In part 3 of the French Waterways guide to French wine we move our focus to a wine region synonymous with celebration: Champagne. The queen of celebratory drinks, champagne is famous the world over as the bubbly to crack open whenever there’s something to celebrate. Whether you’re toasting a marriage, welcoming the New Year or christening a new cruise liner, the region of Champagne provides the champagne for the occasion.
In this article, we take a look at the history of this sparkling region, reveal just what makes champagne unique, showcase the different regions behind its production, sample its bouquet and provide tips on how to open a bottle and store those bubbles.
A bit of champagne history
As they did in most of the rest of the France, the Romans bought vineyards to Champagne, in the northeast of France, some 150km to the east of Paris. The first wines to come out of Champagne were pale rosés, made from Pinot Noir grapes – they weren’t sparkling.
The bubbles came about because of the area’s climate. Wine stored in cellars during the cold winters stopped fermentation, a process that started again with the arrival of warmer temperatures in the spring. The stop-start fermentation caused carbon dioxide to be released in the bottles. While the early champagne wine producers did their best to stop the bubbles, the sparkling wine quickly caught on among the 18th century nobility in Europe. By the 19th century, the largest champagne houses had perfected their méthode champenoise and the region became the world’s preferred bubbly.
Did you know? During World War I, Champagne found itself in the middle of hostilities. Trench warfare and bombardments practically wiped out the region’s vineyards.
Perhaps the most important thing about champagne is that despite what anyone says, only the real mccoy comes from Champagne. It’s the only sparkling wine in France allowed to call itself champagne – bubbly produced in any other region generally goes under the name of crémant.
Champagne is produced in four areas or terroirs. The region has several unique characteristics, all of which are reflected in the wine.
Climate – Champagne has a mixture of a continental and oceanic climate. This gives the region harsh winters and often late springs – early frosts can and do wipe out a significant part of the harvest – as well as moderate rainfall.
Soil type – limestone makes up most of the Champagne soil and explains the strong mineral taste to most types of Champagne.
Position – all vineyards are planted on relatively steep terrain with a south-facing aspect to guarantee maximum sunshine and at altitudes ranging from 90m to 300m.
Montagne de Reims
This is the northern-most region of Champagne and home to the area’s largest town, Reims. Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown in this terroir. Nine champagne houses have their headquarters in Reims.
Vallé de la Marne
South of Reims and to the west of the region generally, this champagne-growing area produces mostly Meunier grapes.
Côte des Blancs
In the south of the region, this area centres around Épernay, the capital of Champagne. The elegant town is home to the biggest names in bubbly including perhaps the most famous of all, Moet & Chandon, founded in 1743. Wine cellars in Épernay reputedly house over 200 million bottles of champagne. Côte des Blancs vineyards produce mainly Chardonnay grapes.
Côte des Bar
Situated in the south-east of the region, this area is home to one of the most famous wines in Champagne: Rosé des Riceys. Centred around the village of Riceys, it’s the largest terroir in the region and home to three AOC wines. Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown in Côte des Bar.
Did you know? The official Champagne Route takes in 80 independent producers of the wine along 8 trails that cover 700km. Find out more
Main champagne producing grapes
One of the more unusual characteristics of champagne is that it’s a white wine made predominantly from black grapes. The black Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes make up two-thirds of the wine. The remaining third comes from Chardonnay grapes.
Pinot Noir grapes, grown in the south and north of the region, add body to the wine. Meunier grapes, cultivated in the Vallé de la Marne district, give the wine its roundness and fruitiness. And lastly, Chardonnay grapes, grown around the town of Épernay, are responsible for champagne’s liveliness and the distinctive mineral component.
Did you know? In its 30,000 hectares with 5,000 independent producers, Champagne is home to a total of 320 crus in total including 17 Grand Cru and 42 Premier Cru wines.
How Champagne is made
For a bottle to gain the champagne label, not only must the grapes be grown within one of the four terroirs, the wine must also be produced following the strict méthode champenoise. The method begins at harvest time from mid-September to October when the grapes are all picked by hand. This ensures that the bunches of grapes remain intact since the first pressing must be of the whole clusters rather than single grapes.
The first pressing, known as the cuvée, produces subtle aromas. The champagne that ages best is made from grapes being pressed only once. Grapes that undergo a second pressing, known as taille, produce wines with strong bouquets that don’t age quite as well.
Once the grapes are pressed, they undergo two fermentations. Wines are then blended to the house ‘recipe’. All champagne wines contain grapes of the three main varieties plus a portion of grape juice reserved from previous harvests. No house follows the same proportion of ingredients and as a result, every single champagne is unique.
Once blended, the wine is placed in bottles to mature. The prise de mousse that takes place in the bottle is the process that produces the sparkle. Expert bottle turners turn the wine throughout the maturing process, which takes a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage champagnes. Vintage wines must spend at least three years maturing.
Did you know? Expert bottle turners, known as remueurs, can turn up to 40,000 bottles a day.
Types of champagne
Depending on its sugar content, champagne is classed in six different ways. The sweetest is known as Doux. In reducing sugar content the other five are: Demi Sec, Dry, Extra Dry, Brut, Extra Brut and Brut Nature.
Champagne generally comes in 75ml bottles, but you can also buy much larger bottles. The other large six sizes range from the modest Magnum, containing 1.5 litres (the equivalent of two bottles), to the enormous Nebuchadnezzar with a whopping 15 litres (20 bottles). In between there is a Jereboam (4 bottles), Rehoboam (6 bottles), Methuselah (8 bottles), Salmanazar (12 bottles), Balthazar (16 bottles).
Did you know? Many wine cellars in Reims are known as crayères and were once chalk quarries used by the Gauls and Romans.
How to open and store champagne
While the resounding pop of a champagne bottle being opened adds a touch of pizzazz to a party, the cork is not meant to go anywhere. The correct way to open a bottle is to remove the wire and foil top while keeping the cork in place. You should then hold the cork and turn the bottle gently until the cork is released. Serve in tall, narrow champagne flutes to ensure maximum bubbles.
Champagne should be kept in a cool, dark place and served at between 8 and 10 degrees. A degree or two cooler is recommended when sabraging (the art of opening champagne with a sabre). Perhaps best of all, it doesn’t age particularly well so needs drinking as soon as possible.
Did you know? Champagne pairs well with almost any food and can be served with starters, mains and/or dessert.
Try champagne for yourself
Discover the world of authentic bubbly for yourself. Our luxury barge tours cover the Champagne region, stopping at the vineyards and wine cellars en route giving you the chance to learn about and sample the sparkle from the experts themselves. Our barges also serve champagne on board.
Step by step guide to French wine:
- Part 1: French wines – an overview
- Part 2: Bordeaux wines
- Part 3: Burgundy wines
- Part 5: Loire Valley wines
- Part 6: Côtes du Rhone wines
- Part 7: Alsace wines
- Part 8 : Languedoc wines
- Part 9: Lesser known wines of France
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