The name Champagne carries almost mystical properties for wine lovers. Here, the most famous of sparkling wines are made, the essential element of any special occasion. There are a bewildering number of Champagne houses, co-operatives, and growers bottling wine under their own labels and a further substantial own-label business with wines of immense grandeur and more affordable ones too! And yet, they all fall under the auspices of just one appellation.
There are some 30,000 plus hectares under vine in the Champagne region, with many of the 19,000 growers cultivating just a hectare or two. The Kings and Queens of this minefield are the great Champagne houses, who virtually invented the concept of the brand in winemaking. For them, making sparkling wine was always the only realistic vine growing activity that could be undertaken here, amongst the windswept rolling hills in the most northerly of France’s wine regions. Ripening the three varieties Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay is by no means straightforward. Because of the variable and challenging climate, there is much vintage variation. The top vintage wines are only produced when conditions permit, under the strictest of requirements. Quality and reputation are paramount for the top producers in the region, who don’t want to risk their good standing with a bad bottle!
The appellation falls into five main districts, which accounts for some two-thirds of the working vineyard area. The five districts may yet become their own sub-appellations in a desirable move to establish a better regional identity in this geographically extensive AC. The rest of the appellation is spread across a vast area. The Montagne de Reims sub-region lies just south of the city of Reims and is famed for producing vibrant, full-bodied Champagnes. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the predominant varieties here; this is not a white wine country. The village of Bouzy is as well known for producing the still Coteaux Champenois reds as its sparkling wines.
The Vallée de la Marne to the north-west of the Montagne De Reims stretches east along the river Marne. The district’s center is the town of Epernay, a beautiful historical center full of famous Champagne Houses nearly back to back and delightful shops enticing you with their vinous wares. White grapes are predominant here, and the wines tend to be a touch lighter than those from the Montagne de Reims, with more elegance and refinement. Further east, the Côte des Blancs is, as the name suggests, white wine territory. Chardonnay is virtually the exclusive grape variety with very few red plantings. The famous villages of Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus are found here, the connoisseurs’ choice of Champagne.
Moving to the southwest of the Champagne area, north of the town of Troyes, is the Côte de Sezanne, with the small town of the same name as its heart. The vineyards are dominated again by Chardonnay, which accounts for some seven out of every ten vines. Way to the south of Troyes and away from the main Champagne appellation boundaries is the Aube. The area is one hundred miles from Reims. At present, the Aube is mostly planted with Pinot Noir. However, there is a strong case for increasing the amount of Chardonnay, as the clay and limestone soil suit the variety so well.
Champagne shares some similarities with the famous region of Burgundy, as the vineyard sites have been classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or Deuxième Cru. Unlike Burgundy, this does not indicate the quality or potential of a given location. But works more as a means by which to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest. The producer or skill of the wine-maker is king in Champagne – you may have an outstanding performer in a second-classed village and a moderate grower in a Grand Cru. One of the many fascinating contradictions in this region, unlike the Burgundian philosophy: the brand is arguably more critical than the vineyard.
Indeed, Champagne’s uniqueness and magic lie not in the soil but the variety of different styles available and the skill and prowess of the master blender. He or she is responsible for blending potentially thousands of different wines once they have been fermented to achieve the quality and style consistent with his brand. The reputation of the house rests with him or her, no small responsibility! What the Champagne drinker most commonly encounters are the non-vintage blends. These are wines made from reserve stocks blended year in year out to keep a consistency of style, not from a particular vintage. They can be excellent and affordable introductions to the wines of the region.
The champagne drinker should expect the vintage Cuvées to be a significant step up from the generic blends. They should be denser and richer in style with a significantly greater structure. The Blancs De Blancs examples are produced solely from Chardonnay, while Blancs de Noirs is produced from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to Chardonnay’s complete exclusion. Blancs de Blancs is more refined and elegant, while Blancs de Noir is fuller, with more vibrant, more opulent flavors. The pink Roses are often made by blending in a little red wine – the best result generally comes from Pinot Noir. Last but by no means least are the deluxe bottlings. These are the top end of the Champagne spectrum, uber-expensive and luxurious. There is a wide range of styles, and the best are amongst the finest white or rose wines in the world. Expect great complexity, elegance, and finesse. A wine lovers’ dream!