Champagne is the name of the world’s most famous sparkling wine, the appellation under which it is sold, and the French wine region from which it comes. While it has been used to refer to sparkling wines from all over the world – a point of much controversy and legal wrangling in recent decades – Champagne is a legally controlled and restricted name.
It's difficult to attribute Champagne's fame to a discrete set of factors, but there are three key reasons of which we can be reasonably certain. First are the all-important bubbles, which make it stand out from less ‘exciting’ wines. Second are its high prices, which endow an air of exclusivity. Third (and perhaps most important), are two centuries of clever marketing, to a willingly receptive consumer base.
Located at a northern latitude of 49 degrees, Champagne lies at the northern edge of the world’s vineyard-growing areas, with lower average temperatures than any other French wine region. In this kind of cool climate, the growing season is rarely warm enough to ripen grapes to the levels required for standard winemaking. Even in temperate years, Champagne’s grapes still bear the hallmark acidity of a marginal climate, and it was only the discovery of secondary fermentation that provided a wine style capable of harnessing – and even embracing – this tartness.
Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are the primary grape varieties used to make Champagne – a recipe which is used for sparkling wines across the world. It is a little-known fact that four other varieties are also permitted for use in Champagne and are still employed today, albeit in tiny quantities. They are Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (Fromenteau Gris) and Arbane (Arbanne). All seven varieties are still used together in at least one producer's Champagne; Laherte Freres' Champagne '7' is the most salient example. (© Proprietary Content, Wine-Searcher)
The reason for this encepagement is not necessarily of the Champenois' own choosing, however. As with so many French wines, it was the local climate and soils which dictated that Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay would be grown. That said, it was the famous Benedictine monk Dom Perignon (often erroneously credited with the invention of sparkling wines) who encouraged the use of black-skinned grapes (specifically Pinot Noir) over white. This advice was given on the basis that the wines produced from Pinot Noir were less prone to re-fermentation, which had not yet become a controlled part of winemaking in Champagne.
The first wines produced here – more than a thousand years ago – were unlike those which have made the region famous today. They were typically pink-hued still wines made mostly from Pinot Noir. Today, the wines come in several forms. The whites may be either Blanc de Noirs (made from red grapes), Blanc de Blancs (made from white grapes, most often Chardonnay) or just plain Blanc (made from any combination of the permitted varieties). Champagne is also made as rose, either by adding red wine to a white blend or sometimes by fermenting the juice in contact with the skins. These types all come with varying degrees of sweetness – not necessarily the result of residual sugar, but due to the addition of a dosage just before the wine is finally bottled.
The production process for Champagne is similar to that for other wines, but includes an additional (and vital) stage, during which a second fermentation is started in the bottle by the addition of yeast and sugars. It is this that generates the carbon dioxide bubbles responsible for the pop and sparkle that are the symbols of Champagne. Aged on its lees for at least 12 months, Champagne may not be released to market until it has spent a further three months in bottle (24 months in the case of the vintage wines).
Most Champagne is sold without a vintage statement, making it ‘Non-Vintage’ or NV. The main reason for this is the variability in vintages which results from the marginal climate here; by blending vintages together, the effect of a bad year is lessened. In years of exceptional quality, however, many houses release a vintage Champagne (millesimé in French) made exclusively from grapes harvested in the stated year. These are typically designed for longer bottle ageing and are made to higher quality specifications.
Aside from the climatic conditions of the particular vintage and the characteristics of the grape varieties, there is a third component in the distinctiveness of Champagne. The landscape that earned Champagne its name (it roughly translates as 'open countryside') undulates very gently over the white, calcareous soils of the Paris Basin. This famous chalk is distinct from the limestone soils of other French wine regions, being much finer-grained and more porous. This looser structure means that its mineral content is more readily absorbed by the vine roots, and it also provides excellent drainage – avoiding the risks of waterlogging. A further benefit is that this permeability allows access to the water resources far below, promoting strong root development and ensuring a continuous water supply.
Even within this relatively consistent terroir, there are variations in soils and climate that make different areas better suited to the needs of the three main grape varieties. The appropriately named Cote des Blancs – and particularly the Cote de Sezanne – are where the finest Chardonnay sites are found, while the Montagne de Reims and the Vallee de la Marneare ideally suited to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The official appellations of the Champagne region are Champagne; Champagne Premier Cru and Champagne Grand Cru (which reflect high and very high quality of terroir in the vineyards); Rose de Riceys; and Coteaux Champenois. Branding is so important in Champagne that the Maison (producer) names overshadow the appellation titles themselves, severely limiting the significance of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru titles.
Rosé des Riceys and Coteaux Champenois are non-sparkling (still) wines, typically light in body and high in natural acidity. They offer a glimpse of how wines from Champagne might have been before the sparkle we know today.