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Champagne


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Champagne vineyards

The Perrier vineyard in Champagne. Photo by Rob and Lisa Meehan. License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Arguably the most famous wine region in the world, Champagne was the original source of sparkling wine, and is still considered the primary region for the wine of the same name. Known for its connotations of class and success, Champagne is a common fixture at parties and celebrations. Despite tons of knockoff wines that are sparkling, but are not actually genuine Champagne from the Champagne region, the Champagne name has remained intact and is even more reputable now than it was 50 years ago.

Originally, Champagne's methods of production (two fermentations, one of which having the purpose of creating the bubbles) were proprietary and mysterious. Much like Sauternes, the way that these great wines were made was unknown and winemakers, fearing competition, kept it that way. But in the modern day, Champagne's secrets have been revealed for all to see. Competitors from Italy, Spain, and California, as well as other far-flung places, have attempted to compete with Champagne, but the original region is still solidly on top and commands exponentially higher prices. Many Champagnes, like Krug's world famous Clos de l'Ambonnay, can cost thousands per bottle.

While the term "Champagne" is often used to refer to any sparkling wine (often made from all kinds of grapes), true Champagne is made only in the large administrative region of the same name, which is located to the north of France, east of Paris. The wine is usually made from either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or a mix of the two, although supplementary grape Pinot Meunier also enters into the mix. The wine is made in several villages, some of which are classified as Premier Cru and the most prestigious and desirable as Grand Cru. Note that it is the villages that are classified, unlike the vineyards.

Not everyone likes the crisp, dry style associated with Champagne, of a wine bursting with yellow fruit but having no richness or sweetness (in the Brut versions). But there are few wines as refreshing as a good glass of bubbly, and the best of these come from a province in France that has made great strides to be associated directly with wealth and success. In addition to being viticulturally important, the village, its vineyards, and the great sparkling wines they make also have marked historical significance.

History

The northerly region of Champagne was cultivated with Pinot Noir in the Roman times, perhaps even before the Middle Ages began. At the time, the wine made was a still red, so pale it was practically rosé; it was bitter and thin, often with unsavory high acidity due to the cold climate. Champagne is directly to the north of the administrative region of Burgundy, and its would-be vignerons thought they could produce Pinot Noir of equal quality.

They were wrong, and although their winemaking technique inched along and gradually improved, the Burgundians still had a huge advantage due to their superior climate and soil. By this time, accidents in the cellars had caused sparkling red wine to be produced, but French drinkers saw this as a fault and sometimes did not even drink wine that had bubbles. However, the English liked sparkling wines for their verve and liveliness, and interest from the UK caused a demand for these styles to arise.

Producers attempted to figure out manual ways to add bubbles to the wines, with disappointing results. It was an Englishman who invented the méthode champenois in the 1800s; it caught on quickly, and the modern product that we know as Champagne began. Still, there were a number of differences from the Champagne of today: it was produced from Pinot Noir, it was sweet due to the presence of residual sugar, and flavors were much more simplistic than they are today. (Unlike, say, Bordeaux, where the style and taste of the wine has been the same for centuries.)

Gradual improvements were made to the wine, and dry wines gradually became more popular than sweet styles. Despite setbacks--for example, phylloxera--in the late 19th century and early 20th century, amazing strides in quality were made by the ambitious producers. The monarchy began to buy the expensive wines and cite them as favorites, which finally satisfied Champenois who had been aiming to unseat Burgundy all along. The image of class conferred upon Champagne buyers by the monarchy's love of it made sparkling wines in demand all over the world.

Of course, there were problems. Unscrupulous producers in Champagne were making wine of poor quality by their own invented methods, and worse yet, producers in other parts of the world had gotten hold of the méthode champenois and were selling their own bubbly as Champagne. Legislative crackdowns throughout the 20th century seemed to improve the situation, although fake Champagne is still sold in many parts of the world.

In the meanwhile, though, the demand for Champagne among those with class and those who wanted to look like they had class grew significantly. Champagne producers could hardly keep up, and the already inflated prices rose to new highs. The difficulty and risk of the production process had decreased, but demand had gone up, and the Champagne industry became a massive, multimillion-dollar business. Nowadays, Champagne prices are $30 for the most basic bottles and $100 for "average" styles. But the high price of Champagne only increased its prestige and further bolstered demand from the wealthy! As a result of this vicious circle, Champagne has become among the most exclusive beverages in the world.

