Champagne: The Google of Wine
Champagne not only created and defined the category of sparkling wine, it remains at the pinnacle. There is no other wine with such reach, recognition, and love around the world. Champagne stands alone as a beloved wine of celebration, style, and class.
FYI: Champagne (capital “C”) = the region; champagne (small “c”) = the wine.
Champagne’s Long March to the Top
While Google is only 22 years old, champagne as a sparkling wine reaches back to the mid to late 1600s. And given the Champagne region’s tortured history, the wine shouldn’t even exist.
The Romans and the Church influenced Champagne as in all the wine regions of France. In the city of Reims, royalty, clergy, and champagne entwined. The coronation of French kings in the cathedral demanded champagne alongside Burgundy. The city endures as the center of Champagne today.
The first wines of Champagne, before the bubbles, resembled a dark rosé or light red still wine. Wines at that time took the name of the village, for example, Hautvillers, instead of the region.
Champagne's signature grapes hail back to the 9th century. The hill of Montagne de Reims nurtures Pinot Noir, Chardonnay thrives in the Côte de Blanc, and Pinot Meunier nestles along the river in the Valle de la Marne.
Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine, but slightly bubbly wines existed during his time. Due to cold harvests, wines did not fully ferment in the fall. They would begin fermenting again in the spring as temperatures rose creating what
Dom Perignon thought of as “nuisance” bubbles.
Champagne grew when England created the heavy glass that contained the wine’s pressure. Dom Perignon adopted the use of English glass with cork closures, and he was also the first to make a clear (vs. a cloudy) still white wine from red grapes.
Ruinart, the first champagne house to commercialize sparkling wine, was founded in 1729.
Champagne’s suffering under war makes it hard to believe it survived: conflicts of the turn of the century, the Napoleonic wars, World War I, World War II, and more.
Phylloxera devastated the vineyards as it did all over Europe in the late 1800s. Then came Prohibition and the Great Depression, each taking its toll on the region.
Time after time, these stoic and tough people replanted and pressed on.
Vineyard classification began in the early 1800s. Rampant fraud led to the first wine law in 1911 allowing the use of champagne on the bottles. French wine law was codified in 1935 (INAO) and the Champagne appellation established in 1936.
Over the decades disputes raged over the definition and delineation of Champagne’s vineyards. These disputes continue today.
From 1941, the marketing giant CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) raised the wine’s profile around the world.
This drink of kings, enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson (still wines) and served at the court of Russia (sparkling wines,) became a luxury product.
Today the most expensive champagne brands evoke a rarefied life: Cristal, Krug, Dom Perignon, Salon, Clos des Goisses, Bollinger.
Champagne: A Most Unusual Wine
France’s glorious wine gifts to the world could only have culminated in a Vin Extraordinaire – this marvel of a wine called champagne.
Aberrant may be a better word for the wine because it began as something abnormal. It deviated from the standards of the time. People didn’t understand it because it was difficult to control and had complicated production methods.
Given its difficult history and its marginal and volatile climatic conditions, Champagne seemed an impossible place to produce such an unusual wine.
Only an astonishing and singular wine could come from such a place and rise to thrive at the top of the wine world.
Here are a few of the distinctive aspects of champagne:
- Vineyards lie at the northernmost range of where wine grape vines survive (at least until the recent phenomenon of climate change.)
- The grapes grow in colder than average annual temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The influence of the sea and the Marne river mitigate the climate’s harshness.
- These factors allow for slow and consistent ripening.
- Most of Champagne’s soils consist of chalky (sea creature) limestone (75%) plus sand and marl.
- Chalk soils absorb excess water, beneficial during drought, yet provide good drainage.
- Heat retention provides overnight warmth to protect vines in the cold climate.
- Limestone soils contribute to minerality, finesse, and structure.
- Pinot Noir – about 38%, planted on the Montagne de Reims and in the Aube.
- Pinot Meunier – around 33%, planted along the Marne river.
- Chardonnay – about 29%, south of the river in the Côte de Blanc.
- Other grapes allowed but little used: Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, Arbanne, and Fromenteau.
- Sun-exposed hillsides allow grapes to ripen.
- Preservation of acidity takes precedence over phenolic ripeness.
- The disruptive méthode champenoise (traditional method) of controlled bottle fermentation sequesters CO2 creating bubbles and pressure.
- The chalk cellars maintain proper humidity and cool temperatures.
- Dom Perignon perfected the art of vineyard blending to create balanced wines.
- Blending, both of grapes and vineyard plots, is a hallmark of the wines.
- Since 2000, the region has committed to sustainable viticulture.
Échelle des Crus
- This vineyard classification method dates from 1911.
- Vineyards are designated a percentage from 100% of the fixed price for the best quality to 77% of the fixed price for the least quality.
- In 1990, a new system allowed for some negotiation between growers and buyers.
- 17 villages rank at the highest level: 9 from Montagne de Reims, 2 from Vallée de la Marne, and 6 from Côte des Blancs.
- Champagne comes in more styles than still wines.
- Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay,) Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir,) Rose Champagne.
- From driest to sweetest: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux. Each has increasing levels of residual sugar.
- Non-Vintage (House style blended from various vintages,) Vintage (wine from a specific year,) Prestige (most selective and expensive,) and Single Vineyard.
- Non-Vintage ages a minimum of 16 months, while Vintage ages a minimum of 3 years.
- Standard pressure (6 atmospheres) and the less common lower pressure (5 atmospheres and less.)
- Perpetual Cuvée or reserve wines are set aside each year to be blended in later, adding depth and character to younger wines. Some reserve wines are a few years old and others are much older.
A Few Interesting Facts
- The Kimmeridgian chalks in the south are the same as those of the famous white cliffs of Dover, England.
- Recent evidence suggests the English “invented” champagne.
- England’s King Henry VIII and France’s “Sun” King Louis XIV both enjoyed Champagne’s light red wines.
- Charles Heidsieck (“Champagne Charlie”,) whose father sold champagne to Russia after Napoleon’s invasion, was held as a Union prisoner during the U.S. Civil War.
- The Russian royals of the Romanov family inspired Roederer’s Cristal.
- More technological innovation for wine started in Champagne than in any other wine region to this day.
- Many famous champagne houses flourished under female leadership: Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, Henriot.
- Today some women-led companies include Krug, Jacquart, Paillard, Taittinger, Tarlant, Philippe Gonet.
- Champagne is the only wine that pairs with any food and an entire meal, no matter how many courses.
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