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Okay, this is for the wine geeks or aspiring wine geeks out there. We know you want to know more than just “how Champagne is made.” Here’s enough to get you through a serious Champagne discussion!

First, Champagne is a Viticultural Twilight Zone
No other wine growing region can challenge Champagne’s claim to produce the world’s greatest sparkling wines because no other area can duplicate Champagne’s austere growing conditions. In Champagne the vines struggle to ripen their grapes each year. This results in a balance of richness, extract, and acidity that can only be achieved through the long-drawn-out ripening process that occurs when the vine is grown on a knife-edge between success and failure.

The Champagne terroir, which includes a cold, sometimes mean, northern climate and lime-rich chalk soil, is the key to the wine’s intrinsic superiority. Yet if such an area were discovered today, contemporary vintners would quickly say “no thanks” and dismiss it as unsuitable for viticulture.

Unlike Burgundy, its neighbor, with 110 AOCs…
Shockingly, today Champagne is only one AOC even though Champagne totals 34,000 hectares (84,00 acres). Of these, 31,000 hectares are planted in 300 villages. In contrast, the Côte d’Or in Burgundy has over 110 AOCs for 8,450 hectares – with the AOCs reflecting unique characteristics and competing for acclaim. Only having one AOC for Champagne is largely driven by the commercial influence of the Grandes Marques who blend wines from throughout the Region and do not want regional & vineyard differences profiled.

However, there are five major districts in Champagne  – each with unique varietal focuses and preferred villages (see ratings below)

  • Montagne de Reims
    • Primary Grape: Pinot Noir
    • Best villages: Ambonnay, Ay-Champagne, Bouzy, Vezenay, Verzy
  • Côte des Blancs
  • Primary Grape: Chardonnay
  • Best villages: Cramant, Avize, le Mesnil-sur-Oger
  • Vallée de la Marne
  • Primary Grape: Pinot Meunier
    • Best villages: Mareuil-sur-Ay (for Pinot Noir), Dizy & Hautvillers (for both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and Sté-Gemme (for Pinot Meunier)
  • The Aube (also known as Côtes des Bars)
  • Primary Grape: Pinot noir
    • Best villages: les Riceys
  • Côte de Sezanne
  • Primary Grape: Chardonnay
  • Best villages: Villeauxe-la-Grande

Villages are Rated- Grand Cru , Premier Cru, etc….
When the Échelle des Crus was first established only 12 villages received Grand Cru status. In 1985 that number was expanded to 17 with the promotion of five villages (Chouilly, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry and Verzy). Less than 9% of all the planted vineyard land in Champagne has received a 100% Grand cru rating. All of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages are located in the Marne department. (Large scale production Champagnes by practice are not Grand Cru or Premier Cru as Grandes Marques require vast quantities of grapes and blend from hundreds of vineyards throughout Champagne.)

Grand Cru Villages of Champagne include:

There are five agricultural factors that affect Champagne’s quality and taste. They are;

  • Location: The Champagne region is the most northerly of the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée, which means "controlled designation of origin") regions of France and lies 90 miles north-east of Paris. Almost the entire region lies in the Marne department of northeastern France, named for the river Marne.
  • Climate: The cold, wet northern climate is influenced by the Atlantic, making its summers cooler and its seasons in general more variable. It also stretches the vine’s growth cycle to the limit with frost in the spring and fall posing a major problem.
  • Aspect: Generally, vineyards are planted on the rolling east and south-east facing of the Coté des Blancs at altitudes of 380 to 640 feet. On the slopes of the Montagne de Reims plateau the vines grow at similar altitudes while the best valley vineyards lie in sheltered situations on the right bank of the Marne river.
  • Soil: Soil in the Champagne region is either chalky or a clay-chalk mixture. The subsoil of most of the vineyards in the Marne department consists of chalk. In addition to the white chalky soil reflecting sunlight back up to the vines other benefits accrue from the high chalk content: During rainy periods the soil has good water retention due to the capacity of chalk to absorb up to 40% of its volume. When there is too much rain the chalk ensures excellent drainage. During dry periods, moisture in the chalk is available to the vine's roots and moisture in the subsoil rises to the surface by capillary action; heat from the sun builds up in the soil during the day and is then released during the night.
  • Vinification: There is no mechanical harvesting allowed and most grapes are still pressed using the traditional vertical process known as pressoir coquard. Although there is increasing use of stainless-steel vats for the first fermentation, the second fermentation which gives the wine its sparkle always takes place in the bottle in which it is sold.

Okay, got ‘em with your Champagne PhD!

"Let me be your personal chef de cave. Sit back, relax, and I'll choose for you."

 

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