What Are Champagne Grapes, Grand Crus & Premiers Crus? Exploring The Geography & Resulting Tastes

What Are Champagne Grapes, Grand Crus & Premiers Crus? Exploring The Geography & Resulting Tastes 2017-10-24T07:11:14+00:00

Where Is Champagne Region FranceChampagne is a rich and diverse region with a complex assortment of valleys, slopes and soils. Therefore, it can be quite overwhelming to newcomers and enthusiasts alike when trying to dissect it. Nevertheless, learning a bit about the region and its basic layout can give you special insights into the different Champagne varieties out there.

Champagne is an exceptional sparkling wine but comes with a price tag to match. With a little background knowledge, you can discover new Champagnes. Some are much less famous than the big houses but have much to offer and sometimes at a more modest price tag.

In this guide, you will discover the different grapes used to make Champagne as well as its regional structure. Simply click one of the chapters below to jump straight to it. Alternatively, keep scrolling to read on!

What Are The Champagne Grapes?

If you want to learn about Champagne, knowing the grape varieties is fundamental. The grapes can be easily broken down into three main varieties. In summary, they consist of two red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and one white (Chardonnay).

Note that there are other obscure ones like Arbane or Pinot Gris. However, these are extremely rare. Instead, we will only specifically concentrate on the 3 main grapes.

For the most part, they are produced in roughly equal quantities overall. Nevertheless, they tend to be grown in different concentrations throughout the region. This is due to the various micro-climates and soils, which every vine reacts differently to.

Pinot Noir

  • Ripe Champagne Pinot Noir Grapes On VineColour: Red
  • Body: Full
  • Notes: Red Fruits
  • Yield: 39% of regional production
  • Main Sub-Regions: Montagne de Reims, Côte des Bar

The prize grape of Champagne, Pinot Noir creates characteristic bouquets of red berries. It adds a firm foundation to blends or acts as a full-bodied grape that can be bottled alone. Pinot Noir is an infamously fragile grape. It leafs early and is susceptible to spring frosts and the fruit ripens later, which risks rot from humidity. However, its high tannin content creates a wine that ages exceedingly well.

Pinot Meunier

  • Ripe Champagne Pinot Meunier Grapes On VineColour: Red
  • Body: Rounded
  • Notes: Aromatic, Stone Fruits
  • Yield: 32% of regional production
  • Main Sub-Region: Vallée de la Marne

Pinot Meunier is often used in smaller quantities in a blend than Pinot Noir. It is able to add a roundness to the flavour and can produce supple, fruity wines. Pinot Meunier ages faster so can be consumed sooner but suffers from a short longevity. Furthermore, the grape ripens more reliably than Pinot Noir with late leafing and early fruits.

Chardonnay

  • Ripe Champagne Chardonnay Grapes On VineColour: White
  • Body: Delicate
  • Notes: Citrus, Green
  • Yield: 29% of regional production
  • Main Sub-Region: Côte des Blancs

Chardonnay is the exceptional white grape that completes the family of Champagne grapes. It yields a delicate flavour with distinctive notes of flowers, citrus and green fruit such as apples. It is cherished for its freshness and can either be used to provide sharp notes to a blend or bottled on its own.

Finally, just keep in mind the sub-regions noted with the above grapes. This will be covered in greater detail in the following chapter.

How Is The Champagne Region Structured?

It’s important to realise that although Champagne is a type of sparkling wine, it’s first and foremost a region. As mentioned in detail in the introduction to Champagne, the wine-making region is under an officially controlled designation of origin (AOC).

This clearly defines a 35,000 hectare (84,000 acre) sprawling land mass as authentic Champagne-making areas. Anywhere beyond these boundaries is strictly forbidden from claiming that it is Champagne or from using the “Champagne method” to make its sparkling wines.

Guide To The Champagne Region Map

Instead, neighbouring regions will refer to their wine-making process as “Tradition”. However, they are not bound to the same strict regulations as to how closely they follow it.

Champagne is one of the most northerly viticultural regions. It features a varied mosaic of micro-climates, which each consist of unique variations of topography, climate and soil. This variation is what provides Champagne’s unique diversity.

Champagne’s Climate & Latitude

What Is Champagne's Climate & WeatherChampagne is at the very limit of suitable wine growing land. Vines are pushed to the brink of their tolerance with average 10°C (50°F) temperatures. Its geographical location finds itself in something of a climatic sweet spot.

The northerly oceanic influence ensures westerly winds and moderate but consistant rainfall throughout the year. On the other hand, the impact of southern continental weather brings generous sunlight during summer. However, it can sometimes cause destructive winter frosts that desolate entire vines if it lasts too long.

