The Champagne region is located 145 kilometres northeast of Paris and is one of the world’s most northerly fine-wine regions. It is generally divided into three parts – the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.
The region contains 75,000 acres of vineyards. It’s interesting to note that most and the greatest vineyards of Champagne are not owned by great landowners but by thousands of growers, often working part-time.
The vineyards are situated on deep chalk soils, part of the same great basin that forms the famous white cliffs of Dover in southern England. The chalk serves as a natural moisture regulator, providing good drainage and reflects the sunlight and its heat.
Regulations dictate which of the three permitted grapes may be planted where.
The slopes of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs provide the best vineyards. The greatest concentration of villages designated as Grand and Premier Cru are found in these two areas.
The Montagne de Reims is planted mainly with Pinot Noir. The Montagne is a forested plateau south of Reims. Its wines give the great champagnes their backbone – their weight and richness.
Along both banks of the River Marne is the Vallée de la Marne. This zone produces the fullest, ripest wines, predominately from Pinot Meunier, and to a lesser extent Pinot Noir grapes.
Extending south from Epernay for about 21 km. is the Côte des Blancs. This area produces fine Chardonnay that give freshness to the blend and provides the sparkle to the wine.
The Côte de Sézanne is a relatively new region. It is planted almost exclusively with Chardonnay.
The classification system in Champagne is based by vineyard and is established by the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C.). The land is given a grade based on its suitability for growing white grapes or black grapes. A grade of 100% percent has been given to the 17 Grand Cru villages. The 38 Premier Cru villages have grades from 90 to 99%. The rest have a grade ranging from 80 to 89%. Champagne houses use the average percentage rating of the grapes used in their blends to establish the quality of their raw materials.
The richness of champagne wines is largely due to the cold climate of northern France. The bubbles in champagne are a natural phenomenon.
Three grape varieties are used to make Champagne — Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is the most prevalent, making up about 40% of grape production. It is easier to grow and is less prone to frost damage. Pinot Meunier makes up the base wine for all but the very finest champagnes.
Pinot Noir makes up about 35% of the blend. It is responsible for the depth of fruit and longevity of the wine.
Chardonnay accounts for the remaining 25% and adds lightness and elegance to the blend.
The lack color in most champagne is the result of a gentle pressing, so as to extract the juice but not the color of the dark grape skins.
The main difference between the various Champagne brands or houses, is in the making of the cuvéee, or the blend. A house builds a reputation based on the particular style of blend of its non-vintage wines. So each year the wine must be consistent. The large houses store millions of gallons of wine from various vineyards and grapes for blending purposes. As a result, once you find a house style you like, it will be available year after year as long as that house exists.
In especially good years, some vintage champagne is produced. Some feel that the extra depth in taste is well worth the extra cost of these wines. Eighty percent of the contents of vintage champagne must contain grapes from the declared year.
Champagnes are labeled based on their sugar content; Extra Brut, Brut Sauvage, Ultra Brut, Brut Intégral or Brut Zéro. These wines are bone dry with less than 0.6% of residual sugar per litre. This wine is rarely made.
This is the most popular style of champagne. The best blends are always reserved for the brut and is the mainstay of the business. It has less than 1.5% residual sugar and is very dry.
Extra Dry, Extra Sec
Sweetened with 1.2 to 2% residual sugar per litre, it is still dry and goes well with desserts .
Although it means “dry” in French, it means “moderately dry” or “slightly sweet” as it pertains to champagne. It has 1.7 to 3.5% residual sugar per litre.
This style is distinctly sweet or medium. It contains between 3.3 to 5% residual sugar per litre.
This is the sweetest style of champagne. It is very sweet and is more of a dessert-style wine. It has a minimum of 5% residual sugar per litre.
Blanc de Noirs
Occasionally you will find Blanc de Noirs. This style is made entirely from black grapes but is white. It offers a wine that is fuller than those with Chardonnay in the blend.
Blanc de Blancs
This wine is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape and is the most delicate of champagnes. Since only 25% of Champagne is planted with Chardonnay grapes, it is generally a more expensive option.
COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on Champagne’s economy. With weddings and other celebratory events being cancelled or postponed all around the world there has been a massive reduction in demand for the famous bubbly.
However, keep in mind that Champagne is not just for toasting and celebrations; it is much more versatile. Brut pairs well with fish and seafood, or moderately spiced Asian cuisine. The sweeter varieties make an excellent choice to serve with desserts, such as fresh berries. Champagne can also be served on its own as a pre-dinner drink or for no particular reason at all.
Now may be a good time to discover/rediscover Champagne. Prices may never be better and you could develop a new appreciation for this magical bubbly.