The world’s most famous sparkling wine – the stuff of legend and myth, the beverage of the aristocracy and the ‘upper-crust’ – discovered, so they say, by a winemaking monk. Its story is as rich as the privileged royalty that embraced it and ensured its place in history. It is ‘champagne’!
When the Romans first conquered this region in 50AD, they named it ‘campagne’ meaning barren land. They soon found out why nothing grew on these undulating hillsides – chalk – which proved to be the main building material for their new capital city, Reims.
The Romans quarried the chalk by carving down and out into the soft material, forming a warren of 250 caverns and caves up to 100 feet below the surface. These ‘crayer’ were used for centuries as a place of protection from invading armies and would prove useful to the region’s most important industry – wine.
After the decline of the Roman empire, Europe entered the Dark Ages and in the 5thC AD, the invading Francs conquered the region, uniting the tribes and making their newly Christian king, Clovis, the first King of France.
The vineyards were now in the charge of Benedictine monks and by the 9th C, the still wines of Champagne, red and white, were becoming well known. Cities such as Epernay and Troyes became merchant and trading centers and soon, more people were interested in the wines than wool, leather and spices.
It wasn’t until the end of the 17th C that the wines became the sparkling style we now associate with Champagne, and they proved so popular that many merchant traders diversified to become champagne ‘houses’ – Ruinart being the first in 1729.
Champagne has survived through the destructions and devastation of wars, revolutions, starvation, poverty and disease. It has been the wine of royalty, the darling of the Gilded Age and today, it is still the wine of celebration and success
In modern champagne production, there are three main grape varieties, each contributing their own character:
There are also some minor varieties which are still in use, accounting for a mere .3% of the vineyard plantings: Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
How is Champagne Made?
The classic ‘bubbles’ of champagne are created using a technique known as:
“Method Traditionelle” or “Method Champenois”.
The Champagne Process
The fruit is harvested by hand on designated dates, when the ripe berries have less sugar and more acid than those chosen for still wines.
The fruit is delivered to designated pressing centers where whole clusters are pressed slowly and in several phases, with the first 451 gallons/2050 liters being designated as ‘cuvée’. This is the most coveted juice: higher in both sugar and acids with the best aromas and is used to create top of the line champagnes.
The ‘Premiére taille (or cut) is the 2nd 132 gallons/500 liters. A bit more astringent and not as complex, this is mostly used for creating sweeter styles.
The remaining pressings are not allowed for sparkling wines.
Vin Clair (Base Wine):
After the juice settles (débourbage) it is fermented in either stainless steel, concrete, wood tank or, for some higher end champagnes, French oak barrels, creating dry still wines. Each variety, vineyard and lot is kept separate.
The finished base wines are blended together, often to create a ‘house style’. For many of the large champagne houses, the grapes have come from a variety of different plots, regions and terroirs, so the blending of the wines is more about creating a story of the region and producing a consistent, quality product.
Tirage (the act of bottling):
Once the base wine is established, it is bottled and then undergoes the important process of ‘Prise de Mousse’ or ‘seizing the foam”. With the addition of ‘Liquer de Tirage’ – a mixture of yeast, sugar and perhaps some nutrients – the stage is set for the all-important second fermentation inside the bottle, guaranteeing the famous sparkle of Champagne by capturing the CO2 produced by the yeast (along with alcohol!).
The bottles are closed with a crown cap – like a soda bottle – and laid on their sides in the cool, dark cellar.
As the yeast cells die off, they drop out of the wine, forming a sediment known as ‘lees’. While the wine and lees rest together, the wine will mature and develop typical champagne characteristics such as toasty brioche, nuts, honey and a supple mouthfeel.
While lees may add desired complexity to the wine, they also lends a hazy appearance. To gather and take out the sediment, a technique known as remuage, or riddling, was created to move the sediments to the neck of the bottle where they could be more easily removed.
The bottles are placed in a special rack (pupitres) and every day, they are given a quick 1/8th turn and slight shake. Gradually, the downward angle of the bottle is increased, so the gathered lees form a plug in the bottle neck.
This process takes 4 – 6 weeks to complete and is still utilized for many of the ‘Prestige’ champagnes. A modern ‘gyro pallet’ can now accomplish the task in one week and hold 500 bottles, a much more ‘progressive’ approach.
The sediment is removed by immersing the neck of the bottle in a cold (45˚F) briney solution, freezing the deposits. The bottle is quickly opened and the plug is forced out.
During degorement, a small amount of wine also escapes. The ‘dosage’ or ‘Liquer d’exposition’ not only replaces the lost liquid but is also an opportunity to change the style of the finished wine by the addition of a touch of sweetness.
Next, comes the cork closure, wire cage and capsule. Each bottle is shaken to incorporate the dosage and then returns to the cellar to rest for several months or years.
Wine Laws of Champagne
Historically, Champagne has had to find ways to protect it’s name from fraud: counterfeit wines, the use of fruit from outside the region, and the misuse of the word ‘Champagne’ on wines not produced in Champagne.
Starting in 1898 various syndicates and societies were formed to regulate and establish geographic boundaries for vineyards and set standards of production.
Finally, in 1936, the AOC Champagne was created, protecting and acknowledging this unique region and its wines.
- AOC Champagne – 100% Sparkling wines
- AOC Rosé de Riceys – 100% Rose
- AOC Coteaux Champenois – 100% still wines
With this designation came the creation of regulations regarding the vineyards and wine production such as dedicated harvest dates, tonnage, aging requirements and other rules to safeguard the standards of the wines.
What Are the Different Champagne Styles
Where Are the Champagne Regions?
Champagne is divided into 4 main regions and contains 319 villages.
- 17 are ranked ‘Grand Cru’
- 41 are ‘Premier Cru’
- 255 ‘Village’
The grading system, the “Echelle des Crus” was created in 1911 and rankings apply to the wine producing village and all the surrounding vineyards.
1) Montagne and Val de Reims:
Main Grape Varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay
Soils: Sand, Clay, Marl, Chalk sub-soils
Location: The Montagne de Reims – south of the city of Reims & The Val de Reims – West & Northwest of the city of Reims
Terroirs: Grande Montagne de Reims, Mont de Berru, Massif de Saint-Thierry (most northerly part of Champagne, Vesle & Arde Valleys
2) Vallée de la Marne:
Main Grape Varieties: Pinot Meunier
Soils: Marl, clay, sand
Location: West of the city of Epernay on the banks of the Marne River
Terroirs: Grand Vallée de la Marne, Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, Vallé de la Marne Rive Gauche, Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Condé, Vallée de la Marne Ouest
3) Côte des Blanc
Main Grape Varieties: Chardonnay
Soils: Chalk sub-soil
Location: South of the city of Epernay
Terroirs: Val du Petit Morin, Sézannais, Montgeux
4) Côte des Bars
Main Grape Varieties: Pinot Noir
Soils: Limestone rich Kimmeridgean marl
Location: Southeast of the city of Troyes. This is the most southerly part of Champagne.
Terroirs: Bar sur Aubois, Barséguanais, Les Riceys