Waking up and overlooking champagne vineyards, with blue skies overhead is an experience I have aways wanted to tick off my bucket list. It wasn’t only until a few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to live that vision through my own eyes thanks to Champagne Tourism. Some would say that Christmas came early, but I would say it was a dream come true for a champagne lover. To think that it’s just under an hour away by an a very comfortable SNCF train from Paris, it’s very accessible for everyone wanting to visit.
There is a lot of different aspects that go into making champagne, quite a few of which I was completely oblivious to until I visited the Champagne region itself. Producing the best champagne is an art form, a very underrated one at that too. It was unreal to try two different Grand Cuvée brut champagnes that tasted so different with a slight change in the blend of wines from the same three grape types.
I already thought I knew a lot about champagne, but was I wrong. It wasn’t until I visited various vineyards, cellars and tasted over 30 glasses of champagne on my trip, did I fully expand and digest my new found champagne knowledge. I’m sure there is still plenty I don’t know, but it definitely makes you appreciate the hard work, passion and love that goes into making champagne.
Champagne grapes grow in the region of Champagne because of the idealistic physical and environmental conditions that are present, such as perfect climate, chalky soil conditions, topography. The thing that surprised me the most was that champagne vines grow on chalky soil, but there is a wonderful biological explanation. The chalk in champagne is very fertile, as it is made up of many post-decayed marine organisms and fossils which makes it highly porous. The chalky soil can store up to 300-400 litres of water per square metre of land, providing a constant supply of water even throughout the long, hot summers. There is also a limestone subsoil that provides all the minerals required for champagne vines to thrive, but the minerals are also taken up by the grapes giving champagne a slightly mineral-like flavour.
The harvest period is generally around September time, but it can vary between years. This year, the harvest came early due to the optimal conditions and very hot summer, giving the grapes all the sun they required to produce exceptional grapes. The harvest is a very busy and exciting time for the champagne growers and producers, where they can employ up to 120,000 grape collectors throughout the harvest. All grapes are harvested by hand, as a rule, to ensure only the best produce is picked and to prevent them being damaged during the picking process.
Champagne grapes are expensive and sell for six euros per kilogram compared to normal grapes we consume, which sell for 50 cent per kilogram. Therefore, a loss of produce or damage by machinery can be costly to champagne producers. It’s not only the grapes that are on the dear side, 1 hectare of suitable land for vineyards can cost up to 2 million euros per hectare. Where one hectare produces 10,000 bottles of champagne but that can also vary depending on the quality of the produce.
In the vineyards, there are several types of grapes grown:
The Pinot Noir Grapes:
The Pinot Noir grape is a black skinned grape, but produces clear juice and accounts for 38% of the plantings within the Champagne region. Often found in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar areas, which is ideal for the Pinot Noir’s preference of cooler temperatures and chalky terrain. The Pinot Noir grape adds a body to champagne blends with red fruit aromas. It is often known as the ‘backbone’ to all champagne blends.
The Menuier Grapes:
The Menuier grape is another black skinned grape that also produces clear juice and accounts for 32% of the plantings within Marne Valley of the Champagne region. The Menuier grape is known to be the tougher skinned grapes out of the three, as it resistant the colder temperatures and is better suited to the rock filled or highly sedimentary soils. The grape adds roundness to blends, giving wines a fruitier wine for champagne.
The Chardonnay Grapes:
The Chardonnay grape accounts for 30% of the plantings in the Champagne region and dominates the Côte des Blancs region, although I think the name speaks for itself. The Chardonnay grape produces fragrant wines, with floral and citric notes to the wines. Chardonnay grapes are also slow maturers and therefore taste better when the champagne is aged for longer. A Blanc de Blancs would be taste best when aged for a few extra years, but we’ll discuss different types of wine in my next blog post.
There are seventeen villages within the whole region (which is less than 9% of the planted vineyards) that have been given the ‘Grand Cru’ status, which where the grapes grown in those areas produce 100% grape quality. The seventeen villages are as follows, Ambonnay, Avize, Ay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Chouilly, Cramant, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, Verzenay and Verzy. If you pick up a bottle of champagne that has ‘Grand Cru’ on it, you’re in for a treat!
The grapes alone are so fascinating, but this is only just the beginning of the art of champagne!
Until next time…