What is Champagne?
Champagne is a wine region of France approximately 160km East of Paris. Also, the name of the wines produced from the area. Most famously, it is a sparkling wine that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle and aging on lees (the dead yeast cells). Occasionally you will find still wines, but they are rare and expensive (and sometimes of questionable value). The fantastically named Bouzy Rouge is one such example.
Today Champagne is 34,000 hectares of vines. 16,000 growers supply grapes to 320 Champagne houses. Each year, the Champagne region produces about 300 million bottles of Champagne.
History of Champagne
The development of vineyards in the Champagne region dates from around the 5th Century. In early times still (not sparkling) wines are what they produced and it was not until the 17th Century that the process of making sparkling wine that we now know as Champagne developed. Work on how to manage the fermentation process along with the corks, the adding of sugar and yeast for the secondary fermentation, and more robust bottle design made this possible. The house of Ruinart became the first recorded Champagne house.
Size of the vineyards:
Since 1927 the Champagne AOC area has been 34,300 hectares (85,000 acres).
Production volume (per year):
Each year is different depending on the conditions. In 2006 they produced 103,400 hectolitres which filled 320 million bottles.
Main Grapes Allowed:
Pinot Noir (approximately 38% of plantings), Pinot Meunier (32%), Chardonnay (30%) planted with vine density of 10,000 per hectare.
You’ll find other grapes planted though. Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are all permitted in the production of Champagne.
15,113 vineyards – 319 villages. 17 Villages are Grand Cru, and 42 are Premier Cru.
A predominantly chalky subsoil with a thin layer of topsoil. The hillside vineyards provide good drainage.
Chilly winters and sunny summers and autumns, the average temperature around 11 to 12 C.
The main areas of grape production for Champagne are:
Montagne de Reims
The most northerly area, and is planted mainly with Pinot Noir, mostly on north-facing slopes.
Côte des Blancs
A mostly east-facing region south of Epernay. Almost entirely planted with Chardonnay.
Vallée de la Marne
The area runs west-east and is planted with all three grape varieties, although the Pinot Meunier dominates.
Cotes des Bar
Part of the Aube district where the soils types and indeed geographically they closer to Chablis and Burgundy than the traditional Champagne profile. The limestone base and continental climate make it perfect for Pinot Noir.
The big houses dominate Champagne. The quantity of production is mind-boggling but shows how impressive the consistent quality they achieve is. Most of the big houses buy in grapes from growers all over the region to supply their needs. Recently there has been a significant surge in ‘Grower Producers’. That is producers who own their vineyards and make their wines. A similar event happened in Burgundy at the start of the 1900s. There is no right or wrong, better or worse; just different styles. The Growers tend to make more exciting wines, but that does not take away from the enjoyment of drinking a glass of one of the big houses to start a meal.
Strength In Blending
There are very few single vintage, single vineyard, single variety Champagnes. I can only name one – Salon. And it was produced only 47 times between 1900 and 1999. Why? Due to the large area the region covers, and the challenging weather, the houses blend wines to produce a consistent and reliable product every year. This is where the growers come in. They relish the chance to show off vintage variation and small plot wines. But even the growers tend to use some reserve wines in their blend.
These wines are based on one vintage but will contain ‘Reserve Wine’. Reserve wine old stocks that they keep specifically to blend into the Non-Vintage wine. The purpose is to have a consistent and reliable drink every time someone buys their NV. NV Champagne must spend 12 months on lees at a minimum and 15 months in the bottle before releases. Most quality houses age their Champagne for much longer than that to achieve the desired level of Autolysis.
The NV style came to be as a way to use the grapes that weren’t perfectly ripe. Champagne was so marginal of climate that it was unlikely they would get a drinkable wine every. Holding on to that wine and blending it across multiple vintages allowed them to use the grapes and make an agreeable style.
Vintage Champagne comes solely from one year’s harvest. In the past, it was a celebration that the year was ripe and the grapes were in good condition. Even now though, it is crucial that these grapes go into NV blend to bring the quality up.
Some houses now release a Vintage Champagne every year. The changed climate conditions does mean there are few ‘disastrous’ vintages.
Vintage Champagne must spend 3 years in the bottle before release. But the best wines are released after longer aging. 7 – 10 years or more.
Given the scope, they have to blend it is not surprising that there are numerous styles of Champagne that have developed over the years as tastes have gradually changed. A producer’s ‘House Style’ is often celebrated and people who love Pol Roger’s mid-weight, aromatic qualities might not enjoy Louis Roederer’s lean, zestiness or Bollinger’s powerful richness.
