No other beverage in the world says luxury more than Champagne. It’s the drink of celebration and status, a worldly swirl of bubbles that embodies elegance, success and joie de vivre.
On a recent visit to this famous wine region, Champagne, I learned that there is so much more to Champagne than I had ever imagined.
First off, there is only one Champagne. While there are many other sparkling wines from all over the world, many created in the same way as the famous fizz, they cannot call themselves Champagne. Part of what makes this wine so exclusive and often expensive is also what sets it apart.
The Champagne region is located in the northeast region of France, just north of another very famous area, Burgundy. When the Romans first encountered these barren hills they named the spot Campagne, Latin for unforested lands or open country.
Growing ripe grapes has always been a challenge as the vineyards are located in what’s referred to in wine jargon as the fringes of viability. Grapes grow best between 30˚ and 50˚ latitude. Champagne is found at 40˚to 49.5˚, which means it’s a constant battle with nature to guarantee fruit that is ripe. Spring and fall bring frost, summer sun is not always plentiful and the average annual temperature is a chilly 50˚F/10˚C.
Vineyards are planted on the gently undulating hillsides, usually facing south, southeast or east to catch the warm rays of the sun. Small valleys often act as ‘sun traps’ ensuring ripe grapes and the many rivers that flow through the terrain act as a moderating influence and aid in warding off the dreaded frosts.
The soils of the region are truly the defining element of Champagne’s unique character. Vineyards are planted on predominantly chalk and limestone, created millions of years ago when most of what we now know as France was a vast sea. These sedimentary soils are composed of tiny, microscopic exoskeletons of ancient sea creatures and are found in pockets alongside marl (a mixture of limestone and clay) and well-draining sand.
Limestone rich soils are perfect for one of the three main grapes of Champagne. Pinot Noir lends a really earthy, aromatic nuance to the fruit. Chardonnay loves chalk and clay, exhibiting refreshing minerality, while sandy soils contribute to the fruity, easy drinking character of Pinot Munier.
While exploring the underground cellars of some of the famous (and not so famous) Champagne houses, I realized the incredible dedication of these growers and winemakers. For me, it was a luxury experience to find myself in the presence of these dedicated individuals, sharing the wines they had made with such care and enthusiasm.
They relish in the challenges nature presents each and every year, finding ways to take this famous and coveted wine to greater and more artistic levels with each vintage.