There are lots of different types of Champagne out there, and it can be confusing, but it really isn’t. First let’s get a couple things out front.
1) Champagne is from Champagne, France. There are some excellent yet different tasting sparkling wines from other regions of the world, and much of what we say applies to them also, but we are talking specifically about Champagne here.
2) Different Champagne producers have very different styles and tastes. There is a sea of stuff to try and enjoy and we all different tastes and preferences.
So, first we’ll talk about all this vintage stuff, then about grapes since some Champagnes use only some of the 3 main allowed grapes, and last, a wee bit on sweetness in Champagne and all this “brut” “extra brut” are so forth nonsense. We have separate articles that go into more detail on most of these distinctions too.
Rule #1 – if you like it, it’s good! Period – or I guess that’s an exclamation mark!
Now most Champagne is Non Vintage or NV. It is blended from wines from a bunch of different growing seasons and the goal is to produce a consistently good product from year to year. For example, Moet and Chandon White Star always tastes the same. NV Champagnes are the least expensive and never say NV or Non Vintage on the bottle. These are good daily or weekly drinkers, and damn good wines!
Vintage Champagnes are produced from the grapes from one harvest only, and only during exceptional growing years when the grapes harvest is wonderful. Vintage Champagne will taste different every year it is produced. It will also have some characteristics of the vintage, or growing season. For example Bollinger Grand Annee always tastes like Bollinger Grand Annee, but the 1996 and 1997 are much different. I get a steely, masculine, and creamy impression from the 1996 but more feminine, citrusy, and apple tastes from the 1997. 1996 is a bigger and more concentrated vintage where 1997 is a lesser concentrated and flavorful vintage so this makes sense. Vintage Champagnes cost more than NV Champagnes.
At the top of the quality pyramid are Prestige Cuvees, also called Tete de Cuvees, Champagne producers best. These are almost always vintage wines, and famous examples include Moet and Chandon Dom Perignon, Reoderer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, and Vintage Krug. They are expensive, age extremely well usually improving and gaining grace and complexity, and are of course much more expensive. In general we are talking over a hundred dollars a bottle up to several hundreds, and much more in a restaurant, club or bar.
Most Champagnes are made from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the three main grape varieties allowed in Champagne (there are a very few vines of obscure “ancient varieties” still growing in Champagne as well). Some Champagnes however use only some of these main three grape varieties.
Blanc de blancs Champages are made entirely of Chardonnay, and Blanc de noirs are made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier only. Blanc de blancs are common and most make great aperitif and appetizer wines, although some are massive and can handle main courses well. Blanc de noir wines are big and powerful wines but pretty rare.
Another variation is Rose Champagne, also called Pink Champagne by some. These do NOT resemble easy quaffing rose wines from the South of France like Tavel and others nor sickly sweet and generally gross (unless perhaps you are a 15 year old trying to get drunk) roses or “blush” wines from other areas like the US. Yes some people like these, but I doubt they’ll be reading this article.
Rose Champagne is a powerful and very dry wine, and Roses are among the best Champagnes made! They pair well with bigger foods, are pretty, and quite romantic as well. Rose Champagne tends to be more expensive.
Now we can have all kinds of variations of the above, for example non vintage rose, vintage rose, prestige cuvee rose, non vintage blanc de blancs, vintage blanc de noirs, and much more.
Now what do words like “Brut” mean when applied to Champagne? When Champagne is made, the final step is adding some cane sugar, also known as dosage, to the bottle right before it is corked. It is added dissolved in a small amount of wine. The amount of sugar varies widely, and the numbers used represent grams of dosage (sugar) per liter of wine.
First of all, Champagne was a traditionally sweet
beverage, but has evolved with modern tastes.
Most Champagnes are “Brut” which means that up to 15 grams of dosage are added, and these range from totally dry to pretty dry. Brut Champagnes are well over 90% of Champagnes produced. Despite the added sugar they taste dry because the wine has a high level of acidity.
“Extra Brut” also known as “Ultra Brut” and “Brut Sauvage” are savagely dry Champagnes and basically they barely exist. Most are just too dry and austere, some would say harsh, when young and although they were briefly popular in the 80s they scarcely exist now. Ayala’s Brut Nature is one example.
“Extra Sec” or “Extra Dry” primarily exists in the US market. The biggest example is Moet and Chandons White Star (which incidentally I love), but others make them as well. They have from 12 to 20 grams of dosage added, meaning that “Extra Dry” is usually sweeter than “Brut” – remember what matters is whether you like it, not bizarre label words!
“Sec” is semi-dry or semi-sweet depending on how you look at it, and have from 17 to 35 grams of dosage. I’ve never seen one.
“Demi-sec” is sweet and has 35 to 50 grams of dosage, Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, Moet Chandon Nectar Imperial, and Louis Roederer Carte Blanche are all good examples, but a very small percentage of Champagnes made are demi-sec.
Remember most Champagnes were sweet originally? Well “Doux” Champagnes are sweeter than demi-sec ones, contain over 50 grams of dosage, and as of today no one makes them anymore.
So, types of Champagnes? There are many, but most are Non Vintage Bruts.