cuvées of varying quality, but a top-of-the-range wine produced to the highest standards (and priced accordingly) was a new idea. In fact, Louis Roederer had been producing Cristal since 1876, but this was strictly for the private consumption of the Russian tsar. Cristal was made publicly available with the 1945 vintage. Then came Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne (first vintage 1952), and Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle ‘La Cuvée’ in 1960, a blend of three vintages (1952, 1953, and 1955). In the last three decades of the twentieth century, most Champagne houses followed these with their own prestige cuvées, often named after notable people with a link to that producer (Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame, the nickname of the widow of the house’s founder’s son; Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, named for the British prime minister; and Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Alexandra rosé, to name just three examples), and presented in non-standard bottle shapes (following Dom Pérignon’s lead with its eighteenth-century revival design).
Blanc de noirs
A French term (literally “white of blacks”) for a white wine produced entirely from black grapes. It is often encountered in Champagne, where a number of houses have followed the lead of Bollinger’s prestige cuvée Vieilles Vignes Françaises in introducing a cuvée made from either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two (these being the only two black grapes permitted within the Champagne AOC appellation). Although Bollinger’s wine is famed for its intense richness and full-bodied nature, this has more to do with the way the grapes are planted and when they are harvested than any intrinsic property of blanc de noirs Champagne, which is often little different from cuvées including a proportion of Chardonnay.
Blanc de blancs
A French term that means “white of whites”, and is used to designate Champagnes made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. The term is occasionally used in other sparkling wine-producing regions, usually to denote Chardonnay-only wines rather than any sparkling wine made from other white grape varieties. A famous example is Ruinart.
The rosé wines of Champagne are produced either by leaving the clear juice of black grapes to macerate on its skins for a brief time (known as the saigneé method) or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still Pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvee. Champagne is typically light in color even if it is produced with red grapes, because the juice is extracted from the grapes using a gentle process that minimizes the amount of time the juice spends in contact with the skins, which is what gives red wine its colour. Rosé Champagne is one of the few wines that allows the production of Rosé by the addition a small amount of red wine during blending. This ensures a predictable and reproducible colour, allowing a constant Rosé color from year-to-year
Due to the comparatively high risk and cost of using the saigneé or ‘skin contact only’ technique, there are very few producers who habitually do not add any additional red wine. These include Laurent Perrier, Louis Roederer, and Guy Charbaut.
The amount of sugar (dosage) added after the second fermentation and aging varies and will dictate the sweetness level of the Champagne.
* Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (less than 3 grams of sugar per litre)
* Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per litre)
* Brut (less than 12 grams of sugar per litre)
The most common is Brut, although throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century Champagne was generally much sweeter than it is today