Instead of “One from the vaults” today, in honour of what would’ve been my late mother’s 92nd birthday, I’m taking a look at her favourite tipple. If she asked you whether you’d like a drink, it meant only one thing, champagne. My mother felt that pretty much everything was better with champagne, and I have to agree. As do my two sisters!
Now, it was “Champagne Day” a week ago and I decided to dig a little into the history and provenance of my and my mother’s favourite tipple which turned out to be rather interesting.
As we all know, it comes the region in northeast France where it’s produced. The name “Champagne” is protected and only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region can be called Champagne. The same goes for the process that assures those trademark bubbles: It’s called the méthode champenoise and only Champagne-makers in Champagne can claim its use. A clear case of hands-off our bubbles!
Within the Champagne region, there are actually five main sub-regions which are responsible for bringing both diversity and consistency to champagne. Champagne is a blended wine and each sub-region or district is renowned for producing a specific type of grape and often a unique character to that grape variety influenced by the specific location, soil, sub-climate or vineyard aspect (terroir).
Found directly north of Epernary, it produces mostly pinots (red grapes), predominantly pinot noir (38% of plantings) – much grown on north-facing slopes – but also some meunier. More hilly than mountainous, it only reaches a maximum of 283 metres (928 feet) but the region is home to more grands crus than any other district in Champagne with a total of nine out of 17 grand cru villages. In addition, there are some very important areas of Chardonnay vineyards, accounting for 28% of the grapes in the Montagne de Reims. The chardonnay grapes are found mostly in the eastern facing villages.
Lying to the south of Epernay, it’s renowned for its abundance of meunier grapes largely grown on south-facing slopes which helps to ripen the grapes and bring a full aroma to the wines. Pinot Meunier grapes are more robust and resistant to cold weather than pinot noir and chardonnay making them well suited to the valley which is very prone to frost.
The Côte des Blancs, south of Epernay, is chardonnay country. These grapes bring freshness to champagnes. The soil in this area is rich in minerals from its chalky Belemnite sub-soil, and the vines mostly face east. Grapes from the four grand cru villages here are highly sought after and come with the highest price per kilo of any grapes in the Champagne region.
Another area which produces chardonnay grapes, it’s an extension of the Côte des Blancs. Here the sub-soil has some pockets of chalk but contains a lot of clay and silt which imparts an influence on the wines. The vines are south-east facing which aids ripeness but the region doesn’t have any grand cru or premier cru villages.
An area new to the Appellation at the start of 20th century which accounts for nearly a quarter of the Champagne region. It is a Pinot Noir region mostly used to blend in non-vintage champagnes. The Aube doesn’t contain any grand cru villages but is the only district in France to make wines under three different appellations – Champagne and two still wines, Rosé des Riceys and Coteaux Champenois.
It is not just the variety of grapes chosen for a blend that make the champagne what it is, it is also the village within the Champagne region where the grapes come from. The unique character in each wine comes from its terroir: soil, climate and aspect of each vineyard.
Next, in Part II, I’m going to be re-visiting the various villages.