As far as I can remember, I’ve always loved champagne. Even before I was old enough to drink it. I remember the sound of a cork being popped meaning friends and family had arrived, a celebration was in order or an annual Hallmark holiday had just begun.

This love affair brought me to studying gastronomy and wine in Paris and to eventually working for Moët-Hennessy for the last six years as an ambassador for maisons including Moët & Chandon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Dom Pérignon.

Even though I work in the business of champagne, my love for this quintessential sparkling wine grows every day, and its magic is never lost on me.

That’s why I’m delighted to take you through what I believe makes this wine so special.

All you have to do is open up a bottle, pour yourself a glass, and join me for the journey...

The fundamentals…

First and foremost, Champagne is a region located in the northeast of France, renowned for its sparkling wines. Its terroir is characterised by a northern climate and chalky soil, and this cool temperature is necessary to keep the freshness of the grapes and to allow them to ripen slowly.

In winemaking terms, the region is around 34,000 hectares and comprises 319 different crus. In Champagne, a cru is a village that consists of different vineyards, which can be further broken down into different parcels.

Think of it as Champagne being one big puzzle, and each puzzle piece is a parcel. There are around 280,000 parcels in total, so it’s a big jigsaw.

In each of these villages, you’ll most likely find at least one of the three major grape varieties in Champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, all of which need to be hand-picked.

This is one of the rules of the Champagne AOC (appelation d’origine contrôlée) and more than 120,000 pickers are needed during the time of harvest, which usually happens in September.

How is champagne made?

The production method for which the Champagne region is famous is known as the traditional method (also referred to as the méthode champenoise, or sometimes cap classique). Ultimately, all champagnes go through two different fermentations: the first is to create the alcohol, and the second is to create the bubbles. To understand this better, let’s break down what happens after the grapes are hand-harvested.

Harvesting grapes for Dom Ruinart in the historical Sillery Grand Cru vineyard
Chardonnay grapes during the harvest for use in Dom Ruinart

The first point of action is pressing the grapes. If a blanc (white in colour) champagne is being made, the grapes need to be pressed very gently (this is called fractional pressing) so as to extract the clear juice from dark-skinned grapes. All the colour you get from red grapes (in champagne’s case, the pinot noir and pinot meunier) come from the skins, which is why fractional pressing is paramount in order to get white wine from a red grape.

Once pressed, yeast will be added to the grape juice, and it will go through the first fermentation, which turns the sugar into alcohol. These are known as the base wines, or vins clairs, and are held in stainless steel tanks and tasted by the chef de cave (the cellar master) and their winemaking team. They are assessed for their quality and aromatic characteristics, and the best of them are then selected before the blending process begins.

Ethan Boroian, champagne ambassador, Moët-Hennessy UK

Most of the sparkling wines coming from Champagne are a blended wine using either one, two or three of the major grape varieties, and each variety brings unique characteristics to the final blend. The chardonnay brings the citrus, freshness and elegance while the pinot noir brings the body, structure and intensity. Finally, the pinot meunier brings the suppleness and roundness to the blend. There are a handful of other grape varieties grown in Champagne, but we rarely see them.

This blend is then bottled before adding the liqueur de tirage (a blend of sugar and yeast) and then the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (although in certain circumstances a cork could also be used if the bottle is planning on being matured for a longer period of time). The yeast converts the sugar into CO2, creating bubbles. The champagne is then left to mature on the lees (the dead yeast cells) which adds layers of complexity and richness both in flavour and texture.

Eventually, the wine will need to be 'riddled' after it is deemed ready to be enjoyed by the chef de cave (provided the champagne has matured the minimum of time based on the rules of AOC). The process of riddling was created by Madame Clicquot in 1816, and is the motion of gently turning the bottle while it's upside down in order to collect the dead yeast cells in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then disgorged, meaning it’s opened and the pressure pushes out all of the lees, thus giving us clear champagne. This can be done by hand (known as à la volée), but is mostly done by machine.

