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How to Choose Champagne

We’ve all been there… scrolling through reams of Champagne thumbnails (or should that be ‘Reims’) and their seemingly indistinguishable descriptions, paralysed by indecision.

Worry not! In this comprehensive guide, Champagne expert, Peter Crawford, gets to the coeur de cuvee to give you the lowdown on everything from labels to sugar, helping you separate the Grand Crus from the Grand Crud and the Blancs from the Plonks, saving you time, money and ensuring you find the most sumptuous Champagne around…

Label design

Getting to understand the label is the key to knowing what’s going on inside the bottle. Thankfully, producers today are offering up more information than ever. Of course, it does make it a little more challenging to understand, but once you are able to decipher what is written it will bring you so much more enjoyment and help you choose the right Champagne for your tastes.

On most labels you will find the name of the producer on the front label, along with the name of the cuvee. Unfortunately, rarely will either piece of information be indicative of what is actually inside the bottle! You will also be given information about the location of the producer. Again, sadly, this does not mean that the wine in the bottle is from that village! But…if the wine is labelled Grand Cru then it must be from one of the 17 Grand Cru villages and will usually be labelled with the village name.

You will usually find two other bits of information on the front of the label; a suggestion of the blend and the sugar content. The former will be labelled with any of the following:

Blanc de Blancs – a term to refer to pure Chardonnay, although it is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to Pinot Blanc too.

Blanc de Noirs a term used to refer to a pure Pinot Noir or Meunier or blend of the two (again some of the other grape varieties find their way in too).

Alternatively it will be labelled… Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Meunier (or four other grape varieties discussed below). As there is no registered term for a ‘blend’, producers tend to use their own terms or name.

The last bit of information on the label refers to the sugar level. You will commonly see the words; Brut, Extra Brut, Demi Sec, and more often these days Brut Nature. These terms are discussed later.

The back of the label is where more pertinent information can be found. Thanks to ever increasing demands from wine geeks, the back label is now often a place for a plethora of information, from bottling date to specific sugar levels and everything in between. Here are some keys terms that are worth getting to grips with:

Mise en bouteille or Tirage – the date the wine went into the bottle. This can be used to determine the vintage or base vintage of the wine (although some wines are made from a perpetual reserve and thus don't follow this process – Jean Velut for instance).

Dégorge The date the sediment was removed and the final cork was added to the bottle.

Dosage – The specific amount of sugar added to the bottle. Always referred to in grams per litre.

Cepage – The grape or blend that makes up the wine.

Base or Millesime de Base – The youngest wine in the bottle.

Vins de Reserve – The percentage of wine that is from vintages other than the base vintage.

Barriques or Sous bois – The percentage of wine that was vinified and aged in oak barrels.

Comite Champagne registration number – This is one of the key things to look for. It’s presented as two letters followed by a series of numbers. The two letters represent how the wine was made: 

RM (Recoltant Manipulant) is a wine made by a winemaker from his own vineyards.
NM (Negociant Manipulant) is a wine made by a winemaker either from his own vineyards or from grapes/juice that he/she buys in. Most Maisons that you see on the shelves of wineshops and supermarkets are NM.
CM (Cooperative Manipulant) is a wine made from a group of winemakers (cooperative) who label their wines together
RC (Recoltant Manipulant) is a wine made by the cooperative but labelled by a grower.
ND (Negociant distributeur) is a wine made by a winemaker but with a distributor’s label on it.
SR (Societe de recoltants) is a wine made together by a group of growers.
MA (Marque d’Achetuer) is a wine marketed by a third party. You see many of these on the supermarket shelves.

Here at Sip we only work with RM and small NM.

Grand Cru

A term you’ll no doubt be familiar with but, what does it mean? And more importantly, does it ensure better Champagne? 

Whilst it has historical significance, a label of Grand Cru doesn't quite carry the weight that it used to. This is down to a number of factors but, primarily, a wonderful increase in winemaking ability and quality throughout the region. That said, some of the Grand Cru villages are still truly world class and shouldn't be forgotten (these are ‘starred’ below)

*Ambonnay – Pinot Noir. A wonderful village creating deep, concentrated Pinots. Coming soon to Sip: Pernet & Pernet

*Avize – Chardonnay. One of our favourites, producing rich Chardonnays with notes of apricot. Producers we work with: Pierre Calot

Ay – Pinot Noir. One of the most important villages in the whole region creating beautiful Pinot Noir which age wonderfully. Coming soon to Sip: Christian Gosset

