Why champagne tastes like champagne

Champagne flavours by Wines With Attitude

A 'quick and general' guide to the Champagne flavour profile of Champagne and other wines made by the champagne method - with an explanation of some of the terms you will find on Champagne labels. I was asked by one of my newsletter subscribers to write about the differences between various types of sparkling wine including champagne - you may have seen my blogposts on ways in which various sparkling wines and champagne are produced and on the flavours of different non-champagne method sparkling wines. This part focuses on the flavour profile of Champagne & other wines made by the champagne method.

The reason I wrote about the differences in production first is that the techniques used in the winery can have perhaps the biggest influence on the flavour profiles of sparkling wine and champagne. Other things of course affect the taste of each sparkling wine not least the grape variety, the terroir and weather variations, the level of sweetness and alcohol so there are many contributing factors that lead to such a wide range of sparkling wine types. But here I focus on techniques in the winery.

 

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Different wines produced by the Champagne method

We all know and love Champagne but did you know that there are a number of other sparkling wines made in the same way (known as the Champagne method)? These include:

English Sparkling Wines like the lovely Lyme Bay Classic Cuvée make a great alternative to Champagne and their quality is improving year on year such that even some French sommeliers now mistake some English Sparkling Wine for Champagne.

Cava and Penedès wines; you may be surprised to see Cava in the list as there are far too many commercial style Cavas on the UK supermarket shelves so you do need to take care in your choices. As mentioned in my Cava blog, this has led to several producers moving their wines to the Penedès appellation and getting back to the classic, more Champagne like style of Cava as in Colet's Tradición

Franciacorta from Italy tends to be a little lighter and less rich in style but not as light or sweet or fruity as Prosecco

South African Cap Classique wines labelled Méthode Cap Classique

Saumur & Vouvray from the Loire Valley; often made form Chenin Blanc and usually lighter than Champagne with more smoky characteristics

Crémants like Manoir du Carra's Crémant de Bourgogne. Crémants are French sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region by the Champagne method. They come from regions such as Burgundy (Crémant de Bourgogne), Bordeaux, the Loire and Alsace. Strict regulations dictate that only wines made in Champagne by the Champagne method can be called Champagne however.

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What creates the flavour profile of Champagne method wines?

Grapes of course are a major factor in the taste of any wine. English Sparkling Wine tends to be made from the three main grapes used in Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir but Cava, Franciacorta, Saumur, Vouvray and the Crémants allow more latitude - Manoir du Carra's Crémant de Bourgogne is a Blanc de Blanc Crémant as it's produced exclusively from white grape, Chardonnay. What all these wines do have in common is the Champagne method of production and this probably has the most influence on the flavour profile.

The Champagne method in a nutshell means that the second fermentation takes place in the bottle (as opposed to in a large vat or tank). This means that after the yeasts and sugars that are added to the base wine interact to create bubbles and alcohol, a process known as yeast autolysis occurs. This is essentially where the dead yeast cells or lees break down and release compounds into the wine.

Of course by the time you have your glass of Champagne there is no yeast left in the wine but it has had a major impact on the taste. Autolysis is responsible for the biscuity, brioche type of aromas associated with Champagne and other Champagne method wines. It also helps create the rich, rounded texture.  The source of these toasty flavours is often assumed to be from oak but in most Champagne method wines it is from the lees. A wine left on the lees for longer will show more intense bready aromas and flavours so ageing is also a factor.

Conclusion? The Champagne method leads to richer, more rounded wines with bread and biscuit characteristics (in addition to fruit) and usually finer, more persistent bubbles.

 

Terms you may see on champagne labels & what they mean

Non-vintage or NV: the grapes used do not all come from one harvest, i.e. they come from different vintages. Most Champagne is NV and every Champagne house has its own house style of NV Champagne. They use mainly the grapes from one vintage but they add some reserve wine from past years to blend with it and to create a consistent style year on year. This is why you can rely on non-vintage Champagne from a particular Champagne house e.g. de Castellane (my favourite) tasting the same each time you buy it. Of course one Champagne house's style can vary greatly from another house's style.

Vintage: for Champagne (though not necessarily for other sparkling wines) this means that the grapes used are all from one vintage and so the wine will reflect the vintage and vary year to year. In fact a vintage is only declared in the best years so you won't find a vintage Champagne from every year.

Prestige Cuvée is a term used by some wineries and Champagne houses to indicate their best wine, usually available in limited quantities and at a higher price.

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Blanc de Blancs - which essentially means that a white Champagne is made only from white grapes (so no Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier added and this style is a little crisper with more citrus fruit flavours.

Blanc de Noirs therefore means a white Champagne made solely from black grapes, Pinot Noir and/ or Pinot Meunier, the juice by the way being clear or 'white'. These black grapes give Champagnes a little more structure and richness often making these wines more weighty in terms of body.

In recent years English wine producers have begun to expand their product ranges to include some of these styles.

If you want to know more about specific types of sparkling wines, read my blogs on vintage Champagne, Cava and English Sparkling Wine.

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