The finishing touch is adding the dosage, which is a mixture of wine and sugar, before a cork is added. The addition of the dosage determines how sweet your champagne will be. Most champagnes are labelled as brut, meaning between 0-12g per litre of sugar. In other words, it’s dry. This is quite a shocking process for a wine that has been resting for so long, so the bottles are left to rest for 3-12 months, washed and then labelled before making their way around the globe.

Bottles waiting to be riddled in the historical chalk quarry cellars at Maison Ruinart

Classifications and quality

Champagne’s crus range in quality, depending on many different variables. In terms of scale, we can refer to the classification system known as the Échelle des Crus (the ladder of villages) which was established in 1919 and deliberates the quality of each village.

The quality ranges between 80% and 100%. The finest of these crus are known as the 17 Grand Crus: these tend to command the higher prices given their outstanding quality and are awarded 100% in the Échelle des Crus. Following this, you can find 42 designated Premier Cru (quality ranges between 90% and 99%) and finally, 260 Crus which must have a minimum of 80% in quality (but this can go up to 89%).

In the production process, the grapes are pressed and go through a first fermentation to become base wines. The wines are then blended, bottled and go through a second fermentation using the méthode champenoise, after which they become sparkling.

As an aside, it's reported that the notion of discovering bubbles through secondary fermentation was first seen in Champagne by the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon in the early 1700s. Over time, this method has been perfected by many different houses around the region, and when it comes to our stable, the houses that have contributed other innovations include Madame Clicquot from the house of Veuve Clicquot, which created the first ever blended rosé champagne in 1818.

The majority of champagnes you'll see on the shelves at your local supermarket will be from Grandes Marques (big houses) which blend grapes from vineyards they own as well as grapes they buy from growers. The majority of the grapes are owned by the growers as champagne houses only own around 12% of the vineyards. Most of the famous houses you’ll have heard of are based in either Reims (the bigger city in Champagne, situated in the north) or Epernay (located in the south). Both are stunning places and a must-visit for any wine lover who wants to learn more about the magic of champagne.

What is a cuvée?

In Champagne, the word cuvée can mean two different things. In the winemaking process, the cuvée is the first press when the grapes are being pressed. For 4,000 kilograms of grapes, you will get roughly 2,550 litres of grape juice. The first press (known as the cuvée) will equate to 2,050 litres and the second press (known as the taille) will be around 500 litres. Naturally, the first press will hold the most flavour.

In the blending process, though, a cuvée means something different. It is in essence, a blend, but you could also call it a bottling or a release – a champagne that’s put on the market by a champagne house (which could have several different cuvées).


This is usually the signature and flagship from most champagne houses. It is blended every year and should always taste consistent and have a distinct style. In order to do this successfully, the winemaking team will use a base year that usually makes up most of the blend, and then reserve wines (older wines that are usually 2-3 years old, but sometimes older) are added to complete the blend to ensure consistency, balance and harmony. A non-vintage champagne needs to be matured for a minimum of 15 months.


All the grapes used in a vintage champagne have to be harvested in a single year. The minimum maturation for a vintage champagne is set at three years, but most houses go beyond this to gain depth and richness in their wines.


Most of the rosé champagnes are made using the blending method whereby still red wine is blended into the white wines before bottling. This gives the champagne its colour, red fruit characteristics and soft tannins. You can find both NV and vintage rosé champagnes.

Blanc de blancs

Simply translated to ‘white from whites’ – and given that chardonnay is the only white grape of the three major grape varieties (along with red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier) – this signifies that this champagne is 100% chardonnay. This can be an NV or a vintage.

Blanc de noirs

Simply translated to ‘white from blacks’, this is the opposite of blanc de blancs and will be a cuvée comprised of 100% black grapes. (Note that the French call red grapes “black” or noir in French). This could be 100% pinot noir, 100% pinot meunier or a blend of the two. This can also be an NV or vintage.