As well as that, you see:
Blanc de Blancs
White from Whites. A wine made with Chardonnay or other white varieties. Lean, more acidic and beautifully perfumed. As a result of the structure, this style lends itself to aging. A lot of my favourite Champagnes are Blanc de Blanc styles.
Blanc de Noirs
Yep, white from reds. Still a white wine but made with Pinot Noir or Meunier (or both or something else). Heavier, red-fruited and with more phenolics. Some of them need time to come around. These Champagnes can often replace a light red at a meal.
A pink wine. Dry, perfumed, and a bit more silky one of my best experiences was drinking a magnum of Billecart-Salmon Rosé with friends.
Meaning Semi-Dry. It has a higher dosage than popular Champagne today. It is sweeter, creamier and this balances out the acidity. It also makes it pretty handy with lighter desserts.
In this case, the producer doesn’t add any dosage (sweetness) to the wine at the final stage of production. Show a wine ‘nude’ is a brave move and often only done in great years where the fruit is perfectly ripe. It is also an indication (not a guarantee though) that the wine will be highly acidic, as often the dosage is used to balance the acid profile.
Characters Of Champagne
All Champagne is clear and bubbly. Beyond this, there are so many variables. Commonly I find stonefruits, raspberry, chalk, citrus. The autolysis characters are dough, bread, yeast. The best thing to do is to drink a lot of Champagne. From different producers and styles. After a while, you’ll start to
This is the most elusive grape. It is relatively early ripening and extremely sensitive to terroir. Its perfect place on earth is the Cote d’Or in Burgundy. So haunting are great red Burgundy’s charms that growers everywhere try to emulate them. Pinot Noir is not just a one-trick pony. Apart from the best reds in the world, you can find world-class Pinot Noir rosé, sparkling. You can even find sweet wines, whites on occasion and I’ve tasted a decent fortified Pinot Noir too.
Meunier is most famous for adding body and richness to the wines of Champagne. The trade-off is it tends to make the Champagnes age quicker and is therefore often left out of Prestige Cuvées. Not usually found in still table wine production.
The grape that you can plant anywhere, in any climate and do anything to and it will still taste like an OK wine. When people hit the sweet spot of site, climate, cropping and winemaking, Chardonnay becomes a magical wine that will age gracefully but charm you at any age. Chardonnays can range from cool-climate lean and citrusy to warmer climate tropical and overt. Oak and lees can add flavouring as can malolactic fermentation.
Its spiritual home is Alsace, but these vines have travelled the world. In Alsace, it is often blended with the other Pinot family members to make a full-bodied, easy-drinking white. Generally not as complex as the other Pinots but the best are excellent. AKA Weissburgunder.
The land that some many New World (not European) wine producers look to emulate. To generalise about French wine, I would say it is savoury, lighter-bodied wines. They are the definition of elegant, complex. There are many styles, though. And there is a French wine for every palate. They lead the world in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy. Sparkling Wine in Champagne. Cabernet and Merlot in Bordeaux. Syrah(Shiraz) and Grenache in the Rhone Valley. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris in Alsace. Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley. Gamay in Beaujolais.
Wine is the result you get from fermented grape juice. There is proof of wine production dating back 8000 years ago. Fashions, innovations and many other factors have influenced the way wine has evolved over the years.
The wine grape is special. It contains everything you need to make grape wine except for the yeast, which lives on the outside of the skins.
Human inputs can influence the final product, including the viticulture (growing) choices. And the winemaker can shape the wine to a point too.
The best wines of the world often refer to terroir. Terroir is a French term that refers to all the climatic, geological and topographical influences on a specific piece of land. And it is true that neighbouring vineyards, grown identically, can taste noticeably different.
Fizz, bubby, bubbles. It is a wine with bubbles in it. There are many ways to put the bubbles in, and many styles and flavours you can find. Important to know that you should never buy cheap Sparkling. Champagne is still the quality leader of the world. But great Sparkling can be found in Moscato (sweet), Prosecco, Franciacorta (Italy), Cava (Spain), Australia, New Zealand, Loire Valley and Burgundy Cremant (France).
The Wine Depository
I, Phil, have been running The Wine Depository since 2011. The Wine Depository exists to make sure you are drinking the good wines. You can browse and pick what is interesting to you. Or you can make contact with me. I’ll make sure you get what you want, to your palate, to your budget and to your door.