What Is Champagne?

Champagne Flutes

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Champagne is a well-loved variety of sparkling white wine produced according to specific rules in the Champagne region of ​France. Synonymous with celebration, champagne is typically produced from a few specific varieties of grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. With effervescent flavors of citrus, almond, and apple, champagne comes in varying levels of sweetness and has a moderate amount of alcohol.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Champagne
  • Origin: Champagne, France
  • Sweetness: Sweet to very dry
  • Color: Pale gold to pink
  • ABV: 11–13%

Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine

Most countries restrict the use of the term champagne to sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France. In addition to location-based regulations, champagnes are produced according to a number of specifications. In Europe, this is enforced by the European Union under the Protected Designation of Origin status. Because of this, sparkling wines from other countries are sold under other names such as prosecco or spumante (Italy), cava (Spain), and sekt (Germany and Austria).

Champagnes are renowned for their balanced flavor and texture. While sparkling wines can have similar characteristics for a fraction of the price, buying champagne from a proven champagne house guarantees quality.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Champagne often exhibits aromas like toast, raw almonds, and lemon peel. Bright citrus and apple flavors marry with toasty and nutty flavors for a refreshing experience. A hint of cream in the flavor and the texture is sometimes found on the palate. Champagne is high in acidity, balanced by its light body and delicate bubbles. Most are white wines and therefore low in tannins.

Depending on how much sugar (dosage) is added for the secondary fermentation, champagne will have varying levels of sweetness. The sugar and sweetness level is indicated by the terminology on the label:

  • Brut Nature: Little or no sugar is added making it almost bone dry. Wines with this label may have up to three grams of sugar added per liter.
  • Extra Brut: Slightly sweeter, this wine may have up to six grams of sugar added per liter. It is still very dry on the palate.
  • Brut: Typically still considered fairly dry champagne, brut may contain up to 12 grams of sugar per liter. Brut is the most popular type of champagne.
  • Extra Dry, Extra Sec, Extra Seco: Wines that bear this label are sweeter than brut and contain between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Dry, Sec, Seco: Although it is labeled as “dry,” seco is considerably sweeter than brut and may contain between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Demi-Sec, Demi-Seco: On the sweeter end of the champagne spectrum, demi-sec contains between 32 to 50 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Doux, Sweet, Dulce: The sweetest of champagnes, bottles labeled with any of these three names contain 50 or more grams of sugar per liter.

Champagne can also be classified based on the grapes used:

  • Blanc de Blanc: This champagne is made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes.
  • Blanc de Noirs: One hundred percent "black" wine grapes like pinot noir and/or pinot meunier are used to make this champagne.
  • Rosé: Occasionally made using skin-contact, rosé champagne is more commonly made by adding a small amount of red wine.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Champagne can only be labeled as such if it is made in the Champagne region of France—with one exception. American wine producers that used the title “champagne” prior to 2006 are allowed to continue its use, provided it is accompanied by the listing of the wine’s actual origin. Most other domestic sparkling wines are simply labeled as “sparkling wine.”

Champagne is made using a mix of grapes, typically chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, although a few other grapes are allowed. The grapes can be grown in a few regions of France, and thrive in different soil and weather conditions. While many wines emphasize "terroir," or the characteristics imparted on the wine by the location, champagne is different. The emphasis is on the champagne house, which expertly blends different grapes to create a consistent, balanced wine.

To produce champagne’s unique bubbles, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation process within the bottle. Many champagnes are still aged in caves and are turned periodically. The sparkling wine must be aged for at least 15 months but many are aged for three years or more.

Food Pairings

Champagne is often served as a toasting wine or used in cocktails, but it also pairs well with a range of foods. Serve a dry bottle with sophisticated appetizers like oysters and blinis, or simpler snack foods like deviled eggs and shrimp cocktail. Light seafood and chicken dishes pair nicely, but so does white pizza and fried chicken. Sweet champagnes are best for the end of the meal and go well with fresh berries and soft cheeses.

Although the champagne flute is an elegant vessel, many experts find it to be an imperfect way to serve the bubbly stuff. A white wine glass is best for allowing the aromas to fully open, especially if you're pouring and drinking right away. A classy coup glass is also a good option.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Champagne is widely available in supermarkets, liquor stores, wine shops, and in restaurants. Specific bottles can be ordered from shops or online. If you can't find a champagne you like, take home a dry prosecco or cava.

  • Bollinger
  • Pommery
  • Laurent-Perrier
  • Veuve Clicquot
  • Taittinger
  • Deutz
  • Mumm
  • Perrier-Jouët
  • Devavry
  • Krug