Champagne is not only a sparkling wine, but the region from which the famous beverage derives its name. The champagne bottle and glassclimate of the area has cooler temperatures than that of the southern French vineyards, giving it a shorter growing season.
Near the border of Belgium, and almost a hundred miles (144 km) northeast of Paris, Champagne is typically divided into three areas — the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, though there are other zones as well.
Of the region’s 75,000 acres planted in vineyards, the greatest portion and the largest vineyards are planted in the département of the Marne.
The vines grow comfortably in chalky soils, providing excellent natural moisture regulation and good drainage. The chalk reflects much sunlight and heat upward to the developing grapes and within to the roots. The thin layer of arable topsoil receives the necessary addition of fertilizer by the region’s world-class vintners, some of whom work the land only part-time.
The annual temperature hovers slightly above the minimum required to ripen grapes (50°F/10°C), The best vineyards are located low enough to be clear of frost (below 210m/689ft), but high enough (above 90m/295ft) to be sheltered from extreme heat.
One superior example is the vineyards of Montagne de Reims, a forested plateau south of Reims. Blessed with a deep layer of crustaceous chalk beneath a thin bed of topsoil, the highly rated Grand and Premier Cru are found in these two areas, which primarily grows Pinot Noir.
Among the most northern vineyards, the unique micro-climate in Montagne is well suited for producing this wine grape variety, which is used to produce some of the world’s best champagne.
Along the banks of the River Marne lies the Vallée de la Marne, with predominantly south-facing, lower-lying vineyards, which produces mostly Pinot Meunier. And just over 13 miles (21km) south of Epernay juts a ridge in Côte des Blancs where the chalk subsoil leads to a glorious Chardonnay.
Côte de Sézanne is a newcomer to Champagne. Planted in the 1960’s nearly exclusively with Chardonnay grapes, its southern location allows the fruit to ripen better than many of the other zones.
In Champagne’s most southerly zone, we find The Aube located about 70 miles (112km) south of Epernay, where the climate exhibits greater temperature extremes. Less recognized, much of its production adds to numerous blends of the major champagne houses.
The idea of producing a great champagne is to blend together the best qualities from each of the best wine grapes grown in all these areas. The large Champagne houses store millions of gallons of wine from various vineyards for blending purposes. These blends are created primarily from three varieties.
Pinot Meunier, cultivated only in Champagne (on nearly 40% of the total acreage), remains the dominant variety, and makes up the base for all but the most exclusive champagnes. Pinot Noir is a close second with about 35% of the total acreage. It adds much of the longevity to champagne. Chardonnay accounts for the remaining 25% and provides lightness.
Champagne, deservedly acclaimed as one of the most important historical regions, creates quality undiminished in the modern world as well.