Champagne is, by far, the most northern vineyard of France situated at the latitude of 48 to 49.5 degrees north. At 45 degrees north, Oregon vineyards are at the same latitude north as Pauillac, Hermitage, and Cornas in France. The Rioja region in Spain is situated at a latitude around 42 degrees and the California’s Napa Valley is at around 38.5.
This means that Champagne vines are, on average, 700 miles closer to the North Pole than those of Napa Valley. This is more miles than the total distance between the two most remote points of our little France!
Besides being a northern vineyard, the region is also under two climatic influences: continental and oceanic.
What does that mean?
It means that frost can be dangerous in the spring, menacing the crop. It means that the cold can become very intense in the heart of winter, freezing the grape vines. It also means that hail can strike the vineyard heavily in the heart of summer.
Chablis, where the Chardonnay grape variety dominates, is already considered to be situated very much to the north at a northern latitude close to 48 degrees. There, the growers are allowed to use special practices, such as setting fires everywhere in the vineyard to “warm up” the vines and protect them from the spring frosts. Champagne is more than 50 miles closer to the North Pole than Chablis and, logically, the risk is even much higher there. It is said that the Champagne area is the northern limit of viticulture even if the most extreme point is reached by some areas in German vineyards that reach the 50 degree mark.
The Art of Blending
The answer Champagne has found to its extreme conditions has been blending. This includes blending of several grape varieties, blending of several areas of production and, last but not least, blending of several vintages together. The goal is to be able to present a stable product, something that can be sold every year, an identifiable trademark.
Three grape varieties are used in the region. The Chardonnay represents about 30% of the plantations. The Pinot Noir represents almost 40%, and the Pinot Meunier represents a little more than 30%. Two historical grape varieties can also be used, the Arbane and the Petit Meslier, even if today they are very marginal. This will remind you of Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the historical varieties of Muscardin or Terret Noir are authorized, but seldom used, except for folkloric or marketing reasons.
The soils are rich in limestone in the three areas of the Côte de Sézanne, the Côte des Blancs, and the Montagne de Reims. In the valley of the Marne river area, the soil is rich in sand and clay and is rather loamy. Finally, in the Côte des Bar area, you will find a mix of clay and limestone.
The system of classification here is different than the Burgundian system. In Burgundy, it is a precise piece of land that is classified either as a simple Bourgogne; a village, like Meursault; a first growth, like Meursault Charmes; or a Grand Cru like Montrachet. In Champagne, all the vines of a village are classified in one of the three categories, which are, Champagne A.O.C., Champagne Premier Cru or Champagne Grand Cru.
Sixteen villages are classified in Grand Cru for their production of both Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. One village, Chouilly, is only qualified as a Grand Cru for its white grapes.
The name of the game is assemblage, or blending. There can be 15, 20, or more different grape origins blended together. The vines can very well be classified at different levels, and the grapes can be either white or red. Add now the fact that there are usually two, three, or four vintages are mixed together to produce the final bottle. The flagship companies such as Gosset with its Brut Excellence or Bollinger with its Special Cuvée brands are both made out of grapes classified at different levels in what is called ‘L’echelle des Grands Crus,” or the scale of the Grands Crus.
The performance of controlling all those parameters to produce a wine recognizable through the quality of its bubbles, perfume, degree of ripeness, and length at anytime and anywhere from Singapore to Rio de Janeiro is due to the skills of an essential individual, “the nose”—an incredibly exciting and difficult profession.
Noses are indispensable here, but they also are in Cognac or in a Highlands whisky distillery. If you like your Delamain X.O. Cognac, your Glenmorangie 10-years-of-age Scotch, or your Champagne Laurent Perrier Brut, the least you expect from the producer is to deliver the quality you are used to having, the quality you have come to like and enjoy.
To install a reputation for a brand takes forever and the responsibility of the blender is immense.
A New Generation in Champagne
Now things could become very different in Champagne from what they have been for two centuries as the region is living a revolution. A new generation of growers while still producing a “house flagship” also want to vintage almost every year, want to vinify their different plots separately, and want to imitate what has been achieved through centuries in Burgundy. This new generation also can be found in Alsace, the Loire valley, and almost everywhere in France. Who would blame such an enthusiasm motivated by ambition and very certainly by the fact that after generations of tough times, wine brings in decent revenue for the growers at last.
I can foresee a possible problem of supply as so many growers want to do their own wine, rather than sell it as their fathers and mothers did to the good or bad big Champagne companies, such as Laurent Perrier, Billecart-Salmon, or Moët et Chandon. You might have heard about the recent I.N.A.O. authorization for the planting of thousands of acres of vines in the Champagne region, putting into evidence an already sensible supply problem.
There is another danger that I foresee too—the “small is beautiful” fury that has become a fact in Burgundy and is spreading through the whole country. Each year, smaller quantities of a single wine will be produced as the production will be divided between young vines and old vines, between the top of the plot and its lower part, and between what is Premier Cru and what is Grand Cru. Each time, there will be more Blanc de Blancs and more Blanc de Noirs cuvées and so on.