Climate and Viticulture

The enormous success of the Champagne region springs directly from two important things: the Champagne climate, and their méthode champenois, which is known to make the best sparkling wine in the world. The area is among the coldest to make good wine, with temperatures rarely rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). The soil's distinguishing feature is a chalky, fossil-rich top layer left by oceans that covered the region millions of years ago.

The chalky soil, which is prevalent in almost all great Champagne production areas, is combined with high, lofty hills on which the vines receive excellent sunlight. Grand Cru and Premier Cru in Champagne apply to villages, not vineyards, so terroir is less clear here than in somewhere like Burgundy or even Bordeaux. But there's no doubt that the fossil-rich chalky clay makes up top soil for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Even supposing that no fungal diseases destroy the grapes, and there's no frost in the spring, how are the bubbles formed? By a wine-producing method known as the méthode champenois, which originally was proprietary and mysterious. Exacting regulations ensure that the method is followed precisely by wines that label themselves Champagne, and that others using it in other regions, countries, or even continents, cannot use either the Champagne name or the name méthode champenois.

First, the usual fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks, and the still wines are bottled with a bit of yeast and sugar inside. Importantly, the wines are then fermented again in their individual bottles, as the carbon dioxide that makes the bubbles gradually forms. AOC requires Champagne-labeled wines to undergo three years of fermentation (1.5 for non-vintage wines), but most producers exceed this quota. After an exacting process, which until recent years was manual but is now being automated, the sediment is forced to the neck of the bottle and removed, and a bit of sugar is added in order to counteract the biting acidity.

Importantly, non-vintage wines make up the bulk of Champagne production, and literally all low-priced Champagnes. These wines are a mix of grapes from different years' crops--a seemingly nasty arrangement, but most non-vintage Champagnes still beat vintage sparklers from other regions. Another distinction to keep in mind is sweet vs. dry, since the amount of sugar added is up to the producer. Some producers will add none at all, making a wine usually called Brut Zero, Brut Nature, or some variant. The typical Brut has only a small amount of sugar, but the wine will still taste very dry; Extra Dry is usually drier, while plain Sec is usually a tad sweeter. Demi-sec is slightly sweet, while the rare doux is a fully sweet, sugary wine. Sweeter styles have been declining in popularity lately.

Grape Varieties

The mainstay grapes of Champagne production happen to be the exact same as those of the Burgundy region directly to the south: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Another grape, however, comes into play in Champagne: the Pinot Noir derivative Pinot Meunier. Most of the time, and in most cheaper wines, these three are blended together in some way, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir usually making up the majority of the blend and Pinot Meunier making up 5% or less to add some aroma and body.

The term blanc de blancs refers to Champagnes made solely from Chardonnay, while blanc de noirs is either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or some blend of those two. These "blanc de" styles tend to be the most exclusive. Also note: blanc de noirs is white, as even Champagne made only from red grapes still loses its color during the production process.

Major Producers

Many producers in Champagne have become a household name; in some cases, even their de luxe cuvée (which, by the way, is an unofficial term for a producers' most expensive and well-made Champagne) is commonly known, even among non-wine drinkers. Examples like Cristal and Dom Pérignon come to mind; these are the de luxe cuvées of Louis Roederer and Moët et Chandon respectively.

Despite the many similarities between Burgundy and Champagne, Champagne has very different labeling practices. Although most of the top cuvées are made from Grand Cru villages, these villages are rarely marked on the label, for complex reasons. Champagne is totally producer-based, while Burgundy is appellation-based; indeed, Champagne has only three AOCs!

By the standards that the producer should have good variety in addition to very reliable quality, we list 29 example producers, which are detailed below in alphabetical order.

Subregions

Although Champagne is related to Burgundy in many ways, one great dissimilarity is the effect of terroir in the wines. Champenois vineyards are less important, at least in the minds of the regulators who are responsible for the Grand Cru designation in Champagne, than the villages in which the wine is made. Hence, Grands Crus are classified by village, not vineyard. Some single-vineyard Champagnes are made, with Krug's Clos du Mesnil and Clos d'Ambonnay being good examples. These are the exceptions, however; all but a few Champagnes do not disclose the vineyard on the label, and the great preponderance do not even cite the village.

In most cases, the source of Champagne is less important than the producer and the cuvée themselves. For theoretical purposes, however, we do list the 17 Grand Cru villages located in Champagne.

It should be noted that still wines from the region are labeled Côteaux Champenois, if they are white, or Rosé des Riceys, if they are rosé. These are the only two officially designated AOCs in Champagne, besides Champagne itself!