All of the above can vary in dosage depending on the cuvée or the house style from dry to sweet, but the majority will be brut.

What is a prestige cuvée?

For a region that has so many rules and regulations protected by its AOC, there are no strict rules for a prestige cuvée and no particular classification, either. It is widely considered to be the top cuvée from a Champagne house or grower. A few examples of this from the Moët-Hennessy stable would be La Grande Dame, the prestige cuvée from the house of Veuve Clicquot, or Dom Ruinart, the prestige cuvée of the house of Ruinart. In both of these circumstances (and for most prestige cuvées), they are using the very best grapes (100% Grand Cru) and are only made in exceptional years (meaning they are vintage-only).

Another criteria which fits most prestige cuvées is extended maturation on the lees. For a vintage champagne, the minimum requirement to be matured on lees is three years, however prestige cuvées tend to be aged much more than this. The result is a wine that is powerful, complex, layered and rich. These wines tend to be rare with a higher price point given the use of the best grapes, attention to every detail and extended ageing.

However, not all prestige cuvées are vintage, and not all use 100% Grand Cru grapes. Take the example of Krug, which only makes prestige cuvées: the signature and the flagship of the house is known as Grande Cuvée, which is a multi-vintage and matured on lees for around seven years. Every year, a new edition of Krug Grande Cuvée is released, but it’s the attention to detail, the longer maturation on lees, and the incredible craftsmanship that goes into every bottle that makes it a prestige cuvée.

Pair your prestige cuvée with rich foods – in other words, a combination of saltiness and natural fattiness

To push this further, I would also say that a prestige cuvée tends to be a gastronomic wine, and one that's delicious with a multitude of cuisines. A good rule of thumb is to pair your prestige cuvée with rich foods – in other words, a combination of saltiness and natural fattiness. Take caviar, smoked salmon or even oysters as examples: all of these are naturally salty and contain a high fat content, making a prestige cuvée feel more refreshing and helping to cleanse your palate between bites. This theory also works with more modest ingredients such as cured meats, crisps and even fish and chips.

In order to get best expression out of the wine, it's favourable to enjoy a prestige cuvée in a white wine glass and served at a slightly higher temperature than a standard NV champagne (around 10-12°C for a prestige and around 6-8°C for an NV). If these wines are served in a flute, it doesn’t allow the wine to breathe and may seem quite tight and closed. Furthermore, if the wine is too cold the complexity of the wine will be numbed and muted.

In other words, if you're going to treat yourself to a fantastic bottle of champagne, do yourself a favour and serve it at the right temperature, in an appropriate glass and ideally with something delicious to go along with it.

What else can affect the character of a champagne?

For any champagne, the winemakers are always looking for balance and harmony. The best winemakers are able to balance acidity and sugar seamlessly. Both of these are naturally present in the grapes, however considering that for a NV (non-vintage) a winemaker must blend a base year with reserve wines, finding the right balance is key for consistency.

That being said, every house has its signature style and this can be encouraged by many different factors. Firstly, is a house focusing on pinot noir? Chardonnay? Or perhaps a mixture of all three major grape varieties? In the case of Veuve Clicquot, the signature style of the house is known as 'aromatic intensity' as the house focuses on pinot noir (which brings the intensity to the blend). For Ruinart, the style is known as 'aromatic freshness' as the house focuses on chardonnay. These two styles couldn't be more different, but they both make delicious champagnes.

Champagnes can also be made in a reductive or oxidative style. For a reductive champagne (such as Ruinart, Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon), there is minimal oxygen used during the winemaking process in order to preserve the fruit character of the wine. It creates champagnes that are zesty (citrussy) and crisp (granny smith apple is a classic tasting note).

For an oxidative style champagne, the intent is to create a richer and creamier style that offers toastier and nuttier aromas by using oxygen during the winemaking process. The word ‘brioche’ is often attributed to these styles of champagnes, like Veuve Clicquot and Krug. The use of oak is often used to create this style, but if the oak is neutral, it will impart more texture than flavour.

