Champagne is a particularly diverse wine, produced in varieties far more diverse than the simple, basic definition of sparkling white wine. If you’re interested in learning the full breadth of Champagne’s diversity, you’ll need to acquaint yourself with the different types of Champagne and learn to differentiate between them when searching for them at your local wine shop.
Champagne or Sparkling Wine?
Under a provision of French law which has been in effect since 1908 and is recognized by numerous other countries, the specific term Champagne can only be applied to sparkling wine that originates from the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France.
All other “champagnes” must legally be labeled as “sparkling wine” or under another name that under no circumstances can be Champagne. Exceptions occur in the case of wines in the United States that were produced before 2006 and identify themselves by their place of origin–“California champagne,” for example.
Types of Champagne: Non-Vintage, Vintage and Prestige Cuvee
Many Champagnes are non-vintage, produced from a number of different individual wines that are blended together. Vintage Champagne results from a wine produced predominantly from one grape harvest. Only the best possible harvests can produce excellent vintage Champagnes, making this variety somewhat rare.
Another Champagne term related to harvest quality is cuvee de prestige. These Champagnes may be vintage or non-vintage, and in both instances represent the highest-quality Champagne a vineyard can produce.
Varietal Categories of Champagne
Only three grapes can generally be used for traditional Champagne–Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Noir and Meunier grapes are black, while Chardonnay is white.
These grapes may be mixed together or used on their own to produce Champagne. For example, Blanc de Blanc uses only white grapes, while Blanc de Noir uses only black. Rose Champagnes, which are pink in color, are made with black grapes that are macerated to extract the natural crimson color from the skins or through the addition of red wine to a Champagne blend.
Brut vs. Demi-Sec
Many Champagnes are categorized as brut, indicating a low sugar content. Extra brut or brut zero Champagnes have very little or absolutely no sugar. By comparison, demi-sec or sec champagnes are noticeably sweet, though not in the same way a fortified dessert wine like Port or sherry is sweet. This sweetness, usually noted on the Champagne bottle, is determined irrespective of the grapes used for Champagne.