Champagne is a case study in successful branding. What began as the name of a region is now used interchangeably with an entire style of wine and a lifestyle driven by luxury consumption. Champagne, however, was historically praised for the quality of its still wines whose pale color belied the intensity of their aroma and flavor. Innovations in glass technology and cork closures during the 17th century facilitated the retention of residual carbon dioxide during fermentation, leading to the first sparkling wines made in Champagne. Despite the many fables about the discovery of the sparkling wine process, the modern méthode champenoise, traces its origin to the early 19th century and combined a deliberate secondary fermentation with a calculated process of collecting (remuage) and disposing (dégorgement) of the residual yeast cells from the bottle post fermentation.
Understanding Champagne, the style of wine, begins with understanding Champagne, the region. Champagne is at the northerly extreme for successful viticulture, a marginal climate in which grapes struggle to achieve even moderate levels of ripeness and naturally retain high levels of acidity. The soils are largely derived from the same chalk formations found in the white cliffs of Dover, which also help to restrict vine vigor due to their slightly elevated alkalinity. Elaborate tunnels have been carved into this soft chalk, creating the perfect environment to slowly age Champagne bottles during their multiyear production process.
The grapes which are best suited to this cool weather are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier, a trio whose strengths and vulnerabilities balance each other. Chardonnay brings crisp apple and lemon notes, elevated acidity, long cellaring potential and tends to be successful even in cool vintages. Pinot Noir gives richness and lends subtle red fruit aromas to the finished Champagne, and benefits from warmer than average vintages. Meunier is the most frost-tolerant and is well-suited to the region’s colder valleys. The floral and fruit tones of Meunier are often best enjoyed in Champagnes made to be drunk in their youth.
To make a white wine from black grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Meunier, the grapes must be pressed quickly to avoid extracting color from the skins into the juice. When a white Champagne is exclusively made from one or both black grapes, it is called a blanc de noirs (literally white from black). If the champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it can be called a blanc de blancs (white from white). Rosé Champagne is also produced, and it is traditionally made by adding a small amount of still red wine to a Champagne before corking.
Though the Champagne region is covered by a single sparkling wine appellation, it is geographically broken down into five sub-regions. These regions each contain villages, some of which were traditionally classified as worthy of grand cru or premier cru status. The northernmost region, the Montagne de Reims, consists of vineyards surrounding the plateau (montagne) between Reims and Épernay. The Montagne’s sunny hillsides are well suited to Pinot Noir, though powerful examples of Chardonnay are grown here as well. The villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy, and Verzenay are among the most famous grand crus of the Montagne. Opening westward at the southern base of the Montagne de Reims is the Vallée de la Marne, a frost prone region well suited to Meunier, though excelling with other grapes in grand cru villages such as Aÿ. To the south, the Côte des Blancs rises at right angles to the Vallée in an unbroken east facing slope of vineyards. Its pure white soils contain the high amounts of chalk and are famed for the Chardonnay produced here. Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize and Oger are grand cru villages with the best reputation in the Côte. Farther south, a region called the Côte de Sézanne shares a similar soil profile and affinity to chardonnay, but with hillier terrain, with slopes facing in multiple directions. Even further south, the Champagne region concludes with the Côte des Bars, also known as the Aube, a large, flat region noted for its Pinot Noir.
A typical bottle of Champagne is a blend of the three main grapes fermented separately into still base wines, before blending ahead of the second fermentation. Most Champagne is also composed of wines from multiple vintages that are blended together, which is why a vintage date cannot be used on the label. The flexibility in assembling a finished wine from different grapes, different years, and different vineyards scattered throughout the Champagne region explains how a Champagne producer can achieve a uniform house style that does not vary between the millions of bottles produced from year to year, despite variations in vintage characteristics. Those bottles of wine that do carry a vintage date must be composed entirely of wine from the stated year and are often made only in the years with the most favorable characteristics.
By law, a bottle of Champagne must be aged for a minimum of one year while still containing the yeast cells from the second fermentation, though in practice many houses exceed this minimum requirement. This time spent ageing on its lees, allows the wine to develop texture and aromas of brioche, toasted nuts, and fresh cream from the yeast cells, aromas that distinguish Champagne from other sparkling wines made by more expedient methods. At the end of this ageing period, the spent yeast cells are collected and expelled from the bottle, leaving behind a clear sparkling wine. Before the bottle is recorked and packaged for sale, the sweetness level of the champagne can be adjusted, if desired. Terms such as “Brut” or “Demi-sec” refer to the finished sweetness of the champagne, as determined by this final addition of sugar, called the dosage. In order from driest to sweetest, the terms for sweetness are brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec, and doux.
Champagne is a wine that demands much time and investment for its production, and this has led the region to be dominated by large houses who have the capital to fund such a large enterprise and who must buy a significant portion of their grapes from farmers to be able to meet their requirements for volume. Because these houses buy grapes to make their finished wine, they are referred to as negociant-manipulant (NM). It is common for a single house to have multiple wines in its portfolio, often headlined by a prestige cuvée or tête de cuvée that showcases the best of a house’s production. The prestige cuvée for Moët & Chandon is Dom Pérignon, for Louis Roederer, it is Cristal. Recently, smaller producers have risen to prominence, who grow their own grapes and make their own wine. Because they grow the grapes and make the wine, they are called considered recoltant-manipulants (RMs). Being smaller in scale, the RMs do not have the same marketing power as the larger houses and often do not rely on a single prestige cuvée to anchor their brand, preferring instead to produce a lineup with consistent quality across all products.