Here's the only thing you need to worry about when you're ordering or buying Champagne: Will this result in me getting Champagne into my mouth? Don't fuss about anyone judging you or looking like you don't know what you're doing. We all started somewhere, and there are people in the world who have dedicated their professional lives to knowing everything there is to know about Champagne so that they may pour their wisdom out to their bubble-loving brethren and guide us to the fizz of our dreams. If one of those unicorns is in your midst—in the form of a sommelier, bartender, or wine shop employee—take full advantage of their expertise.
But if you're flying solo and feeling paralyzed by the possibilities in front of you on a menu or shelf, here are a few terms that may be of use.
Think organic and then go a step further. Producers of biodynamic bubbles take the whole ecosystem of a vineyard into account (including non-grape crops, livestock, and other plant life) as well as the lunar cycle and plenty of other factors in nature. This makes for some unpredictable and wonderfully unique wines—as well as some straight-up weird stuff.
Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir
Blanc de blancs are made exclusively from white grapes and blanc de noirs from black grapes. Depending on what part of the world the Champagne is from, those grapes may need to be from specific varietals.
Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry (a.k.a. Extra Sec), Dry (Sec), Demi Sec, Doux
From left to right, that's the least amount of sugar to the most, meaning that a Demi Sec is considerably sweeter than an Extra Brut. If you've ever tasted a few side-by-side, you'll quickly note the difference and figure out your happy place. Most Champagnes fall into the brut category, but it's helpful to know this if an opportunity for choice arises.
Plenty of people use the generic term champagne to mean any sparkling wine, but when it's capital "C" Champagne, by law, it's got to be produced and grown in the Champagne region of France using particular methods. Lower-case champagne may include Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, "California Champagne," which is its own particular barrel of bubbles, French Crémant (still great but with fewer regulations than Champagne), and pét-nat (pétillant naturel), which is wine that develops its sparkle in the bottle as it ferments.
Most Champagnes produced by the big houses or maisons are combos of grapes grown all over the region. That final blend is called a cuvée.
This is the sweetness in the form of sugar or wine and sugar that's added to Champagne to balance it out and find its rightful place in the range above.
Think of this like single-barrel bourbon or single-origin coffee. The Champagne is grown and produced at the same vineyard, making it highly specific to the terroir in a way that a cuvée can't be. Some producers get very particular and craft their Champagnes from one specific plot of land in one particular year, but that's not the case for everyone.
This refers to the size and effervescence of the bubbles in the liquid. Different methods of fermentation and bottling may result in a preponderance of tight, tiny bubbles, or a loose, loopy fizz. Some may give up the gas quickly, and others release a seemingly endless stream of sparkles. You may not think you care about this, but once you start paying attention, you'll find you have a favored style.
Vintage and Non-Vintage
Vintage Champagne has a year listed on the bottle to indicate that the grapes are from one particular year's harvest, and non-vintage—often indicated as NV—doesn't because it's a blend of various years' bounties. A vintage Champagne must mature for at least three years (though it's often left much longer), while a non-vintage will take just half that.