Champagne’s Topography & Altitude

What Is A Champagne Cote Vineyard SlopeIn order to maximise from its micro-climate, vineyards are located on a rolling landscape of slopes or “côtes”. They are overall south and south-east facing with an average gradient of 12% for the purpose of concentrating the sunlight onto the vines.

Their altitudes of between 90 to 300 metres (295 – 985 feet) ensures a firm sun exposure whilst accumulating the warm winds from the valleys below. Sometimes these valleys follow the weaving rivers that sprawl across the region.

The slopes also serve to protect the vines from heavy rainfall. During particularly wet months, the water trickles downhill rather than gathering at the impermeable chalk layer and killing the roots.

Champagne’s Soil & Subsoil

What Is Champagne's Soil CompositionChampagne’s soil famously lies over a layer of sedimentary rock, which consists of mostly limestone. Consequently, the soil is rich with lime, which is essential to the wine grapes. Limestone is an alkaline agent that is able to neutralise acid from the soil, which spoils the grapes.

Different zones feature soils with various concentrations of chalk and marlstone, which affect the taste but also have practical functions. For example, chalk creates a distinctive mineral flavour in Champagne.

Furthermore, chalk is a very porous substance that absorbs a lot of water during rainfall like capillaries. This provides drainage so the roots don’t drown. However, the absorbed water then supplies the vines with just enough water during dry summers to achieve perfect ripeness.

As a matter of fact, these generally “poor” soils is what makes rich wine. In substandard soil, the vine compensates with large root volume and creates richer fruit. In short, the best wines come from where no other fruit would grow.

Champagne Sub-Regions

In this chapter, we will explore the main Champagne grapes by how they tend to be distributed across the region. However, if you wish to learn more about Champagne’s geography in greater detail, simply head to the introductory guide.

Essentially, you need to be aware that Champagne is broken down into 5 wine producing sub-regions. Each has its own unique geography and in turn both favours particular grapes and affects the way they taste.

Montagne de Reims

  • Where Is Montagne de Reims ChampagneNotable Sites: Reims
  • Notable Houses: Krug, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot
  • Grands Crus: 9
  • Premiers Crus: 25
  • Specialising Grape: Pinot Noir
  • English Translation: Reims Mountain

The epicentre of the Champagne wine-producing region begins with Reims. This unofficial capital city of Champagne looks over an expansive sloping hillside towards the south. Known as the Montagne de Reims, it features south and southeast facing vineyards. These often consist of Pinot Noir on marlstone soil that are in the best position to take in the sunlight.

Many of Champagne’s most prestigious houses are based in Reims. However, they tend to source their grapes from owned or independent grapes from all over the region. Nevertheless, the vast landscape hosts many independent within the 9 grand cru and 25 premier cru villages.

Vallée de la Marne

  • Where Is La Vallee de la Marne ChampagneNotable Sites: Aÿ, Epernay, Château Thierry,
  • Notable Houses: Bollinger, Moët & Chandon, Pannier
  • Grands Crus: 2
  • Premiers Crus: 9
  • Specialising Grape: Pinot Meunier

Although the Marne Valley only consists of 2 grand cru villages, it is one of the largest Champagne producing sub-regions. The valley sprawls from Aÿ and Epernay in the east below Reims towards Paris and stops 50 miles (85 km) short at Charly-sur-Marne 85 km. Château Thierry lies in the dead centre.

The valley sits lower with the Marne river flowing through it. Therefore, temperatures are cooler despite being slightly lower south than the Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meunier thrives in this environment and is the sub-regions main grape.

Côte des Blancs

  • Notable Sites: Avize, Vertus
  • Notable Houses: Cristal de Roederer, Krug Clos de Mesnil
  • Grands Crus: 6
  • Premiers Crus: 8
  • Specialising Grape: Chardonnay

The Côte des Blancs is in many ways the jewel of the region. The east-sloping chalk hillsides host rich, white Chardonnay grapes, which add a unique freshness to some of the best Champagnes. However, few famous Champagne houses are centrally based in the Côte des Blancs. As noted above, many major Reims houses own plots here to blend their prestigious blancs de blancs.

Six of the major grand cru villages can be found in the Côte de Blancs as well as 8 premier cru neighbourhoods.

Côte de Sézanne

  • Where Is Cote De Sezanne ChampagneNotable Sites: Sézanne
  • Notable Houses: Champagne Morel, Bernard Remy
  • Grands Crus: 0
  • Premiers Crus: 0
  • Specialising Grape: Chardonnay

Unlike the chalky Côte des Blancs slopes, the Côte de Sézanne is a nearby yet diverse sub-region. It consists of alternating plains, forests and marshland with both marl and chalk soil. Being further south, the winter is milder and is also known as the “humid Champagne” region due to higher rainfall.

