Would you like a drink? Part II

In honour of my late mother, I’ve been looking into the history and provenance of her favourite (and mine) drink, which was surprisingly interesting, so I’m spreading it over a couple of posts.

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the various villages in the different regions within Champagne and  introduced the concept of  grand cru and premier cru villages.

There are 320 villages in the Champagne region and under the historic system called the Échelle des Crus  each village  (not a specific vineyard or house) is classified based on a rating of 100% – 80%.

The history of the Cru system of classification

The classification of Champagne vineyards developed in mid-20th century as a means of setting the price of grapes grown through the villages of the Champagne wine region. Unlike the classification of Bordeaux wine estates or Burgundy Grand cru vineyards, the classification of Champagne is based on which village the vineyards are located. A percentile system (Échelle des Crus) acts as a pro-rata system for determining grape prices. Vineyards located in villages with high rates will receive higher prices for their grapes than vineyards located in villages with a lower rating. While the Échelle des Crus system was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus.

The system resulted from a battle royal between (grape) growers and (champagne) producers borne out of the fundamental business issue of supply and demand. A string of circumstances (including several years’ poor weather, poor vintages and the phylloxera epidemic) created a crisis in Champagne which culminated in a the champagne riots of 1910 and 1911 – the French love nothing more than a good protest!

The system isn’t without controversy, with many winemakers arguing it is not a direct measure of grape or wine quality. Many say having a cru classification applying to an entire village (rather than a vineyard as applies in Burgundy) doesn’t account for variances in terroir…..… but the classification system remains in place.

While the system no longer officially applies for setting grape prices (houses and growers again negotiate with each other), the classifications can still be used by champagne makers for labeling champagnes and marketing purposes.

So what does it all mean?

The logical conclusion is that all the best wines must then be made exclusively with grapes from Grand Cru villages. But this isn’t the case because Champagne is fundamentally a blended wine: blends of grape types, or years or vineyards. While often cuvée de prestige (top product) wines are made exclusively from grand cru villages, many of the great cuvée de prestige wines are made with blends including some grapes from premier cru villages.

Champagne growers are more likely to be single vineyard and if they have grand cru designation, they will label their wines accordingly.

There are two main classifications – grand cru and premier cru.

17 Grand Cru villages are rated at 100%. All the grand cru villages are in the three most regarded districts – nine in the Montagne de Reims, six in the Côte des Blancs and two in the Vallée de la Marne.

  • Ambonnay
  • Avize
  • Ay
  • Beaumont-sur-Vesle
  • Bouzy
  • Chouilly
  • Cramant
  • Louvois
  • Mailly Champagne
  • Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
  • Oger
  • Oiry
  • Puisieulx
  • Sillery
  • Tours-sur-Marne
  • Verzenay
  • Verzy

The 42 Premier Cru are rated 90-99% and the remaining 261 villages in Champagne France are rated between 80 and 89%.

I don’t know about you but I’m thinking a visit to the Champagne region is long overdue.


Would you like a drink? Part I

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).

Montagne de Reims

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.

The Vallée de la Marne

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

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.

Côte de Sézanne

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.

The Aube / Côte des Bar

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.

Where the grapes are grown in the Champagne region changes the champagne

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.