Note: A Blanc de Noirs is a white Champagne made exclusively of Pinot Noir and/or of Pinot Meunier, two red grapes with white juice as it is the contact of the juice with the skins that gives the red color. In Champagne, no effort is spared to bring the product of the harvest into the cellar as fast as possible to press the full stemmed grapes almost immediately. A Blanc de Blancs is a wine made from 100% Chardonnay grapes.
Obviously, the good part of it is the incredible increase in quality the region is living. Yields are sometimes divided by two from one generation to the next one, and they carefully care for the soil. At one point, the Champagne area was called the Paris garbage can as it was so filthy with the most unavowable industrial products. Fortunately, everywhere, there has been a huge movement to cure, enhance, and protect the soil and, eventually, the damage will be eliminated.
The Good Star of Champagne
A historical reason for Champagne’s success has to do, no doubt, with the fabulous tool that has been the river Marne that melts its waters with those of the Seine almost at the height of Paris. So yes, between the fact that the kings of France have been historically crowned in the Reims cathedral, the proximity of the Champagne region, and the accessibility of the capital through the rivers, everything was meant to facilitate the burst out of those bubbles in the French capital during the years 1900 before the First World War and during the crazy years, or “années folles,” between1920 and the depression. Champagne has been called the wine of the kings through famous brands like Roederer with the Tsar of Russia or Bollinger with the Queen Victoria.
In our country, wine life has always been on the move and influenced by the rich and powerful, including where they were and what they liked. And if they could not move, the vineyards moved to them. Romans planted vines wherever there legions settled after one or another invasion and convinced the local populations to develop its consumption, including in Romania (the Daces), Germany (the Germans), France (the Gaulois), Spain (the Iberes) and even England (the Angles). The Catholic religion put its feet into the Romans’ shoes and continued the job for centuries.
That is why, even if it is very hard to believe, the vineyard of Paris was the most important in terms of size and production in the middle ages. The vineyards simply were where the money was and it was almost impossible to attain from Paris to Burgundy around the year 1200 and even more difficult from the Rhône Valley. Yet, it was very easy to reach England through the Atlantic from the harbor of Bordeaux, and when the king of France repudiated Alienor of Aquitania because she could not have children, she married the king of England, Henri Plantagenêt, bringing with her Aquitania that stayed in the hands of the English monarchy for three centuries. It was the king of France who could not have children as she had several with Henri. In the meantime, the Claret frenzy started in England. The story ended when the glorious general Talbot was defeated in the battle of Castillon, 25 miles west of Bordeaux, and France, recovered Aquitania. Plenty of French fought with the English to protect their interests, as they were selling wine to England.
The “Méthode Champenoise,” or the Way Champagne Is Manufactured
The method is said to have been invented by a monk, Dom Pérignon, who worked in the Hautvillers Abbaye, at the end of the 17th century or very early into the 18th century. Dom Pérignon is dead in 1715, a few days after the king Louis the XIV, Le Roi Soleil.
The wine goes through a double fermentation. The first one classically happens in the fermentation tanks like all the wines produced anywhere in the world. The second fermentation is provoked into the bottle where sugar, wine, and yeast are introduced. The sugar transforms into alcohol, and the yeast provokes the fermentation. Its bi-product, the emission of gas, remains trapped in the bottle and is firmly closed with a metallic cap. Now that the wines have been bottled, a deposit gradually appears in them. For several months, the bottles are kept in a position that allows the deposit to slowly move in the direction of the neck (a 30 to 40% inclination). A specialized worker twists the bottles daily; the operation is called “Remuage,” or shaking. The work is often done by special machines.
Once all the deposit has reached the level of the cork, the neck of the bottle is frozen, solidifying all the impurities. The deposit is now expulsed with an operation called “Dégorgement,” literally “getting the throat out.” What has been taken out creates a void; there is some wine missing in the bottle and it is going to have to be replaced. This is called “Le Dosage,” or the addition of “Liqueur de Dosage.” This liquor is made of sugar and wine and is also called “liqueur d’expédition” as the wine will be soon ready to be “sent away” and sold.
The amount of sugar defines the type of wine, from extra dry to sweet. The wine content defines the style of the house. This wine is a secret in every Champagne house; it can be made out partly with wines that can be very, very old.
These days, a lesser amount of sugar is used each time. The tendency of the wines of Champagne goes toward what was once known as the English taste, a dryer taste. The producers want their Champagne to be considered like wine, and the missing wine after the "Dégorgement" is simply replaced by more wine. The bottles that are made this way bear the “Non Dosé” labeling. If you read “Extra-Brut,” it means the wine is very mildly dosed, but there is still a very small addition of sugar while “Non Dosé” means there is no sugar added at all.