Beaumont sur Vesle – Pinot Noir. Coming soon to Sip: Paul Sadi

*Bouzy – Pinot Noir. A big round style of Pinot Noir and home to Bouzy Rouge, a red wine from Champagne. Producers we work with: Georges Remy & Maurice Vesselle

*Chouilly – Chardonnay. Crisp, fresh and long lived Chardonnay which develop into buttery wonders with age. Producers we work with: Pierre Legras & Legras & Haas 

*Cramant – Chardonnay. One of our favourite Chardonnays. Mineral, chalky, with white flowers and fruit. Producers we work with: Pertois Lebrun. Coming soon to Sip: Bonnaire & Lilbert 

Louvois – Pinot Noir. A commune that has now merged with Val de Livre. A lovely rich and round style of Pinot. Coming soon to Sip: Guy Mea

Mailly Champagne – Pinot Noir. One of the richest styles of Pinot out there. Fleshy, rich and round style. Most of the grapes go into the cooperative. Coming soon to Sip: Jules Brochet

*Le Mesnil sur Oger – Chardonnay. One of the stand out villages in Chardonnay and the last, ironically, to receive its Grand Cru status in 1985. Crisp, linear, powerful and long aged wines.

Oger – Chardonnay. Just up the road from Mesnil but creating a more fleshy, round style of Chardonnay. Producers we work with: Domaine Vincey

Puisieulx – Chardonnay. A historical village with very few vineyards these days. Only a handful of producers in the region elaborate a pure Puisieulx.

Sillery – Chardonnay. Again a historical village with very little wine made. That said they can be exotic and beautiful.

Tours sur Marne – Pinot Noir. A fantastic village that is home to a fleshy, rich Pinot Noir. 

*Verzenay – Pinot Noir. Fruity, rich and round Pinot Noir with a focus on Blueberry. Producers we work with: Didier Herbert

*Verzy – Pinot Noir. Sitting just down the road from Verzenay, Verzy creates beautiful Pinot with more focus and purity. Producers we work with: Adrien Renoir & Penet Chardonnet

Our recommendation for amazing villages that are not Grand Cru

Villers Marmery – Chardonnay. A magical expression of Chardonnay from the hills of the Montagne de Reims (famed for it's Pinot Noir). Producers we work with: Henriet Bazin & A Margaine

Ecueil – Pinot Noir. A village that has come into its own in the last decade with incredible producers such as Frederic Savart and Nicolas Maillart. Nipping at his heels are a number of amazing, brand new producers. Producers we work with: Louis Brochet

Mareuil sur Ay – Pinot Noir. A village with incredible history that has, in the last few decades, started to come into its own with amazing wines. Producers we work with: Laurent Benard

Rilly la Montagne – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Producers we work with: Didier Herbert

Damery – Meunier.  Beautiful grapes with ample richness and depth. Producers we work with: Caillez-Lemaire 

Fleury la Riviere – Meunier.  A village that shows real class and ability to age. Producers we work with: Demiere

Villers aux Noeuds – Pinot Noir. Just up the road from Ecueil and the wines are similarly stand-out. Producers we work with: Gaspard Brochet

Montgueux – Chardonnay. A magical village for crisp, mineral and dry Chardonnay. Producers we work with: Jean Velut & Beaugrand 

Chamery - All three! A village that has shown an explosion of fabulous producers creating brilliantly complex wines using all three grapes. Producers we work with: Perseval-Farg, Bertrand Delespierre & Thomas Perseval

Sugar

Sugar in Champagne is all about balance. It is the essence of any Champagne you drink and key to its life as well. Sugar is important as it not only works to create a balance for the fruit and acidity that you find in the wine but, crucially, it acts as a block against oxygen which can prematurely age a wine. 

Sugar is, however, a contentious issue in Champagne at present and, unusually it’s not to do with expanding waist lines, but rising temperatures. Yes, global warming has seen the mercury creeping ever higher in the valleys of Champagne, which means grapes are ripening faster and chemical analysis shows a decrease in acidity. This reduction in acidity means that there is less need for external sugars. Put simply, the warmer it gets the less sugar we need to balance the wines.

Below are the common descriptions to denote sugar content and the dosage:

Brut Nature/Zero Dosage/non-dose/Brut zero – No additional sugar is added (although legally up to 3 g/ltr can be added) after disgorgement. It is important to remember that all wines possess an amount of residual sugar as well and, as such, your Champagne can still taste slightly sweet.

