While expanding your palate is a worthwhile endeavour in its own right, it’s made all the more rewarding when you have a sense of the history behind the bottle. In our Vines 101 series, we pull back the curtain on some of our favourite wine regions in the world and explore their oenological origins. When it comes to Champagne, let’s start with that most basic of questions…
What makes Champagne Champagne?
According to the Champagne AOC, in order for a wine to bear that famous name, it must be made from grapes that come from the 25,000 hectares of designated vineyards in the region of Champagne—the addition of grapes grown in any other part of the world would disqualify the wine from bearing the name Champagne!
The wine must be made from any combination or percentage of the three specified varieties of grapes in the region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The addition of Sauvignon Blanc, for example, would prohibit the wine from being sold as Champagne.
And, of course, in order to qualify as Champagne, wine must be made using the Methode Champenoise.
Most of the vineyards in Champagne are owned by farmers, or tiny producers. The vast majority of the production of Champagne is carried out by the Grand Maisons, the names we all know: Moët et Chandon, Laurent Perrier, Veuve Cliquot, Mercier, etc.
These Grand Maisons buy most of the grapes that they need for producing their wines (e.g. Moët, with annual sales of 22.9 million bottles, buys 75 percent of their grapes; Lanson, with annual sales of 6.4 million bottles, buys 100 percent of their grapes). Long-term growing contracts and vineyard leasing arrangements exist, which leads to a great demand for grapes, a proclivity for backroom deals and certainly the need for a very competent regulatory body.
Enter the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C). The C.I.V.C. is the regulatory body that presides over the wines of Champagne. Each year the C.I.V.C. sets a certain price, which will be the official selling price for a kilogram of grapes. This cuts out the possibility of total monopoly by the Grand Maisons, who could otherwise negotiate better bulk prices, leaving the small guys with the dregs at the end of the basket.
Famous Names of Champagne
The Côtes des Blancs
Every one of the Tête de Cuvées (e.g. Dom Pérignon, Cristal, Signature, Grande Dame) hails from this region, which exclusively plants Chardonnay grapes. The two principal towns are Avize and Cramant, with Le Mesnil sur Oger and Cuis rounding out the slope.
This is the abbey where the famous Dom Pérignon (1638–1715) himself lived and worked; it was here that he perfected the methods now used to make Champagne. These techniques include the riddling process, which brings the sediment out of the bottle (giving us that clear, brilliant colour), doing away with oil-soaked clothes and introducing corks to seal the bottles. Dom Pérignon was the first to see the benefits of the all-important blending process. It was said that his sense of smell and taste were so highly developed, he could taste the grapes coming in and tell which vineyard they came from!
He’s known, of course, in Champagne, but he’s gained notoriety outside of his domain as a pioneer, both for the different techniques he uses and the philosophy he practices. He was, to give just one example, the first to use oak barrels to magnify his wines. But first and foremost, he’s known as the first to think terroir in a region that wasn’t too sensitive to it. Of course, the notion of Grand Crus and so on exists here, but no one before him went as far in the concept. An example? Out of six small parcels he created a unique collection of wines, each named and vinified differently.