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Champagne: Still scaling the heights
Champagne: Still scaling the heights
Champagne can only be produced in the French region of the same name.
Although its preparation may be linked to a specific set of skills and expertise, it
is also associated with a terroir which is as influential as it is diverse. In other
words, we should talk not of champagne, but instead of champagnes - each of
which have their own individual characteristics and styles, making it possible for
any champagne-lover to find a wine to astonish and delight, depending on
individual taste and circumstances. To help you to know what to look for when
choosing and tasting a champagne, we present a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at this
The vineyards of Champagne mainly cover three départements: Marne, Aube and
Aisne. Three grape varieties are used predominantly in this area: Chardonnay,
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are grown across highly diverse terroirs.
These fluctuations are due to various combinations of climate, subsoil and relief.
Three princes, one great terroir: There are a total of 313 crus produced in as
many communes. The latter themselves are subdivided into parcels of land and
lieux-dits, each of which impart extremely specific qualities and characteristics
upon the grapes. There is a hierarchical scale for categorising the crus,
identifying 17 Grands Crus and 41 Premiers Crus from among their ranks.
Generally speaking, the three major grape varieties have their favourite areas.
The Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar are favoured by Pinot Noir, the
Marne Valley is the preferred home of Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay’s soil of
choice is in the Côte des Blancs. Champagne harvesting is performed exclusively
by hand. The grapes must be vinified whole, a requirement which necessitates
their transportation in small containers such as baskets and crates. The pressing
stage follows immediately afterwards, with three successive pressings taking
place. The first pressing, which is known locally as cuvée, is considered to be of
the highest quality, and is generally reserved for the production of the finest
wines. Once the juices have passed through the settling vat, where the impurities
separate off and sink to the bottom, they are transferred into vats or barrels and
begin the fermentation phase. Champagne houses vinify the grapes separately
by variety and - wherever possible - by individual cru, taking the particular
structure into consideration.
Where time and skill combine: Having separated the resting wine from its lees by
means of racking, a wine referred to as clair (signifying ‘non-effervescent’) is
obtained. The cellarmaster then blends his various vins clairs together to produce
one or more cuvées of a particular style. The aim at this stage is to produce the
best possible combinations in the pursuit of harmony. There is universal
agreement that blending lends a cuvée complexity. The artist’s palette contains a
wide variety of nuances: each vin clair exhibits the individual characteristics of itsoriginal grape, which will vary depending on cru, or - at a more basic level - on
grape variety. Chardonnay’s boast is that it lends refinement and ageing
potential. Pinot Noir gives power and red fruit aromas. Pinot Meunier bestows
fruitiness, and develops more quickly over time. The wine producer therefore
makes a choice from among the grape varieties and crus from which the wines
have been produced, but also - if the end product is not a vintage champagne -
from among several different years. Of course, the blends depend on the various
grapes at the producer’s disposal, yet they must also conform to the “house
style”, not only as a means of differentiation from other champagnes, but also to
satisfy the requirements of consumers whose loyalty depends on the year-to-year
consistency of the wine. Creating a range of different types of wines also provides
the producer with a wide range of styles and prices. Once blending has taken
place, the wine is bottled along with a small quantity of sugar liqueur and a few
yeasts, an addition which encourages the second fermentation. The law specifies
a minimum of fifteen months’ cellaring for non-vintage bruts and a full three
years for vintage champagnes. During bottle fermentation, a deposit forms in the
bottle. The process by which it is removed is known as remuage (riddling): the
bottles are placed in a partially inverted position on slanted racks known as
pupîtres and, over a period of several weeks, they are turned one quarter-turn
per day while being gradually lifted further towards the vertical. The bottle
ultimately ends up sur pointe (completely inverted) with the deposit settled in the
neck. The old method of removing this deposit involved unstoppering the bottle
and turning it over quickly; the pressure in the bottle would cause the deposit to
be expelled. The preferred modern method is a simpler mechanical technique
consisting of immersing the end of the bottle in a freezing ‘bath’ and then turning
the bottle over, causing the plug of ice containing the deposit to be expelled by
pressure. The bottle then receives its final cork, topped with a cap in the house
colours; both of these are held in place by a muzzle. The package is completed
by the addition of neck and body labels, and the champagne is ready to be sent
• Choosing a champagne: Below is a presentation of the various types of
champagne. Information on the following characteristics can be found on the
bottle label, allowing you to make an informed choice.
• Grape variety: the wine may have been blended from one or more varieties.
Champagne produced solely from Chardonnay (a white grape with white juice) is
known as blanc de blancs. Likewise, a champagne produced only from Pinot Noir
and/or Pinot Meunier (black grapes with white juice) is known as a blanc de noirs.
The liqueur d’expédition (the sweetening “dosage” - a mixture of sugar and wine
added at the bottling stage in some cases) lends further nuances to the wine.
Depending on the quantity of the dosage added, the wine will assume a more or
less sweet character, classified as follows. 0-6g of sugar per litre: extra-brut;
under 15 g: brut; 12-20g: extra-dry; 17-35g: sec; 33-50g: demi-sec; over 50g:
• Non-vintage brut champagnes: these are the most common types of
champagne, combining wines from a number of different years, and usually from
a range of varieties and crus too. They include a proportion of reserve wine,
preserving a degree of constant style.
• Vintages: these are produced from grapes from just one year (which determines
the vintage); they may, however, come from a variety of crus. Vintages are not
produced as a matter of course every year, but rather in years with particularly
• Premiers and Grands Crus: to be a Grand Cru, a wine must be produced
exclusively from Grand Cru-classified terroirs; there are a total of 17 of these.
Premiers Crus are produced using grapes taken from Premier Cru-classified
communes, to which a proportion of Grand Cru may in some cases be added.
Rosé champagnes: Champagne is the only French region where rosé wines may
be produced from a combination of red and white wine. Rosé champagnes are
therefore obtained in part by adding still red wine, but they can also be produced
using the saignée (bleeding) technique; in other words, by macerating the juice
of black grapes along with their skins to extract colour and aromas. Rosés may be
vintage champagnes, or indeed be rated Grand Cru or Premier Cru.
2009: The beginning of the growing season was difficult, with frost followed by
hailstorms, and a mildew problem in July. But there was a happy ending as the
month of August was hot and dry, saving the harvest. With a good alcohol
potential and level of acidity, this vintage should produce excellent blends