Although the wine producing region of Champagne is only the 6th largest it is probably the most valued. Vine growing land can easily fetch for more than one million Euros a hectare and almost none is on the market. It is because only the sparkling wines produced here can legally be called ‘Champagne’. And Champagne wines can fetch 2-3 times the prices of still wines.
The region sits on the northern edge of the limit for grape growing. The chalky soil and chilly climate are suitable to give the grapes the extra acidity for making sparkling wines. There are only 3 grape varieties here: the white Chardonnay, the red Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Most labels of ‘Champagne’ are made from a blend of these red and white grapes. The exception is Champagne made in one sub-region (Côte des Blancs) where only Chardonnay is grown and the wines are specified as ‘Blanc de Blancs’. Pink Champagne is also made in small quantity usually sold at a much inflated prices. So are the so-called ‘Cuvee’ – the luxurious brand extensions.
The word ‘Brut’ on the label means the wine is very dry. Curiously ‘Sec’ (which means dry) on the label is a slightly sweet champagne. If you care for a really sweet Champagne look for the word ‘Demi-Sec’(half-dry).
As a result of the cold climate year-on-year harvest is uncertain therefore most Champagnes are non-vintage – not made from a single year of harvest but from a blend of wines from several years to arrive at a consistent quality. Vintage Champagnes are only available when an exceptionally good year appears (rarely). A Vintage Champagne can age for longer time and is normally much more expensive. There are 17 Grands Crus and 34 Premiers Crus villages. Normal wine bottles hold 75cl of wine. Champagne bottles have 80cl and are made with thicker glass to withhold 500 units of atmospheric pressure.
French wines are never ‘brands’ (Chateau Margaux or Chateau Latour would be horrified if we referred them as brands). However Champagnes are the closest to branding. The most ancient and prestigious Champagnes families have been bought out over time by French multinational conglomerates such as Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy (LVMH). The family names remain on the labels but the families are long gone. Nowadays a good portion of Champagne production is controlled by these multinationals promoting the wines world-wide.
Luckily there are still hundreds of small independent producers around whose Champagnes are as good if not better, sold at more reasonable prices but are rarely exported. The trick is to find them and here is one clue: look for a tiny abbreviation of ‘RM’ on the label. It means that the Champagne in question is produced by the same farmer/wine-maker growing the grapes and making the Champagne.
There are 7 sub-regions under Champagne but only 3 are significant: Montagne de Reims: A ridge of low hills to the south of the ancient city of Reims forms the one of the best producing sub-region. Because of its soil and exposition more red grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted then Chardonnay. As a result the Champagnes here are made with a majority of red grapes which gives a distinct full-bodied taste. Vallee de la Marne: This is the area on both sides of valley along the river Marne stretching west from the town of Epernay to Chateau Thierry. Here the main grape is the red Pinot Meunier instead of Pinot Noir mixed with about one third of Chardonnay. The Champagne style is similar to that of the Montagne de Reims but the taste is mellower. Côte des Blancs: This distinct sub-region is a range of hill-side running south of Epernay but facing east. The grape grown is almost 100% Chardonnay giving the Champagne a light, fruitier taste deserving the name ‘Blanc de Blancs’ – white Champagne made from white grape.
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