This leads us to the bubbles. The less time a champagne is matured on the lees, the bigger the bubbles will be. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if a champagne undergoes a longer maturation, the finer the bubbles will be. Some champagne houses offer several releases of the same blend, such as the Grand Vintage Collection range for Moët & Chandon, or the Plénitude program for Dom Pérignon. These are effectively vintage champagnes that have been released in different stages of their development. Often, the late disgorged version (which has spent more time on the lees) will appear much fresher and more layered than its original release counterpart. The idea is that leaving your champagne on the lees will put ‘more muscles on the bone’, strengthening the wine’s character.

This is very different to bottle ageing, whereby once the bottle is disgorged and has left the region of Champagne, you are ageing at home in your cellar. Corks are porous, meaning that at a microscopic level, there will be a transfusion of air between the wine and its surroundings. The fruit will continue to develop with time and the bubbles will continue to get smaller.

How long can you age champagne at home?

You may wonder how long you can keep a champagne at home. A sweet spot that I can always recommend is however long the champagne has been matured on lees gives you the window of drinkability in bottle ageing without compromising freshness.

In other words, if you have a bottle of Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2013, which has been matured on the lees for about 6 years, you can easily keep that wine at home for a further 6 years provided it is stored correctly. Ideal storage would be a wine fridge or cellar, but you can achieve a similar result by keeping the bottle on its side, in a cool, dark place with minimal temperature fluctuation.

What is a vintage champagne?

The best way to explain the difference between non-vintage and vintage is film and theatre. For non-vintage, the key to success is consistency whereby the cuvée tastes the same every year. Think of it as your favourite film – it will always remain the same. For vintage champagne, it’s about the story and characteristics of a single harvest, in a single year. Much like theatre, no two vintages (or shows) are ever the same.

For many champagne lovers, vintage champagne tends to offer the best value. This is to say the price is often somewhere between a non-vintage and a prestige cuvée. For most houses, though, the non-vintage cuvée is their bread and butter, so making a vintage is a complete bonus. Often, the wines from that particular year are so remarkable that a house decides to ‘declare the vintage’, so you can usually be sure to have a great-quality champagne when you go vintage.

The ageing cellars at Moët et Chandon
Dom Pérignon 2004 Plénitude 2

Furthermore, vintage champagne tends to be richer than its non-vintage counterpart given the extra time spent on the lees. The rules stipulate that all vintage champagnes must be matured on the lees for a minimum of three years, however most houses go far beyond this to create a complex wine with fine bubbles.

With that in mind, let’s look at the different circumstances of vintages in champagne.

A classic vintage

This is when you have roughly the same amount of potential alcohol in the grapes (sugar) as you do acidity. Examples of this would be 2004 and 2012.

A cold or cool vintage

In this circumstance, the acidity tends to be quite high making it a perfect vintage to age gracefully as the high acidity will keep the champagne fresh. The most recent example of this would 2008, but 1996 is also a strong favourite for champagne lovers.

A warm, hot or dry vintage

In this circumstance, the acidity in the grapes are lower, making champagnes that are very concentrated. Examples of this type of vintage include 2009 and 2003.

One of the most romantic things about drinking vintage champagne is that when it’s gone, it’s gone. One of the best things you could do, though, would be to buy a case of one of your favourite vintage champagnes and see how it ages. In an ideal world you will have two bottles when they are young, three bottles when they are at peak maturity and one bottle when it’s over the hill. This way, you’ve seen the entire lifespan of the vintage – which I always find incredibly interesting, as I love to see how the wine evolves.

Much like prestige champagnes, serving a vintage champagne in a white wine glass is favourable, in order to allow the wine to breathe and open it up. Don’t be afraid of giving your champagne a swirl in the glass and getting your nose in there, too – you’ll be surprised by the complexity and how inviting the toasty aromas can be before tasting all of that citrussy goodness.