History    Vineyard    Grape varieties    Production    Drinking


Champagne history

The birth of champagne gave rise to a legend which is now well-anchored in peoples' memories. Dom Pérignon, the cellar-master at the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, is often said to have been the inventor of Champagne. And yet in 1668, the year in which the famous monk became cellarist, the secondary fermentation and the release of carbonic gases into the wine had already been known to winegrowers for a long time. The invention of champagne owes more to a slow evolution in which different winegrowers and scientists have participated than to one man. It is nevertheless true that nothing essential has been invented since that time; control over production techniques is total and the more important changes now come through mechanisation.

Dom Pérignon is also said to have established the first methods of clarifying the wines, but above all, he was the first to mix together different wines to obtain a harmonious blend.

In 1729 the first Champagne Houses were created in Reims and Epernay. These big Houses possessed the major part of the vineyard and bought the grapes of small producers.

Champagne wine then enjoyed rapid success in well-to-do circles, such as the French court, but also exported to other countries (in 1872, 83% of the production was exported).

Towards 1865 phylloxera was inadvertently imported into France. The epidemic reduced the total area of French vineyards by half. It spread through the Champagne vineyards from 1892 to 1894. Grafting onto resistant rootstock was found to be the effective remedy.

At the beginning of the 20th century the large properties had been broken up. The small owners, though in the majority, became dependent on the merchants to whom they sold their harvest. The commercial expansion was rapid; from 6 million bottles in 1850 sales grew to 30 million bottles in 1900.

Notre gamme de Champagne



 
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Vineyard
The Champagne region is a very old province of France situated about 95 miles north-east of Paris, where the temperate ocean climate meets the rigorous continental climate.

The wine-growing zone, determined by a specific chalky sub-soil, is officially delimited by French law. The champagne vineyard covers 84,000 acres unequally spread over 5 departments:

  • The Marne
  • The Aisne
  • The Aube
  • The Seine-et-Marne
  • The Haute-Marne

It comprises 300 different villages or growths, each with their own characteristics. Beyond these limits, champagne cannot be produced.



Several different zones can be distinguished:
  • The Mountain of Reims, where the red grape varieties predominate
  • The Marne valley, region of Epernay
  • The Côte des Blancs, Chardonnay territory (white grape variety)
  • The Aube vineyard
A chalk soil
The vineyard lies on a thick stratum of chalk deposited during the Secondary Era. This particular variety of chalk (belemnita quadrata) provides the vines with all they need: it stores up and then releases heat or moisture, it supplies the vines with its particular combination of minerals and it gives the grapes great originality, with subtle distinctions between the different areas and the wines produced in them.

A northern climate
The average temperature for the year in the Champagne region is no higher than 10.5° C. It is the northern limit, beyond which the grapes cannot ripen. Variations in altitude and aspect give rise to numerous micro-climates.
Paradoxically, these difficult climatic conditions are the most favourable for the production of grapes of exceptional quality.

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Grape varieties

Chardonnay is a white grape with white juice, very aromatic, and the variety preferred by the large Houses for their prestige vintages. It takes up more than half of the surface area of the vineyard.

Pinot Noir is a red grape with white juice, which gives solid and powerful structure to the wines. A large proportion can be found in the Marne valley and the Mountain of Reims.

Pinot Meunier is a red grape with white juice used to perfect the blends (25% of the vineyard).

 

THE BLENDING

This method of elaboration is exclusive to the Champagne region. It consists in bringing together one, two or three of the varieties in varying proportions, also taking into account and using wines from different vineyards and reserve wines. These latter are wines from previous harvests which have been kept in reserve to improve the blends of following years.

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Production

The creation of a champagne is the result of a balanced marriage between the qualities of the different grapes: the Pinot Noir gives body and vigour, the Chardonnay finesse and lightness and the Pinot Meunier roundness and fruitiness.

Working the grapevines

In each season there is different work to do in the vineyard:

  • Pruning and tying-up from November to March
  • Green pruning and attaching new growth from April to June
  • Pruning. Several methods of pruning are allowed in Champagne: cordon royat, chablis, and guyot.
  • In the Grands Crus and Premiers Crus only the cordon and chablis methods are allowed

Several treatments must be carried out during these two periods to combat mildew, oïdium, iron deficiency, etc.


