Ultimate Guide to the Champagne Wine Region

The Champagne region of France is one of the most heavily praised wine regions on Earth. See our collection of wine pictures
iStockphoto/Stu Salmon

­It's New Year's Eve. You have your fancy outfit, a date and a party to attend. What's missing? The bubbly! There's nothing like a big bottle of champagne to help you cele­brate.

Most people are familiar with the characteristic bubbles or specific flavor of champagne, but there is so much more to learn about this famous French wine than just what makes it bubbly. It comes from the Champagne region of France, which is one of the most heavily praise­d and restricted wine regions on Earth.

Countries throughout the world use Appellations of Origin to mark their wine territory. The appellation for France is known as Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Wines bearing this label have been subjected to strict rules. There are 35 rules French winemakers must follow, but these are the most important concerning wine produced in the Champagne wine region:

  • Wine must come from a designated area of 84,000 acres (34,000 hectares).
  • Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are the only grapes that can be used and blended to make champagne.
  • You may only harvest and press a certain number of grapes at one time.
  • Vine restrictions include spacing, height, pruning and density.
  • All grapes must be harvested by hand.
  • You must age the product for a specific amount of time [source: wine-pages, Le Champagne].

­For centuries, Champagne has been limited to its strict territorial boundaries, but in the early 2000s, the French started realizing it might be time to expand. The global market for champagne is quite large -- it's been hard to manage while picking grapes by hand! The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) has approved a tentative plan to increase the ­area where grapes can be grown and still maintain the name Champagne [source: Gaffney]. Needless to say this has caused quite the controversy in the region. It will take years to sort out the logistics, but there's a demand for champagne, and France is trying to meet it.

Read on to learn about the region's history and culture, and find out how the center of Champagne came to be.

Champagne Wine Region History and Culture

How did Champagne become famous? It turns out that monks were t­he first people responsible for producing wine in this region. But in 496 on Christmas Eve, the region of Champagne officially entered into history when Clovis, the king of France, was anointed with sparkling wine by Saint Rémi to celebrate Clovis's conversion to Christianity [source: Le Champagne]. However, the champagne that we know today was actually not invented until the 17th century. According to the French, the invention of champagne, by a monk, is generally attributed to Dom Péringnon [source: Champagneinfo.net].

The region got its major boost after the cathedral in Reims was designated the location for crowning kings from 987 to1825 [source: Le Champagne]. This led to champagne being consumed at all kinds of celebrations. Visiting royalty from other countries were also given the opportunity to taste the royal drink. And so, as the years went by, the legend of champagne wine grew.

In 1882, the champagne houses of France realized they truly had something special. They joined together to form the Union of Champagne Houses, with two objectives: protect the Champagne name and fight against phylloxera (a disease that destroyed grapevines). They called their group l'Union des Maisons de Champagnes (UMC), and it's still active today. The Union is the force behind any lawsuits that are brought against producers of sparkling wines who try to use the Champagne name [source: UMC]. Yes, that's right. Many winemakers of sparkling wine have attempted to use the name Champagne on their labels of sparking wine. But unless it's made in the Champagne region of France, sparkling wine cannot be called champagne.

Champagne Wine Region Agriculture

The Champagne wine region is locate­d about 90 miles (145 kilom­eters) northeast of Paris [source: wine-pages]. The key to this rich, grape-growing land is chalk. You might think of chalk as that annoying substance that shrieks on chalkboards, but this chalk helps to produce fantastic grapes for winemaking. There are three reasons the chalk is so useful:

  • Chalk in the soil will reflect sunlight back up the vines to boost growth.
  • Chalk can absorb up to 40 percent of its volume. During rainy seasons, chalk can retain the water to ensure drainage for the vines.
  • Because the chalk maintains moisture so well, the vines are protected during extremely dry periods. The grape vines receive water through the roots that are buried in the subsoil [source: UMC].

