It’s possible that no other word associated with wine and spirits can conjure up images of love, romance and elegance as well as Champagne. But it is the region of the same name that determines the authenticity of the sparkling wine that shares its moniker and elicits these magical feelings. While the wine world offers a lovely array of delicious and diverse sparkling wines for just about any occasion, true and authentic Champagne must have its origins in none other than the Champagne region, appropriately located a mere 90 miles northeast of Paris, the City of Lights.
Enjoying a long and rich history, the Champagne region has been cultivated for centuries. The Romans were the first to plant vineyards, with the area being cultivated by the 5th century. Legend claims that the first King of France (although not called France at the time) was anointed with still wines from Champagne in the 9th century. This started the tradition that followed for the next thousand years of all French kings being coronated and anointed in Reims, which lies in the heart of the Champagne region. 11th century Pope Urban II, a native of Champagne, declared that the wines from his homeland were the best in the world, adding to its growing reputation that attracted royalty and the papacy alike; Pope Leo X, Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain and even England’s Henry VIII all owned parcels of vineyards in the region. In fact, a batch that was sent to Henry’s Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, is considered the first wine export from Champagne to England. Whether or not this history also sparked the celebratory nature of Champagne remains a mystery, although given the association with royalty, it shouldn’t be ruled out: Champagne continues to be the go-to wine for the most special of celebrations across the world.
As demand for still Champagne wines grew, so did trade and financial gain. This worsened the already existing rivalry between Champagne and Burgundy. Residents of Champagne, or Champenois, began coveting the reputation held by Burgundy wines produced to their south, and looked to deliver an alternative that could hold its own against the competition. Sadly, the chilly climate of the region couldn’t provide the ideal environment for robust red grape vineyards, but instead presented grapes of high acidity and low sugar levels that produced lighter bodied products. Little did they know at the time that these shortcomings were future blessings in disguise.
From the Parisian marketplace to the palace of Louis XIV, the Burgundy-Champagne rivalry was fierce. For most of his life, the king would only drink wines from Champagne, ostensibly for its health benefits per his doctor’s orders; however, as Louis aged and his health declined, another royal doctor changed the wine directive to Burgundian only. This sparked yet another layer of competition among the two regions, this time based on the health benefits of its offerings. Strong and differing opinions came from a vast spectrum of voices – from leaders in the medical community to poets, socialites and authors – each defending their wine of choice to the point of nearly causing a civil war. Thankfully, this settled down when winemakers from Champagne decided to turn their attention from developing a rival to Burgundy’s reds to what had by then become sparkling Champagne.
Some wine scholars insist that sparkling Champagne was created by accident. Its signature effervescence seemed to be a result of climate extremes. Bottled wine would get cold in the winter but warm up again at the onset of spring, initiating a secondary fermentation process that released carbon dioxide. With no place to go, the bubbles that formed inside the bottles created a lively, assertive fizz. While later production protocol became more involved, this turn of events was the beginning of Champagne as we know it.
One name often associated with Champagne is Dom Pérignon, a French Benedictine monk of the 16th century. Often wrongly credited with inventing the legendary sparkling wine, he nonetheless made important contributions to the way it is produced, specifically, how to blend the grapes prior to sending them to press, introducing the use of heavy glass bottles, and using cork stoppers to deter bottles of bubbly, or “the devil’s wine,” as it was called at the time, from exploding. In his honor, the Champagne that bears his name is the prestige cuvée of Moet & Chandon, one of the more elite Champagne producers, and the monastery where he lived was eventually purchased by the winery.
Three grape varietals are allowed to be used in authentic Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Small amounts of secondary grapes including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier are also allowed; however, the region’s appellation laws demand that only grapes grown according to their rules in clearly designated plots can be used in Champagne production. While the Pinot varietals are slightly compromised by the region’s climate, the region’s terroir of chalky subsoil helps to retain both warmth and moisture despite the cooler days and chilly nights. And, just as it was proved when the Champenois had unsuccessfully tried to recreate Burgundian wines, the underripe grapes that resulted from the cold actually proved to be ideal for making sparkling wines.
Among the 83,000 acres of vineyards in Champagne (which, by the way, produce on average a million bottles of Champagne a day), there are five main regions and seventeen sub-regions. Montagne de Reims consists mostly of Pinot Noir, with many tête de cuvee, or the best of the best, hailing from this spot; Côte des Blancs is dominated by Chardonnay, and features chalk-based soils that yield elegant, highly acidic wines; Vallée de la Marne showcases Pinot Meunier, and delivers a fruitier Champagne; Côte des Sézanne, also mostly Chardonnay, produces highly aromatic, less acidic wines; and The Aube, or Côte des Bar, primarily grows Pinot Noir, and due to its marl soil, also produces less acidic wines.
Much like Burgundy, Champagne has a system for rating its vineyards, with each village in the region judged for its quality. Seventeen villages have earned the rating of Grand Cru, with forty-four additional ones ranked as Premier Cru. Due to the practice of large Champagne producers which source grapes from multiple regional vineyards, only wines exclusively made from Grand Cru or Premier Cru products can carry those prestigious designations. Finally, over 400 communes in the Champagne region are included in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which oversees both quality and authenticity.
After centuries of production, Champagne continues to enchant and captivate more than any other wine or spirit. Although its method of production is stringent, the various houses that make this luxurious wine have created their own distinctive, characteristic styles and tastes, creating a spectrum of delightful choices that would enhance any occasion. In the legendary words of Dom Pérignon, a glass of Champagne is indeed nothing short of “tasting the stars.”Read Less