While it’s tempting to think that all Champagnes are more or less similar in character, Champagne is actually made in a wide variety of styles. To begin with, Champagne is made from three different grape varieties—chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier—and these can be blended in any proportion. There are also stylistic differences that vary from house to house. But also, there are a number of basic categories of Champagne that are useful to know.
Non-Vintage Brut Most Champagne is blended from multiple vintages, and a house’s non-vintage brut is the foundation of its portfolio. These can be as different from one another as non-sparkling wines are, and in general, they are designed to represent the individual styles of their respective houses. There are dozens of good examples available on the market, but some high-quality examples that are widely distributed include Louis Roederer’s Brut Premier, Philipponnat’s Royale Réserve and Bollinger’s Spécial Cuvée. If you’re adventurous, seek out wines from smaller producers like Chartogne-Taillet, Bérèche et Fils or José Michel. (Note that there are also some non-vintage wines such as Krug’s Grande Cuvée, Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle or Alfred Gratien’s Cuvée Paradis that are not entry-level wines, but luxury cuvées, made of complex and intricate blends. These are easily differentiated from basic non-vintage Champagnes by their price tags, should there be any doubt.)
Vintage-Dated Champagne In addition to their non-vintage Champagnes, virtually all houses also make Champagnes that come entirely from a single year, and these usually indicate the vintage on the label. These wines are made from a special selection of grapes and typically cost a bit more, but they also generally demonstrate an increase in quality. Most houses make a standard vintage wine as well as a prestige cuvée, a top-of-the-line Champagne that represents the pinnacle of what the house can achieve (and that carries a correspondingly high price tag to match), and these are usually also vintage-dated. This category includes famous names like Cristal, Dom Pérignon and La Grande Dame, and as expected, the wines are usually superb.
Blanc de Blancs A Blanc de Blancs Champagne is one made entirely from chardonnay, the white grape of the Champagne region. Chardonnay produces fresh, lively Champagnes of notable finesse, suitable for serving as aperitifs or alongside lighter dishes. Good examples of blanc de blancs include those from Delamotte, Ruinart and Pol Roger; some smaller producers that make blanc de blancs worth seeking out are Agrapart, Pierre Gimonnet and Jacques Lassaigne. Among luxury cuvées, prominent examples include Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Salon.
Blanc de Noirs If Blanc de Blancs means Champagne made entirely from white grapes, Blanc de Noirs indicates a Champagne made exclusively from red grapes, which in Champagne means pinot noir, pinot meunier or a combination of both. However, the term Blanc de Noirs is not often seen on labels, even when the wine fits the criteria. Champagnes made in this style tend to emphasize strong notes of red fruits, not unlike a non-sparkling red wine, and they can also often pair well with any foods that you might drink a light red wine with. Some good examples include Benoit Lahaye’s Brut Prestige, Cédric Bouchard’s Les Ursules or Laherte’s Les Vignes d’Autrefois (a vintage-dated Champagne made entirely from pinot meunier). If you’re feeling flush, some highly exclusive Champagnes made entirely from pinot noir include Billecart-Salmon’s Clos St-Hilaire, Jacques Selosse’s La Côte Faron and Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay.
Rosé Rosé Champagne has become increasingly fashionable over the past decade, and the quality of the wines made today is better than ever. Rosé Champagne is typically created by blending a little bit of red wine into a white Champagne, giving it some color and aroma, although a few rosés are made simply by macerating the grapes on their skins, as with red wine. A common perception is that rosé Champagne is sweet, although this is not necessarily the case, and most rosés should be served like any other Champagnes, either as aperitifs or alongside savory dishes, rather than with desserts. Look for the rosés from Charles Heidsieck, Deutz or Veuve Clicquot; among smaller producers, some standout rosés include those of Paul Bara, L. Aubry Fils and Marc Hébrart.