Extra Brut – Between 0-6 g/ltr are added to make this now increasingly popular style. Modern wine making skill and the increasing impact of global warming has meant a shift in sugar use, reducing the need for higher levels of sugar to bring balance to wines. It is important also to remember that however discerning one's palate is, it is nearly impossible to differentiate at the very low levels of sugar, between 0-4 g/ltr.

Brut – Still the most popular choice for Champagne producers across the region. Between 0-12 g/ltr.

Extra Dry – Bizarrely sweeter than Brut with between 12-17 g/ltr.  A lovely sweet spot for those who like a little touch of sugar in their tea!

Sec – The word Sec means dry but in modern terms these wines can feel all but dry. Between 17-32 g/ltr of sugar can be added.

Demi Sec – The most traditional level of sugar for “sweet” Champagnes. 32-50 g/ltr.

Doux – The highest level of sugar with 50 g/ltr or more added!  Very few wines hit this level. 

Grape Variety

There are three main grape varieties used in ChampagneChardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier – each accounting for roughly a third of the vines planted. As such, the most common expression of a Champagne will be a blend of these three grapes.

Chardonnay – The most noble of noble grapes in Champagne (although Pinot fans will dispute this!). It has recently overtaken Meunier to become the second most planted grape in the region, creating rich, structured wines with a racy edge. When worked with correctly Chardonnay will age forever.

Pinot Noir The most planted grape variety in the region. The wines show elegance and a round body. The nose can be delightfully perfumed. These magical wines develop an amazing depth with age.

Meunier – Often viewed as the lesser of the three grapes in the region, Meunier has seen a real rise in popularity in the last decade with a number of fabulous cuvées now being made with either 100% Meunier or a blend. They create rich and fruity wines that age beautifully when made well.

The following varieties are grown in tiny numbers; less the 0.3% of the total number of vines grown, which equates to approximately 100 hectares in total, compared with approximately 10-13,000 hectares for each of the big three!

Pinot Blanc – The first step into the rarer grapes. A wonderfully floral and aromatic grape. A few producers have created some wonderful Champagne solely from this variety.

Arbanne – Can be found dotted around the region. It creates small bunches of mid to late harvest grapes. It shows a racy, aromatic profile.

Petit Meslier – Known for its acidity, this grape is likely to become more and more popular as it helps balance the loss of acidity that is occurring throughout the region due to global warming.  The wine can be crisp, racy, green and acidic (in a good way!).

Fromenteau – Several hundred years ago this represented over 50% of the total plantation, but when the winemakers started to see the success that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was having in Burgundy they replaced pretty much all of them. It is a grape variety that ripens early and brings richness and depth to a wine.

If you want a chance to try a Champagne with all 7 grape varieties then you can’t pick better than the magical Les 7 from Aurelien Laherte!

Vintage Champagne

Champagne has been a region that has championed the art of blending both grapes and vintages for generations. As such, the prestige of a single vintage hasn’t always been as important as it is in other wine regions. Having said that, there are still some exceptional vintages out there, so it is good to have a brief understanding of what each vintage year can bring to a wine. It’s important to note that, by law, a Champagne cannot be sold as vintage unless it has seen at least 3 years of lees contact. As such the youngest wines on the market today will never be less than 3.5 years old (the extra time is for the vinification and disgorgement process). It is more likely, however, that the releases will be 4-5 years minimum and many will be much older!

