Champagne is a wine region located in northern France. The region falls under only one AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – making it the most well-known in the world, despite its relatively small size.
Named after the region it is found in, the rules and regulations around viticulture and winemaking have preserved the identity of Champagne, helping it strengthen a brand that is synonymous with quality and excellence.
The Romans first planted vines in the area around the 5th century AD, naming it Champagne after the Italian the Italian region south of Rome called Campania, which resembled Champagne with similarly hilly territory. In 987, Hugh Capet tied Champagne’s relationship with the royal family, being crowned King of France in Reims cathedral and celebrating the event with local wines. This tradition was continued for all subsequent crownings for the following eight centuries.
The first significant milestone in Champagne’s history came in the 17th century. Before then, Champagne was a very different product compared to the product we drink today, competing against Burgundy but never quite matching the region’s quality.
It was then a monk based in Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon, introduced several viticulture and winemaking techniques, including, but not limited to, limitations of the vine’s height, improvements of picking techniques to preserve the soil and press quality to increase efficiency, avoiding skin contact to achieve the whiter hue that we know today.
Champagne’s popularity soon grew in London society. At this point in Champagne’s history, the wine was transported in barrels and bottled locally. It was the English who added Champagne’s sparkle, the result of a second fermentation process inside the bottle.
In the 18th century, Champagne makers from single estate growers and monasteries were joined by private houses and merchants as producers, who simply bought the grapes instead of growing them. Important houses, such as Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidseck and Taittinger were founded during this era.
The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars posed a threat to the Champagne trade and in turn, raised their popularity, with producers designing creative schemes to to reach the noble clients that fled the guillotine, circumnavigating the port blockades across Europe.
Finally, Champagne itself was occupied by the Russian army after Napoleon’s defeat, which turned out to be a lucrative business opportunity, with Champagne being used as requisition and tribute and ultimately becoming a favourite of Russian Empire. This eventually led to Russia becoming second largest consumer in the world up until the October Revolution in 1917.
The 19th century saw the foundation of the modern Champagne industry, one which we might recognise today. Winemaking and viticulture has benefitted from technology and innovation brought by the Industrial Revolution, while science helped carry out deeper research on how to sparkle the wine, not to mention the effects of sugar in the second fermentation, which were outlined precisely for the first time. Improvement of rail infrastructure, which connected Champagne with the rest of France, including costal ports in the 1850s, meant production reached 20m bottles a year.
The public’s palate’s started shifting to dryer notes, appreciating a higher overall quality instead of sweet wine. The first attempt of a Champagne with no added sugar was initially received coldly: but “brut”, called after its severe taste, is the modern style of the vast majority of Champagne produced today.
The early 20th century was a time of challenges. The Phylloxera epidemic, Russian and American prohibition and cheap grapes easily available via railway were all factors that hit the industry severely. To invert a dangerous trend, in 1911 measures were taken to promote a series of rules to protect the origin of grapes, beginning a process of wider regulation that contributed to strengthening Champagne as a brand, protecting its quality and denomination.
These changes were first introduced at the beginning of the century, but had to be halted due to the outbreak of the First World War. Land in the region soon became devastated, not to mention the population halved.
The Second World War also had a major effect on the Champagne, but not quite as profound as those that were felt during the first global conflict. Reims, the capital of the region, is where actually Germany surrendered in 1947. As the signing was celebrated with 6 cases of 1934 Pommery, a famous quote of unknown origin stated “The last explosions of the war were the popping of Champagne corks”.
Champagne is situated at the northernmost limit of wine cultivation. The consequence of this location is that temperatures tend to be cold, with exposure to frost hazard. Furthermore, the region has a dual climate, with features of both oceanic and continental influences.
The oceanic influence brings steady rainfall and keeps temperatures low, while continental features bring better levels of sunlight in summer and increased the risk of frost in both winter and summer.
The increase of temperatures in the last years has been a major concern as it’s proving more difficult to keep the grapes cool enough for pressing.
Vines are planted over a surface of 34,000 hectares.
Worldwide production of Champagne is well above 300 million bottles per year, with a record of 339 million occurring in 2007. The split between domestic market and exports is about equal, with 2015 marking the first year exporting outstripped domestic use.
The best year ever in terms of export turnover was recorded in 2015, when it reached over 4.7 billion Euros, with 2016 following very closely behind.
The three most important grapes allowed in Champagne are the white Chardonnay, the dark-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which, due to absence of skin contact during fermentation, still give away whites.
Wines made solely from white-skinned Chardonnay grapes are called “Blanc de Blancs”, French for “white from whites”, while the ones produced solely from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a combination of both grapes are called “Blanc de Noirs”, “white from blacks”.
The only other minor varieties allowed in the AOC are Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Some Champagnes showcase the yeasts involved in production rather than fruity characteristics. Generally speaking though, good Champagne should smell like freshly baked bread with a hint of wet limestone.
The mouthfeel should be creamy, soft and mellow, not abrasive or overtly loud. Colour can vary, but it’s typically within a spectrum of light-gold and pale yellow. Amber may also be found, but this is relatively rare for Champagne.
In terms of sweetness, when Champagne is dry is labelled “brut”. As deceiving as it might sound, Champagne with a bit more sugar is labelled “extra-dry”, while the label “sec” indicates wines containing as much as 2% sugar.
Dom Pérignon is one of most recognised names in the world. The brand name is a tribute to the monk that perfected winemaking in the 17th century and was registered by Mercier Champagne for a 1937 release. Today it’s part of LVMH Group, who also own Moët & Chandon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Krug, among others.
Louis Roederer is, historically speaking, the favourite Champagne of the Russian royal family. The house is famous for its flagship wine, Cristal. In 2006, Louis Roederer ventured a collaboration with Philippe Starck for a Brut Nature Champagne.
Ulysse Collin is a very young winery, having only been founded in 2003 by Olivier Collin in Congy. In the short amount of time that Collin has been operating, he has already made a name for himself, both through the techniques he uses to produce his wines, as well as the wines themselves.
Champagne Henri Giraud is the oldest Champagne house in France that is still owned by the founding family. Located in Ay, it is only since the current owner, Claude Giraud, took over the estate that the wines produced have been released under the family name.
Amidst the old Champagne houses stands Champagne Veuve Fourny & Fils, a fifth generation winery in the heart of the region. The knowledge of how to run it has been passed down through the generations, giving the current owners an advantage over many of the other houses in the region.