The Champagne Name
It’s not just any old bubbly
By Angela Sanchez
Champagne is classic, timeless, associated with elegance and class. It is a mark of distinction and celebration. The sound of the cork popping tells you something great has just happened. It gives you a feeling of fun and accomplishment at the end of something you have just achieved. The beautiful bubbles billowing up through the glass are a symbol of celebration the world over. There are countless bottles of sparkling wine made by various methods on store shelves and restaurant lists, but are they really Champagne? Of course not. Champagne is more than just a general term used to describe a wine with bubbles. Real Champagne can only come from one place in the world, made of certain types of grapes, with its production regulated by law. Champagne’s climate, topography and production — its terroir — are what make it unique from any other sparkling wine produced anywhere.
According to legend a monk named Dom Perignon accidentally discovered sparkling wine while making white wine in the Champagne region of France in the 1600s. While the story is a matter of folklore, his “method” is what we now consider méthode champenoise or the “traditional” method of making sparkling wine. Basically, a wine will undergo a second fermentation in the bottle, producing the bubbles we all love. All Champagne from the Champagne region of France is, and must, be made using this method. While other wines around the world are made similarly, it doesn’t make them Champagne. The method of production is the first key distinguishing real Champagne. The grape varietals and the growing region are the others.
There are seven allowed grape varieties in Champagne. The most well-known, and widely planted are chardonnay (adding acidity and structure), pinot noir (adding elegance, aromatic qualities and fruit), and pinot meunier (adding richness and darker fruit characteristics). The last four of the seven, pinot blanc, formenteau, petite arbanne, and petite meslier, while not as widely used — accounting for less than one percent of plantings — can add brightness, rustic qualities and additional structure and intensity. Most Champagne consists of the best-known varietals and most producers depend on them to develop a house style that will be the consistent base for their non-vintage wines. This way, you will always have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot or Tattinger non-vintage Champagne that is consistently the same year after year ensuring you get what you expect. Knowing what grapes will go into the wines is key for producers and knowing where they are grown is the root of the entire production.
The region of Champagne is located 93 miles northeast of Paris, an easy train ride away. It is 84,000 acres in total growing area and consists of four major growing regions, the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côtes des Blanc and Côtes de Bar. The AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) for Champagne was established in 1927, codifying its distinction and classification by law. Since producers must only use grapes grown in this region to produce Champagne, the vineyard land is highly sought after and among the highest priced in the world. The region consists of 320 villages or “crus,” averaging 18 acres each. The limestone and chalky soils allow for great drainage and, because they are porous, act as water reservoirs for the vines. The cool climate of the region is why chardonnay and pinot noir do so well there and produce wines that have longevity. Location, location, location! The climate and rugged terrain are unlike anywhere else in the world.
It is special, unique, original. It is Champagne. The header on the Comité Champagne website reads “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France.” In no way does that diminish the beautiful and special sparkling wines made elsewhere in the world, festive and delicious in their own right. They can be consumed and enjoyed — perhaps even more often because of their easy access, price point and style — but should be called by their own names or style. Enjoy bubbles anytime you can. They make a regular day special and a special occasion more memorable, just don’t call them Champagne if they’re not. If you have never experienced the uniqueness and quality of Champagne, find a bottle and enjoy it. Celebrate its one of a kind style, history and terroir. That’s the best way to understand what makes Champagne, Champagne. PS
Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and was lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.