The harvest


In Champagne the grape-picking is done exclusively by hand.
It is carried out about one hundred days after the flowering of the vines, which generally takes place from the end of May to the middle of June. After being picked, cleaned and transported out of the fields, the grapes are unloaded at the press, grouped together and put under shelter to await weighing.
After weighing the pressing can begin. Three pressings take place: the cuvée (1st pressing), the 1st taille (2nd pressing) and the 2nd taille (3rd pressing). Very good yields over the last years have led to only the cuvées and sometimes the 1st taille being kept for blending.

The first important aspects of the champagne-making process are the yield limit of 100 litres of juice or must per 150 kilos of grapes and the fact that the pressing of the grapes takes place in stages, providing different qualities of juice (cuvée and taille) and preserving the unique characteristics of each individual parcel of land.


The wine-making process

Clarification
Once the pressing is finished the grape juice or must is left for twelve hours in the wooden vat of the press, allowing it to clear. The deposit which has formed is eliminated by transferring the liquid into other vats. The juice spends 6 months in barrel or vat, a blend is made of different wines, varieties and years. 24g per litre of cane sugar, yeast and colloidal matter are added, for the alcoholic fermentation. The barrels are then put into heated storerooms.

Racking
The first racking is done in November or December. It consists in separating the clear wine from the lees. It is repeated in January.

Fining
This is the oldest method of eliminating impurities from the wine and clarifying it. Tannin, which plays an very active role in the conservation and clarification of wine, is added.

Tirage
This is the bottling of the wine. The bottles are placed in sloping racks called pupitres, allowing the sediment to descend gradually into the neck of the bottle.


Turning
Every day each bottle is turned through just one eighth of a turn, never a full rotation. This goes on for between 3 and 5 months. The bottles are then stored in cellars hewn out of the chalk 30 metres underground, where they age for 2 years.

The champagne process
This consists in making the wine sparkle through a secondary alcoholic fermentation in the bottle.


Disgorging
In this tricky process the bottle is held upside down and the cap is prised off, so that the sediment is expelled by the pressure in the bottle. In the bigger Houses the bottle necks are lightly frozen by plunging them into a freezing solution, so that the sediment forms a solid lump which is extracted by machine.

Dosage and corking
Dosage is the addition of a little sugar/champagne/brandy mixture to top up the bottles: this is known as the liqueur d'expédition. The quantity of sugar varies depending on the champagne to be produced:

  • Brut: less than 15 g of sugar/litre
  • Extra-dry: between 10 and 20 g
  • Dry: between 17 and 37 g

Habillage
The habillage of a bottle is the labelling and sealing. The top is sealed with a tin or aluminium capsule and a label is stuck on the front indicating essentially the type of champagne, the degree of alcohol, the volume, the origin and the name of the wine grower or merchant.

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Drinking
Champagne can legally be sold 15 months after the tirage, but usually the champagne Houses wait until the 3rd year before selling their bottles. The champagne must be stored on its side in cellars which are neither too dry nor too wet. The temperature must remain constant (10-12°).

The ideal temperature for drinking champagne is from 7 to 12°, depending on personal preference. It should be slowly chilled in a mixture of ice and water, and should not be kept too long in the refrigerator.

How should it be drunk?
There is not one champagne but several, and each one awakens our senses and invites us to recognize and taste it.

Types of champagne

  • Non-vintage Brut can be drunk as an aperitif and goes well with starters, seafood and fish. The same is true for Blanc des Blancs.
  • Vintage Brut is more full-bodied and intense. It should be drunk with poultry, red meat, dishes with sauces and cheeses.
  • The Rosé, well-built and fruity, can be drunk like the vintage Bruts.
  • The Dry and Semi-Dry, which are sweeter, go well with desserts.
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The photographs are taken from the collection of
the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).
Including VENDANGES2.JPG: photo Frédéric HADENGUE / Collection CIVC

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