Champagne is the name of the world's most famous sparkling wine, the appellation under which it is sold, and the French wine region it comes from. While it has been used to refer to sparkling wines from all over the world – a point of much controversy and legal wrangling in recent decades – Champagne is a legally controlled and restricted name. See Champagne wine labels.
Located at a northern latitude of 49°N, the Champagne region lies at the northern edge of the world's vineyard-growing areas, with lower average temperatures than any other French wine region. In this kind of cool climate, the growing season is rarely warm enough to ripen grapes to the levels required for standard winemaking. Even in temperate years, Champagne's grapes still bear the hallmark acidity of a marginal climate, and it was only the discovery of secondary fermentation that provided a wine style capable of harnessing – and even embracing – this tartness.
Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are the primary grape varieties used to make Champagne – a recipe used for sparkling wines across the world. It is a little-known fact that four other varieties are also permitted for use in Champagne and are still employed today, albeit in tiny quantities. They are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane. All seven varieties are still used together in at least one producer's Champagne; the Laherte Freres Champagne 7 is the most salient example.
Depending on exactly how a Champagne is made, can take any one of various forms. The key Champagne styles differ in their colour, sweetness, base grape varieties, and whether they are the product of a single vintage or several (Non-Vintage). The whites may be either Blanc de Noirs (made from black-skinned grapes), Blanc de Blancs (made from green-skinned grapes) or just plain Blanc (made from any combination of the permitted varieties). Pink Champagne Rosé is made either by adding red wine to a white blend or sometimes by fermenting the juice in contact with the skins. These types all come with varying degrees of sweetness – not necessarily the result of residual sugar, but due to the addition of a dosage just before the wine is finally bottled.
Grand Cru Champagnes and Premier Cru Champagnes are those made from the region's very finest and highest-rated vineyards. However, branding is so important in Champagne that the Maison (producer) that brand names take priority over appellation titles and such honorifics as Grand Cru and Premier Cru.
The production process for Champagne is similar to that for other wines, but includes an additional (and vital) stage, during which a second fermentation is started in the bottle by the addition of yeast and sugars. It is this that generates the carbon dioxide bubbles responsible for the pop and sparkle that are the symbols of Champagne.
All Champagne must spend at least 12 months aging on its lees - the spent yeast cells from the second fermentation. An extended period on lees beyond this can have a marked effect on the yeasty characteristics of the final wine. Non-vintage Champagnes must mature in bottle for a minimum of 15 months in total before release (i.e. an extra 3 months after the yeast sediment is removed at disgorgement) though in practice 2 to 3 years is a more typical figure. Vintage wines must spend 36 months in bottle before being sent to market, though most are released after 4 to 10 years.
\Most Champagne is sold without a vintage statement, making it "Non-Vintage" or NV. The main reason for this is the variability in vintages which results from the marginal climate here; by blending vintages together, the effect of a bad year is lessened. In years of exceptional quality, however, many houses release a vintage Champagne (millesimé in French) made exclusively from grapes harvested in the stated year. These are typically designed for longer bottle ageing and are made to higher quality specifications.