Wine Notes: Champagne (Part 1)
You wouldn’t know by looking at this blog that I have a serious thing for wine. Wine is beautiful and makes everything better. In the event you have a nasty bottle on your hand, keep drinking and eventually it’ll taste fine.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m currently spending some time at a local wine shop. The owner of the store is a pro-sommelier, and I’m currently taking a crash course on everything about wine. I am studying regions and grapes, villages and wine-making techniques. I’m learning about soil and memorizing maps. It’s a lot of information, and I am to be quizzed on it weekly.
With that in mind, I figured I’d write down what I’m learning in a post as a way of helping me learn this material. Plus, some of you may find it interesting. Let us start in Champagne …
A Brief History of Champagne
Champagne is a celebratory drink often consumed at special occasions, but as someone has said before, “Champagne IS the occasion.”
Champagne is located the farthest north of any wine region in France and the region’s climate is described as ”continental cool.” Why true champagne only comes out of Champagne can be explained by going back to the Romans who once controlled the region (then called Gaul). The Romans constructed various buildings across the region, and when those buildings broke down, the materials sunk into the soil. Soil in Champagne is chalky and sandy, qualities that are important for drainage, high pH levels and storing heat. Heat is a key component in ripening grapes (which, in turn, increases sugar and lowers acidity levels). The color of the chalky soil also, to varying degrees, reflects sunlight back up to the vine for additional heat (for photosynthesis).
The Romans also built extensive cellars (made of chalk) throughout champagne, and as I’ll explain later, these are essential for the fermentation process of champagne. Before the fermentation process, though, you should know that winegrowers primarily plant three grapes in the region: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay accounts for the least amount of volume (25%) but is often the predominant grape used in the best champages (cuvees de prestige). A wine made of 100% chardonnay is called “Blanc de Blanc.” Pinor Noir (25%) and Pinot Meunier (35%+) are the remaining two grapes.
If you’re wondering how something as clear/white as champagne can be made from a grape often associated with red wine, know that all grape juice is clear. Wine gets it color from the skin of the grape, which also imparts tannins (the bitter stuff). The longer skins are left in contact with the barrel of juice, the more red and tannic it becomes.
Champagne is the only region in France to have one, single appellation, which is another way of saying where grapes grow. While only wines out of champagne can be called champagne (the rest being Sparkling Wine), not ALL regions of Champagne grows grapes.
As shown by this map, champagne can be divided into three states (Aisne, Marne and Aube). Most of the grapes are grown in Marne, which can be divided into three regions: the mountain of Marne, the valley of the Marne and the Cote de Blancs. Within this appellation, certain villages are known for growing the best grapes (called Grand Cru Villages). When it comes to selling their grapes, these villages receive 100% of the price set by somebody. Lesser villages recieve 80-90%.
There are 17 Grand Cru Villages in total.
- Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger
Not everyone in Champagne just grows grapes and makes wine. There are various intermediaries and positions. They are as follows…
- Negociant-Manipulant (N.M) – harvests/buy grapes, must or base wine process in own cellar
- Recoltant-Maniupulant (R.M) – makes own champagne in own cellars from own grapes
- Recoltant-Cooperatur (R.C.) – member of a co-op, sells wine made by co-op to customers
- Cooperative de Manipulation (C.M) – makes & matures champagne in own cellars from grapes of members
- Societe de Recoltants (S.R) – org. of independent wine makers who make and bottle champagne from member’s harvests
- Negociant Distributeur (N.D) – merchant/company who buys champagne which has already been bottled, provides label
- Recoltant (R) – winegrower allows grapes made into wine by N.M. and receives champagne back in bottles
- Marque Auxiliaire (M.A) – re-sells own brand as shown on label
In Champagne Part II, we’ll discuss the process by which champagne is made: Méthode Champenoise.