Champagne is the northernmost wine region of France. To produce the sparkling wine called Champagne, the maker must first create a still wine out of the juice of grapes grown in the delimited Champagne region. This region is relatively large and spread out, with different sections specializing in the three grapes most commonly used for Champagne. The white grape Chardonnay brings acidity and, after various production processes, a biscuit flavor. The red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier give the ultimate wine structure and finish. They usually do not add color, since their juice is extracted from the grapes with minimal skin contact.
Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris may legally be used to make Champagne, but these grapes are used today by only a small number of traditional producers.
The soil of Champagne is characterized by chalk, since the region is part of a basin that extends all the way to eastern England. The white cliffs of Dover show the same chalk. The chalky soil drains well and reflects every precious ray of summer sunlight in this northerly region.
Champagne has five grape growing regions.
On a plateau south of Reims, the Montagne de Reims produces quality Pinot Noir, even though this is the northernmost of the sections.
The Vallée de la Marne straddles the Marne river west of Épernay. These low-lying, south-facing vineyards produce full, round, ripe wines. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier predominate, with increased plantings of Chardonnay.
The Côte des Blancs is a hook-shaped ridge extending south from Épernay. The best vineyards sit on the eastern side of the ridge. This section produces mainly Chardonnay.
The Côte de Sézanne benefits from a longer ripening season because it is further south. It is almost entirely Chardonnay.
The Aube sits far to the south, some 65 miles south of Épernay, much closer in fact to Chablis in Burgundy than it is to the main regions of Champagne. It specializes in Pinot Noir. Although it is considered by many a lower quality area good for little more than sourcing grapes for non-vintage Champagne, it is also the home to maverick growers who are producing their own distinctive Champagnes instead of selling their grapes to the large Champagne houses.
The Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs contain the greatest concentration of Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages. The Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C.). grades villages on the prospective quality of their grapes. The Grand Cru villages get a 100% grade, the Premier Cru villages grades from 90 to 99%. The villages that qualify for neither designation get grades between 80 and 89%. The prices growers get for their grapes depends on these percentage grades.
The Champagne Business
More than one hundred Champagne houses produce the beverage from grapes they purchase from literally thousands of growers, many of whom are very small. Many thousands of smaller producers grow most or all their grapes themselves. Champagnes have a system of two letter label abbreviations that indicate the type of producer.
- NM: Négociant manipulant. These buy grapes and make the wine. The category includes most internationally known houses.
- RM: Récoltant manipulant. Growers who make their own wines, called in English “grower Champagnes.”
The big wine houses go to great lengths, using professional tasters, to make their product consistent form year to year. The smaller grower-producers show greater variation year to year, and often have idiosyncratic styles. Many devotees consider grower Champagnes more interesting.
Other codes include:
- ND: Négociant distributeur. A wine merchant selling wine made by others under its own label
- CM: Coopérative de manipulation. Cooperatives that make wines from the growers who pool their grapes.
- SR: Société de récoltants. Another form of cooperative
- RC: Récoltant coopérateur. A cooperative member who sells the cooperative’s wine under its label
- MA: Marque auxiliaire or Marque d’acheteur. A brand name Champagne that is unrelated to either a producer or a grower, as in a warehouse club or supermarket brand