French Champagne

Karen Frazier
Bottles of Champagne at the U.S. Champagne Bureau's Champagne Tasting

French Champagne is highly revered and is often associated with celebration and luxury.

History of French Champagne

Sparkling wine was not always considered desirable. In fact, the Benedictine monks of the Champagne wine making region in France initially considered bubbles in the wine an undesirable feature. The famous Dom Perignon could not eliminate the bubbles, but he did blend the wines to make them more favorable. He also used stronger bottles and sealed them with cork since the sparkling wines were prone to exploding. French Champagne was born.

In the mid 1700s, the royal government of France dictated the size, weight and shape of Champagne bottles and corks. They also mandated that the cork be securely tied onto the bottle.

Until the early 1800s, Champagne making was still tricky and unpredictable. However, as specialist Champagne producers honed their craft, the bubbly became more reliable and subsequently more popular.

The French Champagne Region

The Champagne region of France is in the Northern portion of the country, northeast of Paris and near the Belgian border. The Montagne de Reims, Valle de la Marne and Cote des Blancs house thousands of vineyards and Champagne producers. The climate of the area is cooler than that of the more Southern French vineyards, and the growing season is shorter. The weather is part of what naturally made Champagne's bubbles, initially. The region is also characterized by chalky soil and rolling hills.

Sam Heitner, Director of the U.S. Champagne Bureau, says the Champagne region produces distinctive wines.

U.S. Champagne Grand Tasting
U.S. Champagne Grand Tasting

"The distinctive natural components of the terroir of Champagne-a unique combination of soil, sub-soil, climate and grape varieties unlike anywhere else in the world-are the underlying factors that account for the distinct nature of wines from the Champagne region," he notes. "The appellation has strict regulations that cover all aspects of the growing, cultivating and production process. All are designed to ensure quality."

According to Heitner, "At least two aspects of the region's terroir are worth mentioning: the deep chalk sub-soil that allows easy drainage and the parcel-by-parcel plot system that ensure only the best performing plots in the region are planted with grapes that produce Champagne."

Grapes in French Champagne

Three grape varieties are used in making French Champagne: Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Many French Champagnes are comprised of up to 40% Pinot Meunier; it is a hearty grape that can tolerate the colder climes of the region.

French Champagne versus Sparkling Wine

Champagne is all sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne. So, what is the difference? Sparkling wine is any wine with carbonation; if it has bubbles and it is wine, it is sparkling wine. It can be produced anywhere in the world.

According Heitner, "It's only Champagne if it comes from Champagne, France. Though many regions around the world, including many in the U.S., produce fine sparkling wines, only wine made from grapes grown in the chalky hills of the Champagne region can rightly be called Champagne."

To be called Champagne in France, a sparkling wine must be produced in the so-delineated 86,000 acres of the Champagne region in Northern France. The reason this is so, Heitner says, is because, "The name "Champagne" refers not just to the composition of the wines but to their terroir, which encompasses all aspects of the climate and the soil in which wine grapes are grown. The distinctive natural components of the terroir of Champagne are the underlying factors that account for the special flavor of wines from the Champagne region."

However, Heitner cautions that some American sparkling wines may still have Champagne on the label due to loopholes in the labeling laws. To ensure you're getting true French Champagne, Heitner says, make sure the label doesn't include a modifier to the word Champagne such as American or California.

Bubble, Bubbles

Champagne glass

So, what makes each Champagne unique? Of course the grapes that are used, but even more important is the assemblage. This is the blending process by which the vintner creates a particular Champagne. In addition, modern French Champagne goes through a second fermentation process, known as dosage; extra sugar and wine are added in this phase to perfect the Champagne.

The final sugar content of the wine is indicated on the label of French Champagne with the following descriptors:

  • Extra Brut, also called Natural: Extra Brut is extremely dry and is not one of the more common varieties.
  • Brut: This is one of the most popular types of Champagne in the U.S. and in France; Brut is quite dry. The best grapes are generally reserved for the Brut Champagnes. Looking for a New Year's Eve or Sunday brunch French Champagne most everyone will love? This is your best bet.
  • Extra Dry, Extra Sec: While still fairly dry, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut. It is a good selection for Champagne that you would like to serve with a sweet brunch or light dessert.
  • Sec: Sec is a slightly sweet Champagne and is best suited for dessert service.
  • Demi-Sec: Demi-Sec is a very sweet French Champagnes and is not very common in the U.S.
  • Doux: With a resounding 5% sugar content, this Champagne is a bubbly dessert wine.

When the grapes are pressed for Champagne, a gentle process is used so that the skins are not incorporated. This accounts for the wine's delicate color.

Food Pairing

Heitner says Champagne pairs well with an array of foods.

"One of the great things about Champagne is that you can find a selection to pair with almost any meal," he notes. "While certain Champagnes compliment savory meals, like steak or chicken, other Champagnes go well with lighter fare like fish or pasta. Rosés can best be enjoyed with chocolate and other desserts."

Some classic Champagne food parings include:

  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Strawberries
  • Pasta with cream sauce
  • Halibut

Still, Heitner says, wast most important aspect of pairing Champagne with food is personal taste.

"Wine lovers should experiment with different combinations until they find what suits their palette best," he says. "While Champagne is certainly an elegant beverage, it's also approachable: you could pair it with hot dogs and it will taste great!"

French Champagnes to Try

Try some of these French Champagnes for a wonderful wine experience:

French Champagne Under $50

French Champagne Over $50

Steeped in history and tradition, French Champagnes offer some of the best examples of wines made in the méthode champenoise in the world. With a variety of price points, you're sure to find a bottle that fits your budget. Enjoy!

French Champagne