Magnificent Champagne — A primer on The Champagne Region, Vintage vs Non Vintage Champagne, and More!

Champagne is a sparkling wine produced in northeastern France’s Champagne Zone, the most celebrated wine region on earth. By French law, a bottle may be labeled “Champagne” only if it was produced within the borders of Champagne itself. Everything else is simply sparkling wine.

There is incredible prestige to Champagne. So much prestige, in fact, that in 2008 the demand for Champagne worldwide exceeded production. The solution? The INAO (the organization that protects the French appellations) voted to push the borders of production and allow an additional 38 districts to produce Champagne. The districts involved had been producing bubbly all along but in 2008, they were finally allowed to call their sparkling wine “Champagne”. It was an incredible windfall for the lucky producers included in the border push, as Champagne’s fancy moniker demands a much higher price tag than mere sparkling wine. The producers didn’t change a thing but overnight their product skyrocketed in value.

People have been drinking Champagne for centuries. Many of the venerated Champagne houses or “Maisons” are hundreds of years old. The style of Champagne produced by each Maison is unique. Kings and queens, politicians, celebrities, and the common man have all celebrated with Champagne. Winston Churchill favored Pol Roger. Napoleon preferred Moet & Chandon. James Bond drank Bollinger. Marilyn Monroe loved Dom Perignon. The list goes on.

a bottle pouring champagne

A bottle of Champagne can certainly be popped open immediately after purchase, but one of the many beauties of Champagne is its ability to mature gracefully. Hard to believe something so ineffably delicious could get better, but it does! Champagne improves with time, gaining in complexity through the passing years. While the aging process may slightly soften the fizz and deepen the color to a warm gold, a well-aged Champagne may acquire glorious secondary aromas and complex flavors such as yeasty biscuits, dried fruit, honey, and roasted hazelnuts. A bottle of Champagne can go from impressive to extraordinary through the simple passage of time.

Champagne is classified from the most basic to the most exceptional. Differences in taste depend upon the grapes used in the blend, the vintage, the aging, the dosage, and the house style. The least pricy is the nonvintage (or “multi-vintage”) Champagne. Nonvintage Champagne is made from a blend of vintages and wines and can be crafted from any of the three permitted grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. A nonvintage Champagne is aged a minimum of three years before release.

Vintage Champagne is created from grapes grown in superior vineyards in one single year or “vintage”. A Champagne House will only declare a vintage in an exceptional year. The climate of the northerly Champagne region tends to be gray and chilly. Thus, a year with a bit more sunshine and warmth would likely yield a riper, more robust harvest and might gain the prestige of being named a vintage. Vintage Champagnes are aged four to five years before release.

A prestige cuvee or “Tete de Cuvee” is a multi-vintage Champagne made from the very best Grand Cru fruit and produced with extreme care. Prestige cuvees are aged from 5 to 8 years and considered the pride of the Maison. Some prestigious Champagne Houses to look for are Dom Perignon, Bollinger, Moet & Chandon, Salon, Veuve Clicquot, and Krug, as well as impressive grower-producers such as the esteemed Vilmart et Cie and Pierre Peters.

Nonvintage Champagne benefits from three to five years of aging, as it allows the flavors of the blended wines to intermingle and unify. Vintage and prestige cuvee Champagnes age beautifully and for much longer periods. Because of the high acid content, carbon dioxide, and considerable time spent on the fermentation yeast, these premium Champagnes have the incredible capacity to age anywhere from 10 to 30 years under the right storage. Some insist a vintage or prestige cuvee Champagne needs at least 15 years of aging to be at its very best. Of course, Champagne is finicky and storage conditions are of paramount importance. Wines must be carefully temperature-controlled and kept from light and vibration.

Don’t save your Champagne for celebrations only – enjoy it all year round! Champagne can be dressed up or dressed down. Favorite Champagne pairings include crispy French fries, fried chicken, or iced fresh oysters on the half shell – all perfect with Champagne. No need for a party hat to savor the best wine money can buy! Consider Madame Lily Bollinger who said,

“I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it.”

May all your happy moments be joyous, and all your pain, Champagne…. Cheers!

Elizabeth Kate
Elizabeth KateWriter
Elizabeth Kate is a prolific writer specializing in wine & spirits. A French Wine Scholar (FWS) and Italian Wine Specialist (IWS), Elizabeth holds the coveted WSET Diploma (D WSET) and was the first graduate of the prestigious Los Angeles WSET program.
Elizabeth was the In-House Wine Consultant to KSFO Radio’s “Edible Escapes” in San Francisco and now relishes bringing the joys of wine and spirits down to earth for the non-specialist in her podcast on Elizabeth firmly believes that the existence of Champagne is proof that God loves us.