Champagne is located 150 kilometers east of Paris and is renowned worldwide for its production of Champagne wine. It is the northernmost wine producing region of France. Champagne is comprised of four regions: Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne and Côte des Bar. They total 34,000 hectares of vineyard.
Champagne is located 150 kilometres east of Paris and is renowned worldwide for its production of Champagne wine and happens to be the northernmost wine producing region of France. Encompassed within the production zone defined by the AOC in 1927, Champagne comprises four subregions: Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne and Côte des Bar. They total 34,300 hectares of vineyard, including 319 villages (crus) with 42classified as “Premiers Crus” and 17 with the highest ranking of “Grand Crus”.
Champagne’s vineyards are planted at 50 to 300 metres above sea level on south and east facing slopes. This facilitates ideal sun exposure and water drainage for good ripening.
The five departments are the Marne (66% of plantings), Aube (23%), Aisne (10%), Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. These overlap and are included in the previously mentioned subregions and encompass nearly 280,000 plots of vines.
As with most wine regions of France, the Romans cultivated and prepared the lands for fruitful harvest in the centuries to come. Finding well-draining lands with perfect exposure, they planted vines that could withstand the difficult northern climate. This was continued on by the Bishops of the Middle Ages, who honed the winemaking process and brought to life the wine we know today. In the 14th century there was a major shift from red wine to white wine, and the most fashionable wines were those from Aÿ, a cru in the Marne Valley. This was also the beginning of effervescent wines, with the bubbles of carbon dioxide barely contained within each bottle of wine.
To look at the history of Champagne, one must look at the history of effervescence. The bubbles formed from a second fermentation in bottle was considered a major wine flaw for a great number of years, first noted in an Egyptian papyrus in 522 AD. Listed as being unfit for sale once filled with bubbles, the Champagne region winemakers found a way to harness this concept and turn it into a desired product.
1670-1690 brought the arrival of sparkling Champagne onto the market, marking a new moment in history for generations to come. Pioneering a new technique to harness the sparkling wine and preventing an overpowering experience in the glass. It did not take long for Champagne wine to become popular across England and France among the wealthy, prices remained out of reach for most common wine drinkers but left something to aspire to. This was both due to the cost of production as well as supply, with only 10,000 bottles being sold each year in the early vintages. Unfortunately, it took winemakers of Champagne a very long time to understand how secondary fermentation works so they were not ensuring there was enough sugar left in the bottle to create the carbon dioxide, or oppositely too much and causing it to explode. Eventually in the 19th century they caught on and learned to measure out the sugar levels, and in the process of adding wire to hold down the corks and reinforcing the glass bottles.
In the late 1700s, Burgundian Edmé Beguillet referred to Champagne's monopolistic hold on sparkling-wine technology as ‘the only industry capable of bringing previously non-existent wines out of obscurity, and bestowing reputation on a previously unknown product.’
As technology developed more and more regions brought in the concept of sparkling wine to their range. Arbois, in 1792, was one of the first outside of Champagne along with regions of Switzerland. Other regions of France followed suit including: Die, Saint-Péray (Ardèche), Limoux, Anjou and Belfort. Towards the end of the 19th century the concept was found around the world and winemakers paid homage to its origins through use of the terms: ‘champagnisation’ and ‘méthode champenoise’.
1887 brought an Appeal to the courts of Angers, favouring the large brand Champagne wines stating: "Henceforth the term ‘Champagne’ or ‘Champagne wines’ shall refer exclusively to wine produced in, and sourced from, the ancient province of Champagne, an area with specific boundaries that shall neither be extended nor contracted."
Continuing through the early 1900s the growers of Champagne lobbied for delineation of their territory and appellations from which the term Champagne can be used. Finally in 1927, on the 22nd July, there was a decree for the delineation of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée area of Champagne, and processes were put in place to maintain quality and a harmonised product across all appellations. This was added in all the villages that had not previously been included. Now the official Champagne production area comprises 35,280 hectares.
Climate & Soil
The climate is a confluence of oceanic and continental weather systems creating frosty winters and a low annual average of 12 degrees centigrade. These influences directly impact the low alcohol and acidity of the region's premium Champagne.
Champagne has a wide range of limestone soils (chalk, marl and limestone proper). Some vineyards, such as in Côte des Blancs, feature areas of exposed chalk erupting through the top-soil. Conversely, Montagne de Reims’ chalk deposits are buried deeply beneath the vines.
Chalky soils create duress for the vines, driving their root systems to seek water deeper in the earth. The chalky earth and resultant hardship deliver a beautiful balance of acidity and aroma. The Grand Cru villages are characterised by having the most chalk dense soils.
In Champagne, seven grape varietals are legally recognised for the creation of authentic ‘Champagne’. Only three of those varietals are considered ‘noble’ and commonly used. In total, Pinot Noir represents 39% of total Champagne production, Pinot Meunier represents 33% and Chardonnay 28%.
Pinot Noir grapes are mostly planted in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar, Pinot Meunier in the Vallée de la Marne and Chardonnay have found a perfect home in the Côte des Blancs.
In a classic Champagne blend, the tension, backbone and characteristic red berry aroma comes from Pinot Noir grapes, the Meunier brings roundness and the Chardonnay finishes with apple, brioche and minerality.
Champagne undergoes one of the most complex processes before sale. After harvest, grapes are pressed and undergo an alcoholic fermentation and commonly, a malolactic fermentation (at the producer's discretion). The resultant still wine is then blended with other batches to obtain a ‘house style’. This still blend is then bottled with sugar for a second fermentation to achieve Champagne’s defining effervescence. The bottles mature for a long time at an average temperature of 12 degrees in the deep cool cellars of Champagne. Maturation takes between 12 and 36 months.
At the end of this period, each bottle must be strained of fermentation residue (lees) in a process called ‘disgorgement’. The neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap released and the frozen plug (containing the unwanted sediment) is ejected by the bottle’s internal pressure. The process is often aided by or performed solely by hand.
Finally, before corking, producers add their signature “liqueur de dosage”, injecting a secret combination of wine and sugar to create their Champagne’s most defining features.
Styles of Champagne are:
• Doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per litre)
• Demi-sec (32-50 grams of sugar)
• Sec (17-32 grams of sugar)
• Extra-dry (12-17 grams of sugar)
• Brut (less than 12 grams of sugar)
• Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar)
• Brut Nature or Dosage Zero (less than 3 grams of sugar and no added sugar in the final “liqueur de dosage”)