The Champagne wine region is an historic province in the northeast of France. The area is best known for the production of the sparkling white wine that bears the region's name. EU law and the laws of most countries reserve the term "Champagne" exclusively for wines that come from this region located about 100 miles east of Paris.
The viticultural boundaries of Champagne are legally defined and split into five wine producing districts within the administrative province: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The towns of Reims and Épernay are the commercial centers of the area. Located at the northern edges of the wine growing world, the history of the Champagne wine region has had a significant role in the development of this unique terroir.
The area's proximity to Paris promoted the region's economic success in its wine trade but also put the villages and vineyards in the path of marching armies on their way to the French capital. Despite the frequency of these military conflicts, the region developed a reputation for quality wine production in the early Middle Ages and was able to continue that reputation as the region's producers began making sparkling wine with the advent of the great Champagne houses in the 17th & 18th centuries.
The principal grapes grown in the region include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape in the Aube region and grows very well in Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meunier is the dominant grape in the Vallée de la Marne region. The Côte des Blancs is dedicated almost exclusively to Chardonnay.
The Champagne province is located near the northern limits of the wine world along the 49th parallel. The high altitude and mean annual temperature of 50 °F creates a difficult environment for wine grapes to fully ripen. Ripening is aided by the presence of forests which helps to stabilize temperatures and maintain moisture in the soil. The cool temperatures serve to produce high levels of acidity in the resulting grape which is ideal for sparkling wine. During the growing season, the mean July temperature is 66 °F. The average annual rainfall is 25 inches, with 1.8 inches falling during the harvest month of September.
Throughout the year, growers must be mindful of the hazards of fungal disease and early spring frost. Ancient oceans left behind chalk subsoil deposits when they receded 70 million years ago. Earthquakes that rocked the region over 10 million years ago pushed the marine sediments of belemnite fossils up to the surface to create the belemnite chalk terrain. The belemnite in the soil allows it to absorb heat from the sun and gradually release it during the night, as well as providing good drainage. This soil contributes to the lightness and finesse that is characteristic of Champagne wine.
The Aube area is an exception with predominately clay based soil. The chalk is also used in the construction of underground cellars that can keep the wines cool through the bottle maturation process.
Historical Development of Champagne Vineyards
In 1927, viticultural boundaries of Champagne were legally defined and split into five wine producing districts -The Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. This area covers 33,500 hectares of vineyards around 319 villages that are home to 5,000 growers who make their own wine and 14,000 growers who only sell grapes. The region is set to expand to include 359 villages in the near future. The different districts produce grapes of varying characteristics that are blended by the champagne houses to create their distinct house styles.
The Pinots of the Montagne de Reims that are planted on northern facing slopes are known for their high levels of acid and the delicacy they add to the blend. The grapes on the southern facing slope add more power and character. Grapes across the district contribute to the bouquet and headiness. The abundance of southern facing slopes in the Vallée de la Marne produces the ripest wines with full aroma.
The Côte des Blancs grapes are known for their finesse and the freshness they add to blends with the extension of the nearby Côte de Sézanne offering similar though slightly less distinguished traits.
In 1942, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) was formed with the purpose of protecting Champagne's reputation, as well as setting up and monitoring regulations for vineyard production and vinification methods. For each vintage, the CIVC rated the villages of the area based on the quality of their grapes and vineyards. The rating was then used to determine the price and the percentage of the price that growers get.
The Grand Cru rated vineyards received 100 percent rating which entitled the grower to 100% of the price. Premier Crus were vineyards with 90–99% ratings while Deuxième Crus received 80–89% ratings. Under appellation rules, around 4,000 kilograms of grapes can be pressed to create up to 673 gallons of juice. The first 541 gallons are the cuvée and the next 132 gallons are the taille. Prior to 1992, a second taille of 44 gallons was previously allowed.
For vintage champagne, 100% of the grapes must come from that vintage year while non-vintage wine is a blend of vintages. Vintage champagne must spend a minimum three years on its lees, with some of premier champagne houses keeping their wines on lines for upwards of five to ten years. Non-vintage champagne must spend a minimum of 15 months on the lees.
Revision of the Champagne region
The worldwide demand for Champagne has been continuously increasing throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. A record in worldwide shipping of Champagne (including domestic French consumption) of 327 million bottles was set in 1999 in anticipation of end of millennium celebrations, and a new record was set in 2007 at 338.7 million bottles. Since the entire vineyard area authorized by the 1927 AOC regulations is now planted, various ways of expanding the production have been considered. The allowed yield was increased (to a maximum of 15,500 kg per hectare during an experimental period from 2007 to 2011) and the possibility of revising the production region was investigated.
After an extensive review of vineyard conditions in and around the existing Champagne region, INAO presented a proposal to revise the region in March of 2008. The proposal was prepared by a group of five experts in the subjects of history, geography, geology, phytosociology and agronomy, working from 2005. The proposal means expanding the region to cover vineyards in 357 rather than 319 villages. This was achieved by adding vineyards in forty villages while simultaneously removing two villages in the Marne départment that were included in the 1927 regulations, Germaine and Orbais-l'Abbaye.
The 40 new Champagne villages are located in four départments: 15 in Aube: Arrelles, Balnot-la-Grange, Bossancourt, Bouilly, Étourvy, Fontvannes, Javernant, Laines-aux-Bois, Macey, Messon, Prugny, Saint-Germain-l'Épine, Souligny, Torvilliers and Villery. Two in Haute-Marne: Champcourt and Harricourt. One, Marchais-en-Brie, in Aisne. The earliest vineyard plantings occured around 2015, with their product being marketed from around 2021. However, the price of land that is allowed to be used for Champagne production is expected to immediately rise from 5,000 to one million euro per hectare.