This summer I visited Champagne for the first time. I arrived to be greeted by cold rain, miserable weather that underlined just how extreme a climate Champagne has. It's just about as far north in Europe as it's possible to make quality wine (although England is challenging that), which is why the wines have such high acidity. Champagne is one of the most prestigious styles of wine in the world, synonymous with bubbles and celebration. What is it that makes it so special?
The Romans mark the beginning of Champagne's modern history. The name of the region comes from the Latin campania for open country, while the many underground cellars (locally called crayères) in Champagne's villages and towns were quarried by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.
Champagne is located in north-east France, at a crossroads between Germany to the east, the Low Countries to the north-east, England to the north, Paris to the west, and Burgundy to the south. This made it an important location for trade (one of the reasons the region is rich, but also why the region has been subject to war so many times) and merchants gathered in the towns of Champagne to trade their goods. They of course needed something to drink and the local wines became popular and known across northern Europe.
The most significant development in the history of the region's wines was when bubbles began to appear. Between 1530 and 1750, Europe underwent a mini-ice age which had a direct impact on the style of the wine. The cold conditions meant that fermentation was interrupted during the winter. Oblivious to how fermentation worked, producers nevertheless sent the wine in barrels to important markets, including London. There, glassblowers had discovered how to make stronger glass (by using coal instead of wood for heating the sand), so for the first time wine was able to be bottled for storage. The English had also rediscovered the practice of stopping a wine with a cork, again allowing them to bottle and store wines rather than having to sell and drink a whole barrel all at once.
The combination of unfermented wine, strong glass bottles, and corks resulted in an unexpected pop when the bottle was opened and, just as unexpectedly, bubbles in the wine. Londoners loved this new style, but the French were scandalised, accusing the English of not storing the wine properly. It kept on happening though and the English began to associate champagne with effervescence. But it wasn't until 1660 that an English scientist, Christopher Merrit, explained why those bubbles were appearing: fermentation was a result of sugar and yeast combining to form alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation was continuing to take place in the bottle, the carbon dioxide forming the bubbles in the wine.
It took a long time for champagne producers to embrace the bubbles and even as recently as the 1890s only 50% of champagne was sparkling.
That accidental process of making the wine sparkling forms the basis of how champagne is made today. By the 1700s, champagne producers had learnt how fermentation works and began to deliberately add sugar and yeast to bottles to produce bubbles. This is how it still happens: a highly acidic, low alcohol base wine is bottled with sugar and yeast added to it (the liqueur d'expedition); the bottle is sealed and a long, slow second fermentation takes place inside it. The prolonged contact between the wine and the dead yeast cells (the lees) produces the complex biscuit, nutty aromas one expects from the best champagne.
There is just one problem with this system: once the fermentation is complete, the dead yeast cells fall to the bottom forming an ugly sediment. Until the early 1800s, producers would simply open the bottle and pour it out, an inefficient method which lost a lot of wine. La Veuve Clicquot, a widow who had inherited her husband's small champagne firm, was determined to eradicate this loss. She gouged holes in her kitchen table, turned the bottles upside down, and stored them in the holes until the yeast sediment had fallen into the neck. Her cellarmaster, a German named Antoine Müller, perfected this method by inventing the riddling rack on which the bottles could be turned over the course of six to eight weeks to get all of the sediment into the neck. By inventing a quicker and more efficient method of removing the yeast, Clicquot moved ahead of her rivals, making Veuve Clicquot one of the biggest producers of champagne just in time for the "Golden Age" of champagne between 1830 and 1870 when the wines were widely drunk across Europe.
This method still wasn't completely efficient, as some wine was lost. In the 1880s, a Belgian called Armand Walfart came up with the idea of freezing the neck of the bottle so that the sediment - but no wine - would cleanly pop out. Now it's done mechanically, but the Belgian's method of disgorgement still works.
But what about Dom Pérignon's role in all this? The monk is often credited with having invented the whole champagne process, including the bubbles themselves. That belief is a late nineteenth-century marketing myth dreamt up by champagne producers themselves. In all likelihood, Pérignon, who was cellarmaster at the abbey in Hautvilliers from 1668 until his death in 1715, did his best to remove bubbles from champagne as he, like others in the region, saw them as a fault. His failure was champagne's long-term success.
Dom Pérignon certainly played an important role in the development of champagne, particularly in terms of a focus on quality. Perhaps most importantly, he realised that it was possible to extract clear juice from grapes even if they had dark skins. The two major grape varieties at that time were Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (locally called Fromenteau). If the juice from these grapes comes into contact with the skins, the wine will have some colour. This resulted in onion-coloured wines, referred to as oeil de perdrix (partridge's eye). The clear colour of champagne today is due to Dom Pérignon.
