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Eating and drinking my way through life and learning all the while

WSET Diploma Studies: Champagne Part 1 – The Champagne Region

Champagne is more than just a drink it is a statement, a lifestyle, and for some, a way of life.

 “So we came to the Ritz hotel and the Ritz Hotel was divine. Because when a girl can sit in a delightful bar and have delicious champagne cocktails and look at all the important French people in Paris, I think it is divine.”
Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
 

And it is not just a drink – it is a place. Champagne can only come from a delimited  region 90 miles north-east of Paris. It is the only French AOC not required to have appellation contrôllée on the label – the word Champagne, so it seems, says it all.
The Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) was established in 1941 to protect the interests of Champagne growers/cooperatives/merchant/Champagne houses. Its most important role has been to protect the champenois exclusive right to the word ‘Champagne’ and prevent it being used to promote any other products like cigarettes and perfume.
It had a notable victory in the English courts in 1959 and has continually fought for legal protection and has achieved this in most markets. Just this month, the CIVC signed a protocol with Russiawhich commits the Russians to use the word ‘sparkling wine’ instead of ‘Champagne’ on their labels.

“The word Champagne’ is so full of meaning, so desirable that it has always provoked envy.”
Spokesperson for the CIVC

 
Champagne has the most northerly latitude of any premium winemaking region aside from the south of England.
For anyone who has ever been to Disneyland Paris, this far North can get bitterly cold. Spring frost is a real problem, especially in the Vallée de la Marne and winters can be so severe as to kill a vine. Champagne has a cool, dry, continental climate, although during July – a key ripening period – Champagne’s mean temperature is 18.9˚C which is warmer than New Zealand’s Marlborough region and Santa Maria in California. Fungal disease can be a problem.
Three grapes dominate Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and the chameleon of wine, Chardonnay – which seems to change shape and character if it is made still or sparkling, oaked or unoaked and in warm, or  cool climates.

In Champagne – Chardonnay gives acidity and elegance to a blend and the ability to age, it can develop lovely toasty, vanilla flavours. Pinot Noir is the backbone of many blends and provides body – it gives attractive biscuit flavours with age. Pinot Meunier buds later and so is less of a frost risk, it ripens earlier as well so good grape to hedge the bets with the weather. It provides an attractive fruitiness when young and can develop complex mushroom character with time.
Champagne’s chalky soil aids retains what little water is to be found in this relatively dry area. Vines are planted close together with a density of between 6-10,000 vines/ha. Yields are relatively high (10,400 kg/ha).
Cordon training is used on Pinot Noir and Meunier vines and Taille Chablis for Chardonnay. Retaining high levels of permament wood helps protect the vines against frost. Because of the cool weather, acidity is high and sugar levels relatively low, some years the minimum alcohol can struggle to make 8% abv, which would then be chapitalised to 9.5% abv, so after blending and the secondary fermentation the end wine is around 12% abv.
There are five main districts in Champagne each producing different style base wines designed to be blended together to create the wide range of Champagne styles we see today. The two main cities of Champagne are Epernay and Reims where many of the big Champagne houses are based. Reims is the commercial centre and home to the likes of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Lanson, Ruinart, Pommery, GH Mumm and Tattinger and was
where many of France’s Kings were crowned. Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouet
and Pol Roger are based in Epernay while Bollinger has its home in Aӱ.

Montagne de Reims

28% Chardonnay, 56% Pinot Noir, 16% Pinot Meunier
– 9 Grands Crus including Ambonnay, Aӱ-Champagne, Bouzy, Verzenay, Verzy

Montagne de Reims is the forest land between Reims in the north and
Epernay to the South. It is split into the northern and southern montagnieu –
Pinot Noir dominates in both halves although Chardonnay has increased its
presence over the past few decades.
Grapes planted on the north facing slopes of Verzenay and Verzy have
higher acidity, darker colour and more body although less power and can bring a
delicacy to the blend. The grapes planted on the southern montagne villages of Ay-Champagne, Ambonnay and Bouzy are lighter in colour but are thought to have more depth and finesse.

Vallée de la Marne

10% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir, 63% Pinot Meunier
– 2 Grand Crus, including Mareuil-sur-Aӱ, plus the Premières Crus Dizy, Hautvilliers and Cumières

Pinot Meunier dominates in the frost prone Vallée de la Marne due to the fact it buds late and ripens early. It produces an easy drinking fruit forward style designed to be enjoyed young.
Pinot Noir is grown on the very best south facing slopes. The villages of Dizy, Hautvillers and Cumières overlook Epernay to the South, and generally speaking the further west you go beyond these villages the lesser the quality, particularly on the left bank where the vines face north.

Côte des Blancs

96% Chardonnay, 3% Pinot  Noir, 1% Pinot Meunier
–  6 Grands Crus, including Cramant, Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

Côte des Blancs gets is name as it is almost entirely made up of the Champagne’s white grape. Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs is the most favoured Chardonnay in all of Champagne.
The best villages are located in the heart of the Côte des Blancs – Cramant, Avise, Oger, and le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The wines from these villages contribute freshness and finesse to a blend and in a Blanc de Blancs provide a creamy texture and unrivalled intensity and complexity.

Côtes de Sézanne

– 70% Chardonnay, 21% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier
– no Grands Crus

Located 10 miles south west of the Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne is also dominated by Chardonnay although lacks the finesse of Côte des Blancs .
Its wines are said to be more fruity, somewhat exotic and a little musky. Pinot Noir plantings are slowly increasing here.

Aube

– 8% Chardonnay, 85% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot  Meunier
– no Grand Crus

Riots broke out in Champagne in 1911 when the French assembly first attempted to included the Aube into the main appellation of Champagne. Despite near civil war breaking out it was eventually included and today ripe fruity wines are produced here –  a region closer to Chablis than Reims, located  70 miles south east of Epernay.
Pinot Noir succeeded the Gamay panted here before WWII. It has a clean style and is arguably of a higher quality than some of the outlying areas of the Vallée de la Marne.

All villages in Champagne are rated using a system known as échelle des crus. This percentage based system rates villages from 80-100 with Grands Crus villages given 100%, Premiers Crus between 90-99% and the lowest rated village 80%. Up until the start of this century, the Champagne harvest was priced as a whole and then each village got a percentage of the rate depending on how they were rated – the lowest percentage previously was 22.5%. Prices are now worked out separately between individual growers and buyers.
The majority of the Grands Crus villages are located on the West facing Côte des Blancs slopes, or on the Montagne de Reims.There are 17 Grands Crus in total, which account for 3,000 hectares and 8.6% of AOC Champagne.
There are 41 Premiers Crus villages across 7,500 hectares which make up 22% of Champagne.

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