There are specific steps involved in caring for Champagne grapes. Growers throughout the region know they must adhere to these standards or they won't be popping any corks in the spring:

  • Pruning: There are four authorized ways to prune, but in general, this just means cutting back stems.
  • Binding and lifting: During binding, the vines are attached to wires to control growth. Lifting involves wiring new growth (shoots) upright toward the sunlight.
  • Palissage: Vines are clipped in place on the wires due to strict spacing regulations.
  • Ebourgeonnage: Clipping off excess new growth. Some buds may be hacked off in the process.
  • Shredding: Any clippings dropped below the grape vines are added into a compost to ensure healthy vines and help deter diseases.
  • Special processes: There may be additional steps taken due to any number of random farming problems. In short, call in the experts [source: UMC].

Each employee of the vineyard works in sync to carry out these steps to ensure agricultural success.

Famous Wines of the Champagne Wine Region

Having trouble deciding on which champagne to choose for that special celebration? Don't worry, you can­ narrow down your choices based on looking for the official Champagne appellation labels from France. Once you find the labels, there are a variety of things to consider before making your selection.

Grape Type

Champagne comes from three types of grapes. Depending on your preferences, you can choose wines based on one of the three main fruits:

  • Pinot Noir has aromas of red fruits and produces a powerful punch
  • Pinot Meunier creates a fruity, supple flavor
  • Chardonnay has a floral flavor and sometimes contains mineral aromas [source: Le Champagne]

Champagne Houses

Once you have narrowed down the particular flavor you fancy, you can move on to the houses. The Union of Champagne Houses provides a complete list of official houses used to produce its sparkling wines [source: UMC].

World-Famous Champagnes

If you'd rather just pick up a bottle based on the region's acclaimed champagnes, consider these, which have received international accolades for their excellent qualities:

  • Cristal (Louis Roederer)
  • Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon)
  • Comètes de Champagne (Taittinger)
  • Grand Siècle (Laurent Perrier)
  • Grand Cru (Mumm)
  • Dom Ruinart (Ruinart)
  • Belle Époque (Perrier-Jouët)
  • La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot
  • Charlie (Charles Heidsieck)
  • Clos du Mensil (Krug)
  • Noble Cuvée (Lanson)
  • Winston Churchill (Pol Roger)
  • La Grande Année (Bollinger)
  • Louise (Pommery)
  • Rare (Piper Heidsieck)
  • Charles VII (Canard Duchene)
  • Clos des Goisses (Philipponnat)
  • Celebris (Gosset)
  • Amour (Duetz)
  • Nec Plus Ultra (Bruno Paillard)
  • Femme de Champagne (Duval Leroy)
  • Josephine (Joseph Perrier) [source: UMC]

For more wine-related information, visit the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "Champagne: Geography and Climate." (Accessed 02/07/09)http://www.wine-pages.com/resources/champexp.htm
  • Gaffney, Jacob. "Champagne Region Set to Expand." The Wine Spectator. 03/14/08 (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Features/0,1197,4296,00.html
  • "The History of 'le' Champagne." (Accessed 02/06/09)http://www.champagneinfo.net/Productie/ChampagneHistorie/tabid/174/Default.aspx
  • Le Champagne. "An exceptional 'terrior'." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.champagne.fr/en_geo_resume.html
  • Le Champagne. "An Unusual Wine." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.champagne.fr/en_hist_vinrare.html
  • Le Champagne. "The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.champagne.fr/en_aoc_resume.html
  • Le Champagne. "The gift of effervescence." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.champagne.fr/en_eff_resume.html
  • Tanasychuk, John. "10 Things: You gotta know about Champagne." Office of Champagne, USA. 12/27/07. (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.champagne.us/index.cfm?pageName=newsroom_news&detail=yes&articleID=48
  • UMC. "From Vines to Pleasure." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.maisons-champagne.com/traduction/english/vignes_au_plaisir/tirage_gb.htm
  • UMC. "Origins, history and objectives: the great brands and Champagne houses since 1882." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.maisons-champagne.com/traduction/english/organisations_professionnelles/historique_umc_gb.htm
  • UMC. "The Great Brands & Champagne Houses." (Accessed 02/05/09)http://www.maisons-champagne.com/traduction/english/limach_gb.htm