He also introduced other methods, such as blending. In Champagne, blending takes on many forms. The wines are often non-vintage, so blending different vintages together is something of an art form stemming from the time of Dom Pérignon. The aim of the blend is to create a quality product that's consistent with the house style and which can be drunk young (as most people assume non-vintage champagne should be drunk) but which can also be aged (as the best non-vintage wines most certainly can be). Other forms of blending include different grape varieties, vineyards, villages, and regions. Just like Dom Pérignon at Hautvilliers, the role of the blender is vital.
Champagne covers a large area, much of it flat land for planting crops. Vines are planted on slopes which rise from the plains. These slopes, around 150-300m high and generally south-facing to catch the sun, are scattered around the region producing different styles of wine. The wine region is located in two départements, the Marne and, further to the south, the Aube.
The land is on top of a large chalk basin; beneath the topsoils lies thin, light, decomposed chalk that helps reflect heat back on to the vines. This is the same chalk that's visible in the crayères, which many producers have organised tours of.
The region is divided into different areas. To the north is Montagne de Reims, small hills covered in trees as well as vines, lying between Reims and Epernay. This has plantings of all three grape varieties, though it is Pinot Noir which is considered the best here. There are actually north-facing slopes planted which still manage to ripen grapes, as during the night there is warm air retained from the day.
To the south of Epernay is Côte des Blancs, which, as the name suggests, is mostly planted to Chardonnay. These are some of the most sought-after grapes in Champagne, producing the delicacy and finesse the best wines of the region are famous for. Within Côte des Blancs are some of the most famous villages, such as Cramant, Avize, Oger, and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. These villages are classed Grand Cru - unlike Burgundy, the Cru system refers to a village rather than a vineyard. Côte de Sezanne, in essence, continues southwards on from Côtes des Blancs, but the wines can be richer in heavier soils.
Further south-west is Vallée de la Marne, where Meunier is the majority grape. Meunier is important here because it's more resistant to frost, which the valley is prone to. The wines are easy-drinking and fruity - as much due to the grape variety as the region.
Much further south, disconnected from the other regions, is Côte des Bars. In fact, it's nearer to Chablis, and for a time the region was considered a second-class expression of champagne. Pinot Noir is the dominant variety here, producing ripe, fruity wines. There is some Chardonnay here too, especially on Montgueux, a hill which is considered to produce exceptional white wine.
the grape varieties
99.7% of Champagne plantings are of just three different varieties. There used to be many more, but after phylloxera and World War I devastated vineyards, there was a reorganisation which focused on Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay. This reorganisation changed the landscape of Champagne too. Plantings used to be 50,000 vines/ha (in a system appropriately called en foule, or "in a crowd"), an astonishing level of density. Since WWI, plantings have been at a mere 8-10,000 vines/ha.
The three grape varieties all have a different role to play. Meunier produces fruity, youthful wines. For this reason, the grape is often found in non-vintage wines which are usually drunk young. Pinot Noir contributes body and structure, while Chardonnay provides acidity and elegance. A champagne, whether vintage or non-vintage, should slowly develop over its lifetime and how a wine is blended forms part of that development.
Today, champagne is synonymous with sparkling wine. (Any other sparkling wine should not be referred to as champagne, it really upsets the champenois.) But until the mid-nineteenth century, still wine dominated. There is still a small amount of it produced, acidic white wine from Chardonnay and tight, lean red wine from Pinot Noir. These wines are an acquired taste, but their acidity makes them a good food pairing. A handful of producers make quality examples, sold under the Coteaux Champenois AOC, such as Jean Vesselle's excellent Bouzy Pinot Noir ($50).
The relationship between producers and growers is a complex one, which has in the past broken into riots. Growers are extremely important, with over 15,000 of them. Even the biggest producers rely on them. This tension has recently been exacerbated by still unfulfilled plans to extend Champagne to keep the price of land and grapes down.
This relationship is governed by the CIVC, who create and manage contracts between growers and producers. The CIVC play an important role in Champagne, setting limits on how much wine is made each year to ensure that there are always reserve wines for lean years and that supply doesn't outstrip demand.
In contrast to the many growers, there are only 300 négociants - merchants who buy grapes and wine and sell wine under their own label. The most famous of these date back to the 1700s. Eighteen of them are known as Grandes Marques, brands so famous their reputation precedes them. They include Krug (the most expensive), Moët et Chandon (the largest), Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Bollinger (as drunk by James Bond), Billecart-Salmon, Charles and Piper Heidsieck, Ruinart (the oldest), and, my favourite, Deutz.
This combination of history, climate, and production methods makes champagne a unique wine. Many producers around the world try to imitate champage, but never quite replicate it. In my next post, I’ll look at the different styles of champagne and the best wines to try.