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Champagne is located 90 miles northeast of Paris, and is one of the most northerly winemaking regions in Europe. As you can imagine, it has a short growing season and harsh winters that are sometimes so cold, the low temperatures can kill some vines. Spring frosts and rain during the growing season are also a threat. You may wonder how wine was ever successfully made here, and the fact is, it wasn’t. Still wines from the region are low in sugar and body to this day, and made drinkable by two things: blending and a second fermentation in bottle (assemblage and prise de mousse, respectively, in French). Blending not only many different vineyards, but also different vintages, allows a winemaker to create a consistent product year after year (known as NV or non-vintage on the label). The second fementation, the one that creates the bubbles, adds an additional percentage or so of alcohol, and further aging after its completion adds complexity and body to the wine. This method of production, called the traditional method, or méthode champenois, is the most expensive and time consuming way to produce a sparkling wine. The AOP laws state that every non-vintage Champagne must age a minimum of 15 months in the bottle, while three years is required for vintage dated Champagne. This aging process on the lees or “sur lie” refers to the presence of the dead yeast cells (as a result of the second fermentation) in the bottle and their contact with the wine. The longer a wine is left in this state, the more of the infamous Champagne flavors – yeast, biscuit, toasted nuts – result.
Champagne is different from most French appellations in that its sub-regions are not divided into different AOPs. Instead, every Grand Marque and all 19,000 growers are governed by the same rules. That said, there are some differences in the wines depending on where the grapes are grown. The heart of Champagne is divided into three different areas: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côtes de Blancs. The Montagne de Reims is the largest, and the vineyards sit on the slopes of – yes – a “mountain”, around 1,000 feet high. Mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted here. The Vallee de la Marne is made up of a succession of south facing slopes, where again, we see mostly Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Wines are generally more fruity and riper than the Montagne de Reims. In the Côtes de Blancs, Chardonnay is king, and it is admired for it’s delicacy and finesse.
The three regions that make up this so-called heart of Champagne are also where the influence of the appellation’s infamous chalky soil is most prevalent. Sixty five million years ago Champagne was an inland sea and as it gradually receded it left behind mineral deposits and fossils of marine animals. Chalk possesses the ideal amount of humidity for vine growth and while porous enough for vines to penetrate deeply, and for excellent drainage, it also stores water deep underground. If you have never been to Champagne, imagine the white cliffs of Dover -these were formed from the same sea millions of years ago.