Although the area may not boast any grands or premiers cru, it hosts the celebrated Rosé de Riceys with the Côte des Bar. It’s not uncommon for larger houses to source their grapes from here.

Côte des Bar / Aube

  • Where Is Cote Des Bar ChampagneNotable Sites: Bar-sur-Aube, Urville
  • Notable Houses: Drappier
  • Grands Crus: 0
  • Premiers Crus: 0
  • Specialising Grape: Pinot Noir

The Côte des Bar is separated from the Côte de Sézanne by the Aube region’s capital, Troyes. In fact, it sits close to Bourgogne (Burgundy), another wine-making region famed for its Pinot Noirs. Needless to say, this is the grape that the Côte des Bar is best known for. Due to its milder climate, it safely produces rich Pinot Noir in marl-based soil.

Although the Côte des Bar is a younger member of the appellation, it has been a Champagne producing sub-region for centuries. Following wine-maker riots in 1911 and its steady supply of grapes during Phylloxera blight outbreak, it was officially accepted to the region in 1927.

On a final note, you may have noted above the mention of “grands crus” and “premiers crus”. The subject will be covered in further detail in the following chapter, which explores vineyard classifications.

What Are Grand Crus & Premiers Crus?

What Is The Difference Between Grand & Premier Cru ChampagneUnlike other French wine-producing regions that use terroirs (vineyards recognised for their quality), Champagne uses crus. This functions in a similar fashion. However, crus are attributed to entire villages rather than simply a plot within it.

The Échelle (scale) des Crus was originally used to price grapes by weight by determining their quality. It consists of all 320 official champagne villages or communes.

However, the scale is used today by consumers as a means of identifying the Champagne’s quality too. The cru is usually clearly mentioned on the bottle and can be among one of the following:

  • 17 Grands Crus: The very best grapes available on the market
  • 42 Premiers Crus: Very prestigious grapes and among the top 20%.
  • 261 Crus: All the other official villages. Rarely mentioned on the bottle.

Champagne itself hosts a total of 17 grands crus, which represent 14% of Champagne’s total surface area. 9 of these can be found in Montagne de Reims, 2 in Vallée de la Marne and 6 in Côte des Blancs. Premiers crus account for nearly 18% of the land. As mentioned above, there are 25 in Montagne de Reims, 9 in Vallée de la Marne and 8 in Côte des Blancs.

Finally, crus account for all the other recognised official vineyards, which represents 69% of the region’s land mass.

Below you will find a list that indicates all the grand and premier cru villages in Champagne for reference.

Montagne de Reims Cru Villages

Grand Cru Villages

  • Ambonnay
  • Beaumont-sur-Vesle
  • Bouzy
  • Louvois
  • Mailly-Champagne
  • Puisieulx
  • Sillery
  • Verzenay
  • Verzy

Verzenay Grand Cru Montagne de Reims Chamapgne Village

Premier Cru Villages

  • Bezannes
  • Billy-le-Grand
  • Chamery
  • Chigny-les-Roses
  • Cormontreuil
  • Coulommes-la-Montagne
  • Écueil
  • Jouy-lès-Reims
  • Ludes
  • Les Mesneux
  • Montbré
  • Pargny-lès-Reims
  • Rilly-la-Montagne
  • Sacy
  • Sermiers
  • Taissy
  • Tauxières-Mutry
  • Trépail
  • Trois-Puits
  • Vaudemange
  • Ville-Dommange
  • Villers-Allerand
  • Villers-aux-Nœuds
  • Villers-Marmery
  • Vrigny

Vallée de La Marne Cru Villages

Grand Cru Villages

  • Aÿ
  • Tours-sur-Marne

Premier Cru Villages

  • Avenay
  • Bisseuil
  • Champillon
  • Cumières
  • Dizy
  • Hautvillers
  • Mareuil-sur-Aÿ
  • Mutigny
  • Pierry

Moët & Chandon Vineyards Near Hautvillers Premier Cru VillageCôte des Blancs Cru Villages

Grand Cru Villages

  • Avize
  • Chouilly
  • Cramant
  • Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
  • Oger
  • Oiry

Premier Cru Villages

  • Bergères-lès-Vertus
  • Coligny (Val-des-Marais)
  • Cuis
  • Étréchy
  • Grauves
  • Vertus
  • Villeneuve-Renneville
  • Voipreux

If you enjoyed reading this guide, consider applying your knowledge with our tutorial on tasting Champagne. Otherwise, discover how to properly serve Champagne to impress your guests.

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