The authorized grape varieties grown in Champagne are Chardonnay (30%), Pinot Meunier (32%) and Pinot Noir (38%)
Take in the view from the hills overlooking the vineyards and the town of Epernay, home to some of the world’s most renowned producers of the sparkling wine universally known by the region’s name and exclusive trademark: Champagne. While this is a drink normally associated with festive occasions, its way from the vines on the limestone slopes to the glittering champagne flute tells of a terroir and of an appellation that is unique to this land, and not mere wine jargon but the very expression of the original champagne.
The Champagne production zone lies some 150 kilometres east of Paris and encompasses 320 villages in the departments of Marne, Aube, Aisne, Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. The city of Reims and the town of Epernay are the largest commercial centres in the Champagne district.
Some of the factors that make this ‘terroir’ distinct are; a northerly latitude and a climate that is subject to oceanic and continental influences; combined with a predominantly limestone subsoil that keep the vines watered all year round; situated on slopes in an undulating landscape that assures good draining and maximum exposure to the sun.
The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) defines ‘terroir’ as follows:
“Vitivinicultural ‘terroir’ is a concept that refers to an area where the collective knowledge amassed from, on the one hand, the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and on the other hand, applied vitivinicultural practices, imparts distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area”.
Source: Comité Champagne
Avenue de Champagne
Epernay’s famous main street Avenue de Champagne may seem overly cool at first glance, but behind the wrought iron gates and exclusive chateau-style estate façades of the many famous wine and trading houses you will find centuries of champagne-producing history, most of which is hidden underground in cellars and tunnels. The first house to open in Epernay was Nicolas Ruinart in 1729, Moët & Chandon in 1743, followed by Perrier Jouët, de Venoge, Mercier etc. in the 19th century.
Altogether there are 110 kilometres of cellars in the ground under Avenue de Champagne.
One of the most characteristic estate buildings in Épernay is situated at the far end and just off Avenue de Champagne. From the tower of Champagne de Castellane’s red brick building you can enjoy a 360-degrees view of the town and surrounding vineyard landscape before you head down underground for a guided tour of the production area and the 6 kilometres of cellar tunnels.
Epernay is home to major authorities such as the Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne and the Syndicat Général des Vignerons (General Growers’ Union).
The Champagne method
Immediately following the harvesting of the three main grape varieties, the Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes are pressed at approved pressing centres. The primary fermentation then takes place in tanks, mostly of the stainless steel kind. The yeast consumes the natural grape sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) as well the basic sensory characteristics and style of the final champagne.
After the initial fermentation period on tanks come the blending and bottling, which can not be started earlier than January. The winemaker may choose to focus on certain dimensions of the wine when blending, but it is in general done according to various natural factors that come into play each year. In order to maintain a consistent level of quality from one year to the next, wine from a previous years’ growths (crus) which complement or blend well with the current year’s harvest may be added so that the champagne tastes more or less as the consumer would expect. Hence, a typical champagne is non-vintage. Only in years with exceptionally good yields will the producer consider making a single-year (vintage) champagne and label it as such.
Turning still wine into champagne
A single grape variety Champagne is called a Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs
To turn still wine into sparkling champagne, the winemaker kick-starts the effervescence, that is the bubble-making process, by adding a sweet solution known as the ‘liqueur de tirage’ – a mixture of still champagne and cane or beet sugar – to help induce the next round of fermentation that will take place inside the bottles.
An important technique peculiar to the production of champagne is the ‘remuage, the ‘riddling’ and tilting of the bottles. At regular intervals, once or twice per day, the bottles are turned one-quarter or one-eight of a circle and tilted slightly upward each time, with the bottle neck-down, so that whatever sediments (lees) still left in the champagne finds its way downwards and eventually settles in the temporary cup-shaped cap.
When the process reaches is final stage and all the deposit is collected in the cap, the bottle-necks are dipped in a salty -27°C solution. This causes the sediments in the bottle neck to freeze and the temporary cap and its content can now be removed, pushed out by the ongoing carbonation inside the bottle. This short but critical process, also know as disgorgement, triggers an instant intake of oxygen, which together with the dosage have a significant impact on the development of the aroma of the champagne.
Before final corking a small quantity of ‘liqueur de dosage’ is added to the wine. The ‘dosage’ is the winemakers last chance to add a final touch to the aromas and to sweeten the champagne according to its final style. For a doux (sweet) champagne more the 50 grams of sugar per litre may be added, while for the more common ‘brut’ or extra dry champagne only 12 grams per litre are added.
Finally, the cork is squeezed into the neck and covered with a metal cap held in place by the a wire ‘muselet’. The bottles are then shaken vigorously so that the ‘dosage’ is thoroughly mixed with the champagne, before they are put back in the cool and dark cellars to continue to age and develop its potential.
The village of Hautvillers and Dom Perignon
Known as the birthplace of champagne, the village of Hautvillers is situated in the hillside a few kilometres from Epernay. It was here at the Benedictine abbey that the legendary monk Dom Perignon lived and worked as a cellarer until his death in 1715.
Legend has it that he invented champagne but in his lifetime the drink known as champagne today was often referred to as ‘the devils drink’. The standard bottles in those days tended to explode in the following spring when the warm weather triggered the secondary in-bottle fermentation, increasing the pressure from the carbon dioxide. Contrary to legend therefore, Dom Perignon sought to prevent this from happening. As a full-time cellarer he worked diligently at improving production methods which helped the vineyards of Champagne to flourish.
The monastery in Hautvillers where Dom Perignon lived is the property of the winery Moët & Chandon. Their prestige cuvée is named after him.
The Champagne World Heritage Site is made up of three distinct ensembles: the historic vineyards of Hautvillers, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Saint-Nicaise Hill in Reims, and the Avenue de Champagne and Fort Chabrol in Épernay. These three components – the supply basin formed by the historic hillsides, the production sites (with their underground cellars) and the sales and distribution centres (the Champagne Houses) – illustrate the entire champagne production process. (Source: UNESCO)
– Comité Champagne
Photos of Avenue de Champagne at night and of wine cellars courtesy of Association Paysages du Champagne.
Photo of Tour de Castellane courtesy of Office Tourisme Epernay.
All other photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France.
This is a revised version of the article, first published 6 October 2015.