Champagne

Introduction

Champagne is possibly the most famous wine growing region in the world because it produces not only the greatest sparkling wine in the world but also happens to combine this with very astute marketing of its product and its various brands worldwide. Champagne is the benchmark by which all other sparkling wine is judged and it remains the most prestigious and often the most expensive drink on any wine list. Yet its origins were relatively recent and convoluted compared to other fine wines.

History

The name Champagne originates from the Latin term Campania for rolling hills and in the Middle Ages this was applied to a province in north east France with similar terrain. Although it was the first region to make sparkling wine in any quantity, until the 17th century it was better known for its still wines.

Its position at the crossroads of the Flanders to Switzerland and Paris to the Rhine trade routes made the region prosperous but has also brought conflicts over the last 1,500 years, some of which have disrupted the region’s viticulture.

The first mention of a vineyard in Champagne is in the 5th century but the establishment of Reims as France’s spiritual capital in 987 boosted the planting of vines around the city mainly by the nobility and more importantly, as we shall see, the local abbeys. Still wines were shipped down the River Marne to the River Seine and then to Paris but although made from Pinot Noir they did not sparkle. However, in the second half of the 17th century winemaking greatly improved under the auspices of leading clerical winemakers, led by Dom Perignon, who transformed the Abbey of Hautvilliers, above Epernay, into the region’s leading centre of viticultural progress.

The wines were introduced to the Court of Versailles and in to London society and their fame grew. The British helped to develop stronger bottles to contain the exploding carbon dioxide and it is likely that London cafe society was the first to experience true “sparkling” wine. But the pressure caused by the second fermentation resulted in only a few thousand bottles being produced annually throughout the 18th century of which half would still break.

Today’s champagne business was born in the first 40 years of the 19th century with the first notable steps being taken by the redoubtable Madame Veuve Clicquot with the improvement of corks and the mastery of the in-bottle second fermentation process.

Soon the trade in internationally famous brands developed, led by young Rhineland entrepreneurs such as Krug, Bollinger and Roederer, who showed greater commercial clout than their French counterparts. Only Clicquot and Monsieur Moet escaped but the region suffered when the Russian market collapsed in 1917 and also when phylloxera arrived in 1890. But a near civil war in 1911 over the inclusion of the Aube wine region within the Champagne appellation ultimately led to the formation of the CIVC (Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne) in 1941, which is now probably the most powerful trade body in the wine world.

Since the 1950’s the region has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity with Champagne sales quadrupling to over 200 million bottles, export markets in continual expansion and demand bucking economic trends. Unusually, half of the region’s domestic sales are from co-operatives whereas overseas the traditional brands account for 90% of trade. By 1989 the region’s 140 co-operatives represented over half the growers and a third of the area under vine.

This put pressure on the family merchants in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the result that Moet & Chandon initially absorbed Mercier and Ruinart, followed by Krug and Veuve Clicqout, making them the dominant grouping in Champagne. The increasing power of the growers led to grape price rises which made it increasingly difficult for those merchants without their own vineyards to survive. They were sold to the larger Grand Marque houses with the result that the trade is now concentrated to such an extent that the 7 largest Champagne houses account for 70% of the total production.

Investment Wines and Producers

  • Cristal
  • Dom Perignon
  • Krug
  • Moet & Chandon
  • Tattinger

Geography and climate

The region of Champagne starts only 50 km east of Paris at Charly in the Marne Valley and spreads northwards to Reims and southwards to Epernay. It also includes the Aube which is 112 km south of Epernay and covers 30,000 hectares. Only a tenth of the vines are owned by merchants with the rest being owned by growers, many with holdings of less than a hectare. Champagne is the only French wine region to have just one appellation with the best vineyards on the chalky hills. Due to the precarious northerly climate, vintages can be variable which explains why Champagne is usually a blend of different villages and vintages in order to produce a consistent style. Vineyards are graded according to quality on a 80 – 100 scale with the 38 premier crus vineyards rated at 90 – 98% of the maximum price and 17 grand crus at 98% or above.

Grape varieties

The main 3 grape varieties are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay but a little Petit Meslier is also grown and at least one varietal Champagne is made from it. Pinot Noir provides structure and depth, Pinot Meunier early maturing richness whilst Chardonnay imparts austerity and elegance but is long-lived and matures to a fine fruitiness.

Investment Wines and Producers

  • Cristal
  • Dom Perignon
  • Krug
  • Moet & Chandon
  • Tattinger