A Complete Guide to Champagne

Everything you need to know about Champagne.

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champagne-bottles

Everything you need to know about Champagne.

© Shutterstock

Champagne is a universal language. Across continents and cultures, it spells luxury and indulgence, celebration and success. The decades of marketing that are behind Champagne – and the fierce protection of the name – make it the ultimate lesson in branding. Yet the most beautiful thing is that underneath all the glamour, there is a real wine, as connected to the land, as expressive of its history, place and culture as every other fine wine. If you actually pause to smell and taste these fine bubbles, if you move on from using them as mere lubrication to your small talk, you will discover incredibly complex wines from a region that is as multi-layered as its wines. The expression of Champagne has never been so manifold or fascinating as it is now.

Many Champagne cellars, called crayères, are dug directly into the soft chalk rock, providing ideal conditions for the long, slow ageing.

Many Champagne cellars, called crayères, are dug directly into the soft chalk rock, providing ideal conditions for the long, slow ageing.

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The Region

So what is Champagne? It is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of northern France, around the towns of Reims and Epernay, to the northeast of Paris. It is an unprepossessing landscape at first, often monotone and certainly without dramatic features, but its northerly clime, its soft hills and above all, its soils, have over centuries helped to shape the art of blending and bottle fermenting that resulted in a style of wine that is amongst the most iconic in the world. The appellation of Champagne, its outlines defined in 1927, lies just below the fiftieth degree of latitude with more southerly outposts in the Sézannais and the Côte des Bar reaching south to 48°N. This means that for most of living memory, Champagne was a marginal region, struggling to ripen grapes in every vintage. It was at the northern limit of viticulture but still is at the meeting point of two weather systems: that of the Atlantic, changeable and bringing regular rainfall, and the continental system, radiating winter cold and summer heat. This always ensured fresh acidity in the grapes and light-bodied wines which benefited from being blended and which gained body and texture through a second fermentation. 

The hills in Champagne are mostly gentle slopes.

The hills in Champagne are mostly gentle slopes.

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What Lies Beneath

Seventy million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, what is Champagne today was submerged under water. As the water gradually receded, the fossilised remains of countless little sea creatures and algae created very special layers of calcium carbonate. Depending on where you are in Champagne, these chalky subsoils are metres deep, some have very little topsoil, others are covered in layers of marl and clay. Further south, in the Côte des Bar, another formation takes over: Kimmeridgian limestone from the Jurassic period, the same as in Chablis, Burgundy. It is the specific root environment afforded by chalk, a water-retentive, soft stone, that gives so much character to Champagne. Some wines grown on the purest chalk of the Côte des Blancs have an incredibly salty aftertaste. This is one of Champagne’s hallmarks and an absolute factor of what makes it unique. Incidentally, the soft chalk also allowed humans to carve deep caves into the rock. These naturally cool, damp cellars, called crayères, provide the ideal environment that enables the long, slow ageing of Champagne. 

Special cuvées on a pupitre, or riddling rack.

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The Grape Varieties

Today, three main grape varieties dominate Champagne: Pinot Noir which is prevalent in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar, Chardonnay which reaches its most unique expression in the Côte des Blancs and Pinot Meunier, which dominates the Vallée de la Marne. While other grapes are permitted, too, like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbanne and Petit Meslier, they are rarities. All three main grape varieties give something special to Champagne: Pinot Noir gives body and structure, Chardonnay gives freshness and salty depth, Pinot Meunier gives a certain fleshiness to the body, fruit and a hauntingly smouldering aroma. Most Champagnes are blends of all three varieties, but there also are blanc de blancsmade from Chardonnay alone, which express the sleekness, freshness and chalky depth of Champagne. Then there are blanc de noirs, made from the red-skinned grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which are richer and rounder. Whether a Champagne is made as a blend, or a single varietal wine is no indication of quality but a stylistic choice. In fact, the art of blending is what makes Champagne what it is.

A typical Coquard wine press, designed to press whole bunches of grapes very gently.

A typical Coquard wine press, designed to press whole bunches of grapes very gently.

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The Making of Champagne

What sets winemaking in Champagne apart is that all grapes are hand-harvested so that the whole bunches can be pressed very gently. In fact, only an exactly governed percentage of the soft-pressed juice is allowed to become Champagne. This ensures that there are no bitter phenolic compounds and it also allows red-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to be pressed so quickly and lightly that the juice is pale and can be made into a white base wine. The grape juice is then fermented into still wines: some Champagne houses use only stainless steel tanks for fermentation, others use only wooden barrels, some use a mixture of both. Some houses ferment at cooler, some at warmer temperatures, some houses allow the base wines to go through malolactic conversion that turns the sharp malic acid in the grapes into softer lactic acid, others avoid this. But whatever a Champagne house does, it ends up with a great variety of base wines from different grape varieties, from different vineyards and different villages. Some wines are used to make this year’s blend, others are held back as reserve wines. Older reserve wines from previous vintages that have been aged for a number of years may be added to this year’s blend, to even out vintage and quantity. But blending is key in Champagne. It requires the winemakers to know their vineyards and the fruit that comes from them. 

The Champagne flute has been abandoned over the past years. Wider but tapering glasses are now preferred as they allow us to better smell the wines.

The Champagne flute has been abandoned over the past years. Wider but tapering glasses are now preferred as they allow us to better smell the wines.

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Village Characters

Today, there are 320 villages within the Champagne appellation. Until 2010, all these villages were graded into a scale, the so-called échelle des crus, which governed the prices of the grapes. The best villages, a total of 17, were regarded as grand cru, and 42 as premier cru. This échelle des crus was abandoned in 2010, but the terms grand cru and premier cru are still used frequently to denote when the wines come from these privileged villages. The region, which has 33,787 hectares/83,490 acres of vineyard, is divided into four subregions: the Montagne de Reims, the Côte des Blancs which includes the Côte de Sézanne, the Vallée de la Marne and the much more southerly Côte des Bar.

Christine Rinville, vineyard director for Champagne Taittinger explains how the wines from the villages in the Côte des Blancs all have distinct identities: “Avize, Chouilly, Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant – these are crus with fairly similar soils but distinct expressions. All of them bring finesse and minerality, but maybe they will express notes that are more delicate, like Avize, tender and fruity like Chouilly, softer like Cramant, sunnier like Oger, or will have a more austere and deeper character which reveals itself more over time, like Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.” Florent Nys, cellar master at Champagne Billecart-Salmon, is as exacting when it comes to the villages famed for Pinot Noir: “Verzenay is dense and complete, Verzy is silky and mineral, Ambonnay is elegant and profound, Bouzy is rich and full-flavoured, Aÿ comes with an additional hint of florality – and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is a good mix of all.” Blending these – or choosing a single-vineyard wine – is a question of art, experience and craft.

The winemakers must be able to imagine how this blend of still base wines they compose will evolve in bottle after the second fermentation and the often years-long ageing on yeast. It is this time of ageing on the spent yeasts from the second fermentation, called lees, that delivers the magic of Champagne: the autolytic flavours, the texture and the finesse of the bubbles. “In Champagne, if you are not thinking of lees right from the beginning, you miss the point,” says Odilon de Varine, cellar master at Champagne Gosset.

Champagne is a symphony of wines, of villages, of grape varieties, of vintages, of soils – or of single years, single vineyards, single grape varieties – but time is always the key ingredient. Blending is an art, and the wines are expressions of these villages but also of all the winemaking expertise and craft, evolved over centuries. Champagnes are wines of place, so do stop and savour them. Your reward is purest pleasure. 

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