Champagne… deciphering a wine label part 2

In our previous post on deciphering a wine label, we tackled: who makes the Champagne, how the Champagne is made, and what type of grapes are used.  In this follow-on post, we will look at non-vintage vs. vintage, dry / off-dry / sweet levels, and rating designations (Grand Cru and Premier Cru).

Vintage vs. Non-vintage?

What’s the difference between non-vintage (typically noted on the bottle with “NV”) and vintage Champagne?  Let’s take a look:

  • Non-vintage (NV)  – Non-vintage Champagne represent the house style of a Champagne producer.  It is the winemaker’s job to ensure the Champagne tastes consistent release after release (typically by blending still wines from different years to create the right flavor before starting the second fermentation in the bottle).  If you find a NV Champagne you like, you know you can buy this NV Champagne from the same producer year-in and year-out and get the same flavor profile!
  • Vintage – Vintage Champagnes are made up solely of grapes harvested in the vintage year stated on the bottle.  A Champagne house will produce a vintage Champagne only when it considers that year to be outstanding.  Vintage Champagne is also required to spend more time aging before it is release as compared to non-vintage.  The best vintage Champagnes will age for a decade or longer.

Dry, Off-dry and Sweet Levels

When Champagne is made, some sugar may be added to the finished product before release.  This is known as dosage.  The amount of sugar added affects whether the Champagnes tastes dry, off-dry or sweet.  A good analogy to think of adding sugar a teaspoon at a time to freshly squeezed lemon juice.  At first, the lemon juice is still really tart and you can’t taste any of the sugar.  That’s analogous to dry.  The point where you start tasting the sugar and start thinking of it being a touch sweet is off-dry.  And by the time you think your mixture is sweet, you’ve hit the sweet level.   Here’s how to find the right Champagne for your desired dry to sweet level:

The following terms indicate the Champagne is dry (starting with the driest):

  • Brut Nature, Zero Dosage, Sans Dosage – completely dry, little to no sugar added
  • ExtraBrut – very little sugar added
  • Brut – some sugar added, but still dry

The following terms indicate the Champagne is off-dry (starting with the driest):

  • Extra Dry – starting to taste just a bit sweet
  • Dry, Sec – also just a bit sweet, but more so than Extra Dry
  • Demi-Sec – this can straddle the line between off-dry and sweet, but for the most part will be off-dry

The following terms indicate the wine is sweet (starting with the driest):

  • (Demi-Sec – also listed in off-dry, this can straddle the line between off-dry and sweet, for the most part will be off-dry, however, it may have enough sugar to be sweet)
  • Doux – if you want sweet, this one is for you!

And last but not least… rating level – Grand Cru and Premier Cru (1er Cru)

So Grand Cru and Premier Cru (also written as 1er Cru) sound pretty good don’t they?  But what do they mean?!  There was a time, until not too long ago (1990), that the villages in Champagne were rated to establish pricing for grapes sold to négociants (those who buy grapes to make wine under their own label).  Villages that received a 100% rating were classified as Grand Cru.  Villages that received a 90-99% rating were classified as Premier Cru.  This meant that Grand Cru village grapes were priced highest, Premier Cru were priced just below and any village without either of these designation did not receive as much for their grapes.  This corresponded to Grand Cru Champagnes being more expensive than Premier Cru Champagnes, and both more expensive than non-designated Champagnes.  As of the early 2000s, these ratings are no longer used to establish pricing for grapes, however, the villages still retain their rating.

Coming up: Recommendations for non-vintage, vintage, Premier Cru, Grand Cru Champagnes…

2 thoughts on “Champagne… deciphering a wine label part 2

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