The pop of a Champagne cork is an instantly recognisable and euphoric sound synonymous with celebration and festivities. 2015 was a record year for sales. Nearly 320 million bottles of Champagne were sold of which the UK and the USA drank 34 million and 20.5 million respectively. Meanwhile, the French represented half of the entire market with 162 million bottles.
Needless to say, Champagne is a multi-billion dollar industry and the region raked in 4.74 billion euros ($5.15 billion) that year. Despite the competition from more affordable Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava or even local Crémant, Champagne is the king of sparkling wines and for good reason.
In the following guide, we will define Champagne by its geography, its history and how it is made. Simply scroll down to continue reading or jump to the section that interests you the most with the links below:
What Is Champagne?
Champagne is the world leading French sparkling wine born from centuries of tradition, history and expertise. However, the most relevant question isn’t what is Champagne, but where is Champagne?
In fact, the sparkling wine carries the name of a local geographic region, la Champagne, which is 100 km (62 miles) east of Paris, France. However, the official wine-growing borders sprawl far beyond these regional boundaries covering a 35,000 hectare (84,000 acre) landmass.
This is strictly defined by what is called an Appellation, a highly protective officially controlled designation of origin. This means that in order to be called Champagne, the sparkling wine has to follow specific production and geographical regulations.
Drafted in 1927, this Appellation consists of 320 official wine-making villages or communes often referred to as “crus”. Among them are three major commercial sites, Reims, Épernay and Aÿ. They form a so-called “golden triangle”at the epicentre of Champagne production.
Furthermore, the defined borders of Champagne consist of 5 wine-producing districts, which each have their own distinctive identities. In the north is the major Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne sits to the west across from the Côte des Blancs in the east. Further away to the south-east you have both the Côte de Sézanne and the Côte des Bar.
Each are unique thanks to their individual geographies and micro-climates and these characteristics produce different tasting grapes. Champagne sites at the very northern edge of feasible wine-growing land with average 10°C (50°F) temperatures and regular rainfall. Rich and fruity grapes are grown by pushing the vines to their very limit in chalky, inhospitable soil.
How Does Champagne Protect Itself From Imposters?
During the Second War, an occupying military and political force threatened Champagne’s very identity. The German occupying forces and the Vichy Regime frequently made requisitions and enforced strict control of trade for their benefit. In order to survive, Champagne producers sought to form a united front and stand up to the menacing forces.
The unions of wine producers united to create the Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wine or CIVC. The Minister of Agriculture then appointed Moët & Chandon’s then-director, Robert-Jean de Vogüé, to lead it as well as the resistance movement that followed.
In the mid-20th Century, Champagne’s very identity was under threat by frequent forgeries. Anything from “Champagne” perfumes to “Champagne” shampoos would flood the market and undermine its name. The CIVC intervened and established 67 law offices worldwide. Their sole purpose is to identify and pursue fraudsters that unlawfully use the Champagne name on their products.
Early 2016 was an important year for Champagne, which brought more prestige to the region. UNESCO awarded the region with international recognition by defining Champagne as a worldwide heritage site.
This feat was accomplished after over 20 years of hard labour from wine producers led by Pierre Cheval that developed a hefty application outlining its uniqueness. Champagne doesn’t only consist of a rich wine-growing region of sloping vineyards but also many cathedrals and castles. Furthermore, it hosts a famous network of extensive underground Gallo-Roman caverns that are still used today for maturing Champagne.
Who Invented Champagne?
You have likely heard of Dom Pérignon, the so-called inventor of Champagne. Moët & Chandon even honoured him with a special cuvée that carries his namesake. However, his important role came to play far later in Champagne’s history.
In fact, the oldest recorded sparkling wine originates from another French region. It was frequently noted among the French and Italians that during the Middle Ages that some wines were suddenly fizzy.
Benedictine monks in the Saint-Hilaire monastery near Carcassonne in the Aude region made this definitive discovery in 1531. Therefore, the oldest sparkling wine in the world is Aude’s own “blanquette de Limoux” and not Champagne.
Champagne’s Early History
Champagne has been producing wine since the Romans. In fact, the Romans named the region after the Italian region “Campania” as the rolling landscape reminded them of their home. The first recorded vineyard dates back to the 5th Century. However this was still known as Reims wine after the nearby trading town.
Its popularity grew as Reims became a major trading post between Paris, Flanders, Switzerland and Germany. Reims itself was an important spiritual city and its cathedral was used for kings’ coronations since the late 10th Century. Still Champagne wine was served for these occasions and became a celebrated beverage.