Here’s a rundown of vintages over the past 40 years…

2020 – A year that looked almost too good to be true! Especially after the successes of 2019 and ‘18. The grape ‘must’ (juice before fermentation) came off with good potential alcohol but showed low acidity, high pH and good maturity. Time will tell what ends up happening but we suspect this will be a good vintage. 4 star.
2019 – A stunning vintage that showed supremely well for most grapes but especially Pinot Noir. 5 star
2018 – What looked like a classic has since unfolded to be ‘almost a classic’ and a welcome vintage after the tragic ‘17. It was a tricky growing season with a wet winter, early budding followed by mildew, followed by an extremely hot summer (second only to 2003). Sugar levels were high, acidity levels were medium to low. 4 star.
2017 – A tragic year with lots of extreme events. A cold winter and warm spring led to a very early bud break. Then came severe frosts, followed by a heat wave which caused a huge loss of grapes. Much of what remained was killed off by hail storms just before harvest. To add insult to injury heavy rain was then endured during the harvest itself. Some Chardonnays were okay. 1 star.
2016 – A mild winter led to a mild spring but then snow and frost hit late. Rainfall followed throughout May and June. The rest of the summer was warm and sunny. Quality is good but not great. 3 star.
2015 – A cold winter gave way to variable weather throughout budding. The summer built up nicely with perfect weather conditions lining up for picking in September. The wines show fantastic structure although the level of acidity is indeed very low. 4/5 star.
2014 – A mild to moderate winter continued onto a mild April. The summer was cool and wet but eventually opened out to a dry harvest. There were plenty of grapes but the quality was variable at best. 2 star.
2013 – A long, cold winter and mild spring meant flowering didn’t occur until quite late. Some hail hit in late July, but a good level of heat during the summer saved things and produced a late harvest. Excellent Chardonnay. 4 star.
2012 – A reasonable winter and then a brutal frost in April hit nearly 40% of the vineyards. Very little sunshine during flowering and then very little rainfall through summer ensured tiny yields with high sugar levels and stunning wines that are good to great. 4/5 star.
2011 – A very challenging year. A warm spring followed by a wet, cool summer with hail caused dilution and rot. The wines can show an odd vegetal note especially the Chardonnays. 2 star.
2010 – Early frosts and a cool summer. Rains leading up to harvest caused significant rot. Wine’s display high sugar levels and acidity. Very few makers produced a vintage but some have shown good wines. 2/3 star.
2009 – A dry winter led to showers in spring. Storms in July were unique as the rest of summer was dry and warm, along with the harvest. Good maturity and the wines showed low acidity. 3 star.
2008 – A very cold winter and spring, with some frosts, gave way to a warm May. The harvest was settled and showed fabulous grapes, moderate yields, good concentration and fruit. Acidity levels are high. A great vintage and one that will live on for decades due to the acidity. 5 star.
2007 – Unusually high temperatures in spring saw an early flowering. Some hail and rain in summer caused rot and general damage. Low fruit maturity has limited the production of vintages but some Chardonnay driven wines can be lovely. 3 star.
2006 – Cold winter with excellent flowering period and a hot and dry summer. Sadly, rain just prior to harvest created some mildew and botrytis issues. Low acidity wines with average maturity. 2/3 star.  
2005 – A cold, dry winter with bud break in April during average temperatures. The summer was not especially hot and there was some significant rain in July that caused some rot which can be examined on a number of wines. Harvest was in perfect conditions. The wines are of average quality. 3 star.
2004 – Low rainfall in winter and spring led to limited damage in the vines. Crop thinning was required. August was extremely wet and sunshine returned for harvest in September resulting in a huge yield with good quality grapes. Nicely balanced and rounded wines. 4 star.
2003 – A cold winter followed by a warm bud break and then frosts. A record breaking June, with the hottest ever temperature, was followed by an extremely hot July and August. Picking started in late August (a trend that is now not unusual but it was the earliest since 1822). A hugely ripe year with low acidity. Some wines that have received longer lees ageing have showed well. 2/3 star
2002 – A brilliant dry and warm vintage. There was some rain before harvest but then perfect weather prevailed throughout picking. Excellent ripening for Pinot and Chardonnay. A fantastic vintage that will show brilliantly with time. 5 star.
Other great vintages:
1996 – A stunning vintage after a summer of beautiful weather. Wines can still show a bracing acidity, along with high levels of ripness but once the acidity has settled...sometime...they will be excellent! 5 star.
1995 – Excellent quality vintage especially for Chardonnay. Incredibly balanced and beautiful wines. 5 star.
1990 – Almost perfect conditions throughout, albeit with frost in April. The wines have just started to reach their peak, although some have since gone over the hill. 4/5 star.
1988 – One of the absolute classics, and sadly, one of the last of the great pre global warming vintages. A mild spring led to a mild to moderate summer. Some rain came in mid September but the quality gained in the grapes was second to none. The wines can be some of the finest out there with ample acidity and epic concentration. 5 star.
1982 – Perfect conditions throughout created a rich and brilliant vintage. The wines are still holding well. 5 star.
1979 – An aggressive winter led to a cool spring but with severe frosts in May, followed by good sunshine through summer. One of the truly great vintages with amazing balance and longevity. Indeed, they still taste fresh to this day! 5 star.

And if you wanted to look even further back, try these…
1976, 1971, 1970, 1969, 1966, 1964, 1962, 1961, 1959, 1955, 1952, 1949, 1947, 1937, 1934, 1929, 1928, 1926, 1921, 1919, 1918, 1914, 1911, 1909, 1904, 1900, 1892

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