Each year the last weekend of November / first weekend of December sees stylish celebrations around the French Huguenot monument in Franschhoek. The vertile valley is well-known for its exceptional and diverse Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and in recent years a dedicated Cap Classique Route has been established guiding those fond of sparkling wine along all the wine estates in the area producing Méthode Cap Classique, the South African equavalent to Champagne.
Without a doubt, the crowd attending this weekend’s Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne festival will try a host of different styles – from serious styles of vintage Champagne to those offering an elegant yeastiness or refreshing notes of fresh green apples. But what are the acknowledged different styles for Champagne?
Vintage Champagne (other than non-vintage which is a blend of two or more harvests) is made 100% from the same vintage as indicated on the label. Vintage Champagne generally represents less than 5% of production and is only made in exceptional vintages when the climate is playing along.
Blanc de Blancs
This designation applies to wines made entirely with white grapes. In the case of champagne, it translates as 100 percent Chardonnay. While these wines might be austere in their youth, they often develop beautifully as they mature, especially those made from the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs like Avize or Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
Blanc de Noirs
Literally this means white wine made from black grapes. For champagne this means the wine is made from either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. These wines tends to be in a fuller style. Classic examples are from Champagne’s southernmost production region the Côte des Bar, where Pinot Noir is widely planted.
Most Champagne with a pink colour, is made by blending between 5 and 20% of red wine with the white Champagne. The higher the percentage of red, the more intense the colour of the rosé. In Europe, this method of making a rosé wine is only allowed within the Champagne appellation.
The saignée method – the way rosé table wines are made by bleading pigment from the skins to colour the wine – can also be used. Controlling the exact colour is however difficult and the method is therefore not that popular. (The best-known house that does is Laurent-Perrier.)
With many popular softer and fruitier examples available, rosé Champagne has been a fast growing sector of the champagne market – especially in the UK and Japan. (In Japan, pink is regarded as a colour of good health and life. Pink is also strongly associated with cherry blossoms and spring, and this has some masculine associations as the sakura (cherry trees) are said to represent the young Samurai who fell in battle in the prime of their life.)
Typically the top of the range with exceptional quality and complexity, these wines are usually the most expensive and often with premium packaging. “The prestige cuvée is, or certainly should be, the ultimate expression of wine made from grapes selected in the appellation’s best-situated vineyards.” Prime examples are from Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug.
Single vineyard wines
Most Champagne is made by blending together grapes from various vineyards. In recent year however, single vineyard selections have become popular. In this instance the grapes come from a specific single vineyard that has become known for its quality over a number of years.
Levels of sweetness/dryness in Champagne (dosage levels)
Brut Nature / Brut Zero / Ultra Brut / Zéro dosage: Very dry without sugar added to the dosage and a residual sugar (RS) of 0 – 2 grams per litre
Extra Brut: Very dry with a RS of 0 – 6 g/l
Brut: Dry at 0 – 15 g/l
Extra Dry: Extra dry, but less so than Brut – can be quite confusing! 12 – 20 g/l
Sec: Dry with RS at 17 – 35 g/l
Demi-sec: Slighty sweeter with RS at 33 – 50 g/l
Doux: Sweet, RS of 50 + g/