However, fierce competition grew with the neighbouring region of Burgundy. The people of Reims hopelessly tried to sell their cheaper red wines to passing merchants. However, they would often favour the rich reds from the southern rivals. Therefore, Champagne wine makers turned to white wine to set themselves apart.
Unfortunately, their whites aged too quickly. Instead, they tried to create white wine from the red grape, pinot noir, which matured with more complexity.
The Devil’s Wine
In the late 17th Century, the aforementioned Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, was appointed cellar master at the newly rebuilt Hautvillers abbey. He was a furious perfectionist and strove to create the perfect white wine from red grapes.
Pérignon was an innovator and the first master of the art of blending different grapes. His wines garnered such a reputation that they became known as “vinum dei” (the wine of God). He perfected many techniques such as aggressively pruning vines and light pressing. Pinot noir grapes would be pressed very lightly and quickly to ensure that the juice stayed perfectly white.
Furthermore, he ensured that the harvest took place early in the morning when the grapes were still cool. However, he spent almost his entire life trying to get rid of these infuriating bubbles that would spoil his wines.
French glass was particularly fine and fragile. Thousands of bottles would regularly shatter or explode in the cellars below. Although Pérignon developed techniques to counteract this, monks would soon refer to the wine as “vinum diaboli” (the devil’s wine).
The British Influence
You may have heard that it was the English who invented sparkling wine. However, as mentioned above, that is not strictly true. It was indeed the English that were the first to appreciate the wine’s unintentional sparkling qualities.
Non-sparkling Champagne was very popular in late 17th Century England. Furthermore, England was a very wealthy country but lacked its own wine-making climate or resources. Therefore, merchants would import entire barrels and bottle them directly for sale. The barrels contained traces of yeast and sugar, which meant that the fermentation process continued during transit.
Through a combination of study glass made from coal-fired ovens and rediscovery of cork as stoppers, The English would reopen bottles and find the contents to be sparkling. Unlike the French who furiously sought to rid themselves of the effervescence, the British loved it.
Meanwhile, English scientist Christopher Merret discovered how the bubbles were created through the yeast and sugar’s chemical reaction. British merchants began to deliberately add more sugar to bottles before sealing them to improve their fizz. To account for this, glass manufacturers developed harder bottles that could withstand the increased pressure.
The French soon realised the potential of their beverage, which the British called “Brisk”. Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, was partial to sparkling Champagne and very soon the industry began adjusting their business to cater to this new market.
How Do You Make Champagne?
Champagne is made following a strict set of rules set out by the Appellation. The process is known as the Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle, but is often colloquially referred to as the “classic” method.
Unlike other sparkling wines, the method for Champagne ensures that no shortcuts are taken and no steps are skipped. This is one of the pivotal factors that makes Champagne an exceptional wine and the name ensures a guarantee of quality.
The process of making Champagne starts during the cold winter month of January. With the popped corks celebrating Christmas and New Year long behind us, wine growers are back in their fields.
They will wait until the last frost has passed, which is usually the day of St Vincent on the 22nd January. However, sometimes this can be a little later. Growers will aggressively prune the vines almost down to the stump. The reason for this is if a vine is overgrown, it produces more albeit diluted fruit. The objective is to encourage the growth of rich, juicy grapes.
At springtime, growers will return to the fields for the liage or binding. This is a process where the newly grown shoots are tied back onto wires. This is so that they don’t break under the upcoming weight of grapes.
Around 100 days later in the early summer, flowers begin to blossom and a second round of clipping begins. Growers will preserve anywhere with signs of potential grape growth but remove any extra foliage or dead weight. This makes sure that the vine nourishes the grapes and doesn’t waste energy on useless greenery.
Harvest & Press
In the first week of September, workers mobilise for the harvest, which is known as the “vendange”. Interestingly, “vendange” is actually the origin of the word “vintage” as it is significant in a wine’s chronology.
The vendange must take place by hand, which is an arduous and physical process. However, great care is taken not to throw or damage the grapes. Furthermore, picking begins in the early hours of the morning so the grapes’ juice is fresh.
The grapes are taken straight to a “coquart” press. Here, they are quickly yet gently pressed to produce the juice. From 4000 kg (8818.49 lb) of grapes, no more than 2550 litres (674 US gallons) are allowed to be squeezed. The leftovers, known as the “moût”, are not wasted but instead used to make a liqueur called Ratafia.
The first 2050 litres (542 gallons) of this is what is known as the cuvée, which provides the purest juice. The remaining 500 litres (132 gallons) are squeezed separately. As a general rule, the clearer the liquid, the sweeter the juice.
