Champagne, derived from the Latin term "Campania," originally described the open countryside north of Rome.
It later became associated with a province in northeastern France, now divided into Champagne Pouilleuse and Champagne Viticole. Champagne was the first region to produce sparkling wine in large quantities. While it is still renowned, it now represents less than one bottle in twelve of the world's total sparkling wine production. Other wine regions, like Burgundy and Bordeaux, have emulated Champagne's winemaking methods and grape varieties. To maintain quality, Champagne producers have regulated their wines and cannot significantly expand their vineyard area.
What's the history of Champagne?
Champagne's strategic location at the crossroads of major trade routes brought prosperity but also frequent conflicts over the past 1,500 years. Important battles, such as Attila the Hun's defeat at Châlons-sur-Marne in 455, marked its history. Vineyards emerged in the region around the 5th century AD, gaining fame due to Rheims' position as the spiritual centre of France. However, until the 17th century, there was no generic "vin de Champagne." Winemaking improved in the 17th century, and sparkling Champagne gained popularity in the Court of Versailles and London society. The 19th century witnessed significant advancements, leading to the birth of the Champagne industry dominated by renowned brand names. Challenges like wars, phylloxera, and fraud plagued Champagne, but collective efforts by growers and merchants brought stability. From 1950 to 2007, Champagne experienced unprecedented prosperity, with the French market consuming the majority of sales. Co-operatives and merchants played significant roles, with the dominance of major houses like Moët & Chandon.
Where is Champagne?
In 1927, the legal definition of the Champagne region was established, encompassing various subregions. It stretches from Charly-sur-Marne to the Montagne de Reims, Épernay, Côte des Blancs, and Côte de Sézanne, with a separate subregion called Côte des Bar in Aube. The vineyard acreage has fluctuated over the years, reaching 34,282 hectares in 2013, with the majority owned by approximately 15,000 growers. The region's slopes, rich in calcareous soil, provide favourable drainage and humidity conditions. Champagne's exposure to cold winters makes grape growing challenging, leading to blended wines from different villages, grape varieties, and vintages. The region has a scale of prices based on the status of each commune, and a proposed expansion of allowed communes has been influenced by changing sales trends.
What are the grape varieties in Champagne?
Today, the Champagne vineyards mainly consist of three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir represents 38% of plantings, providing structure and fruit depth. Chardonnay, grown on 30% of the vineyard, adds austerity and elegance. Pinot Meunier, accounting for 32%, contributes early-maturing richness. Other varieties like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier are also present in small quantities. Grape yields have increased due to new clones and methods, regulated by the Comité Champagne. Vine density is high, and grapes are harvested in September, with potential alcohol levels controlled and supplemented during fermentation.
How is Champagne made?
Pressing grapes for champagne production requires careful handling to ensure the white wine juice is not tainted by the black grape skins. Traditional vertical basket presses, known as Coquard presses, were used, but now hydraulic and pneumatic horizontal presses are allowed. After settling, the juice is fermented in stainless steel vats with temperature variations. Malolactic conversion may occur, and blending is an important aspect of champagne production. Bottling involves adding bottling liquor, followed by ageing on lees, riddling, disgorgement, and the addition of a sweetening dosage before final corking. Most champagnes are labelled as brut.
In conclusion, Champagne has a rich history as a region that pioneered sparkling wine production. While it represents a smaller portion of the global sparkling wine market today, it remains renowned for its quality. Champagne's strategic location, regulated production methods, and specific grape varieties contribute to its unique character. The winemaking process involves precise pressing techniques, fermentation in stainless steel vats, blending, and a careful bottling process. Despite challenges faced throughout its history, Champagne has persevered and continues to captivate wine lovers worldwide with its exquisite bubbles and timeless charm.