This is undertaken with great haste to avoid the skins colouring the juice so that the wine stays white. However, specialty rosé Champagnes called “saignée” let the skins sit for a short while to literally “bleed” into the juice.
Now that the juice has been pressed, it is left to ferment in cuveries (steel vats) or sometimes oak casks. They ferment until dry, which means no sugar is left in the juice. Once this fermentation phase is over, it is decided whether the taille’s quality deserves being introduced into the wine’s base. However, the best Champagnes are made exclusively with the cuvée juice.
The assemblage is the pivotal moment where the chef du cave (cellar master) creates his secret blend. As Champagne must be consistent every year no matter the climate, master blenders have the skilled task of ensuring consistency. This is achieved by blending the base wines from all the different vineyards at their disposal.
The cellar master will not only blend current vintages but can sometimes turn to reserve wines that can go back as much as 30 years! This is what sets Champagne apart from other wines. In Bordeaux, for example, wine makers are obliged to use that particular year when creating their wines. In essence, a bottle of typical wine is an expression of its year’s climate.
Meanwhile, Champagne can use any year and any vineyard in their locality to recreate the same experience. Furthermore, older reserves can add an element of maturity and complexity early on in the maturation process. In order to check for consistency, they have “garde” wines. These are used as references to compare with the previous house releases.
However, vintage Champagnes are an exception to the above. These are wines blended from exceptional years where the harvest was particularly good. When this happens, the cellar master will only use that year’s base wines to create a blend that showcases its qualities.
This is the moment where Champagne develops its effervescence. Once the blends have been assembled, they are bottled and tightly sealed with a crown cap. However, before being closed, what is known as a tirage will be added to each bottle.
This is a concoction of yeast, sugar and other wine liqueur that adds flavour. The chemical reaction between yeast and sugar creates a build-up of carbon dioxide, which is how the bubbles form. The pressure inside the bottles will reach as much as 6 bars. However, the days of exploding bottles are long gone as the glass can withstand up to 18 bars today.
The fermentation process begins “sur latte”, which means that the bottles are layered over wooden planks on their sides. The environment throughout the 2nd fermentation and ageing process is very important. The artificial lighting is specifically designed to replicate candlelight to not damage the sensitive wine. The temperature must stay a constant cool 10-11°C and never peak to avoid spoiling.
As the fermentation process draws to a close, the bottles are placed on “pupitres”, wooden blocks with 60 holes cut at an angle. The ageing process will soon begin. These pupitres allow the bottles to be place at a 35% angle via the neck and slowly turned downwards. After about 3 weeks, the bottle neck is pointed down in a 75% gradient, it is then said to be resting on lees and aged “en pointe”.
Again, these cellars must maintain very low light levels and an ambiant temperature of around 10°C (50°F). Depending on its type, a Champagne will spend at least 15 months and as much as 10 years or more en pointe!
Once the Champagne has sufficiently aged, the bottles undergo what is known as “remuage” or riddling. The bottles are turned 1/8th of a revolution to encourage leftover dead yeast sediment called “lies” (lees) to fall towards the neck. Machines have largely taken over this tiresome job but a riddler could often turn as much as 30,000 bottles a day.
Disgorgement & Dosage
Once the sediment has completely fallen down to the neck, the bottle is plunged into a freezing brine solution. The crown cap is then removed as well as the lees sediment inside without losing pressure. This is known as the disgorgement.
Before the wine is corked, a liqueur d’expédition is added. It features the predetermined dosage of sugar that will be decide the Champagne’s final level of sweetness. In order to add the cork, it is exposed to 40°C (104°F) vapour that makes it malleable. It is then pushed halfway into the bottle and wrapped in a metal wire called the “muselet.”
Champagne is not a wine designed to be matured after corking. However, many enthusiasts have grown an appreciation for cork-aged Champagne. Nevertheless, it is released onto the market only when the house believes it is ready. Therefore, from this point on, the Champagne is ready to drink!
Why Is Champagne So Expensive? Closing Thoughts
We hope that you enjoyed this guide and have learned why Champagne is an exceptional wine. As mentioned above, its history, culture and methodology are what make it truly special.
Similarly, Champagne is an expensive alternative to other sparkling wines such as Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, German Sekt as well as other French crémants. The pricing is not necessarily due to snobbery or brand value. Indeed, brand value does partly play a role, which is why smaller houses offer excellence at a smaller price.
Nevertheless, many of the alternatives mentioned above will follow other fermentation methods that are cheaper to maintain. For example, Prosecco is made using the “Charmat” method. Here, both fermentation phases take place in a single pressurised autoclave tank on an industrial level. The final product is dosed within the tank then bottled directly.