Champagne: The lie of the land

by Neel Burton and James Flewellen

Last week’s post gave a historical overview of champagne. In this article we cover the geographical nature of the Champagne region including grape varieties grown. Next week we will focus on the method of champagne production.

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Pinot Meunier grapes in Champagne

Pinot Meunier grapes in Champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three grape varieties used in making champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. All three grape varieties are planted across the Champagne AOC, which is the only major single-appellation region in France. This region is located about 85km northeast of Paris at latitude 49-50° North, that is, at the northerly extreme of wine making. The climate is marginal with a mean annual temperature of 10°C and all the problems that this entails, such as severe winters, spring frosts, coulure, millerandage, and hail. Nonetheless, the chalk subsoil is good at retaining the sun’s heat. It is also good at retaining water, which is relatively scarce, and accommodates the cool and damp cellars in which the wines are made and aged. The vineyards themselves predominantly face south, east, and southeast on gently undulating to moderately steep terrain that combines high sun exposure with good drainage.

In Champagne, the quality of a terroir is not demarcated according to an individual site as in Burgundy but, rather crudely, according to an entire village. On the so-called Échelle des Crus, each village within the demarcated area is given a score ranging from 80 to 100%; villages with a score of 90-99% are classified as premier cru and villages with the top score of 100% as grand cru. There are currently 41 premier cru and 17 grand cru villages, altogether accounting for just over 30% of the entire demarcated area.

Most of these premier and grand cru villages are located in just two of the five regional areas or districts, the Montagne de Reims (forested peak, 286 metres) to the north of Epernay and the Côte des Blancs to the south. The Montagne de Reims is dominated by Pinot Noir, which contributes structure and depth of fruit to a blend. The Côte des Blancs is an east-facing slope that is mainly planted with Chardonnay, which contributes freshness and fine fruitiness to the blend, and which also has the greatest ageing potential. Some of the greatest champagnes such as Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne and Ruinart’s Dom Ruinart are 100% Chardonnay, so-called blanc de blancs. In contrast, almost no one deliberately sets out to make a blanc de noirs, that is, a 100% blend of black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier).

Le moulin de Verzenay, Montagne de Reims, le v...

Le moulin de Verzenay vineyard on the Montagne de Reims in Champagne.

The Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs are quasi contiguous with the Vallée de la Marne which runs west past Hautevillers and then for some 40 or 50 kilometres to a bit beyond Château-Thierry. The Vallée de la Marne is mostly planted and particularly suited to Pinot Meunier. Compared to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier buds late, and so is more resistant to the spring frosts to which the Vallée de la Marne is particularly prone. In a blend, Pinot Meunier contributes notes of flowers and bruised apples, and an early maturing richness and fruitiness that can make for immediate appeal. All the classified villages in the Vallée de la Marne are concentrated at its chalky, eastern end not far from Epernay.

The other two districts, the Côte de Sézanne and Aube (also called the Côte des Bar) are effectively detached satellites to the south of the Côte des Blancs. Neither Sézanne nor Aube contains any grand or premier cru villages. Sézanne, which lies northwest of Troyes, is a small area mainly planted with Chardonnay that does not quite achieve the same elegance as in the Côte des Blancs. Aube, which lies south east of Troyes and which is actually closer to Chablis than to Reims (with soils similar to those of Chablis), is mainly planted with Pinot Noir that does not quite achieve the same finesse as in the Montagne de Reims. Of particular note is that the Rosé de Riceys (which used to be a favourite of Louis XIV) and red Coteaux Champenois are made here.

In all, the Champagne delimited area stands at c. 35,000ha spread across c. 281,000 vineyard plots (each with an average size of c. 1,200sqm), 319 villages, and five administrative areas or départements. 67% of plantings are in the Marne, and the Marne, Aube and Aisne together account for some 99% of plantings. The remaining plantings are in the Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. Of the three grape varieties, Pinot Noir is the most commonly planted, but Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are a fairly close second and third. 

In terms of viticulture, the plantings are dense with vines no more than 1.5 metres apart. In all grand– and premier cru vineyards, pruning must be by the taille Chablis method, preferred for Chardonnay, or the Cordon de Royat method, preferred for Pinot Noir. Both methods retain a high degree of permanent wood that helps the vine to resist frost. Other pruning methods used for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the Guyot method; for Pinot Meunier, the vallée de la Marne method is preferred. The maximum permitted yield used to be up to 13,000kg/ha but from 2007 this was increased to an even higher 15,500kg/ha for a trial period of five years in an effort to meet ever growing demand.

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Dr Neel Burton is a writer and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford. He runs the Oxford Wine Academy with James Flewellen. Through the Oxford Wine Academy, they are available for wine consultancy and for animating tastings in the UK and abroad.
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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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3 Responses to Champagne: The lie of the land

  1. Pingback: Champagne: Method of Production | The Oxford Wine Blog

  2. Pingback: Food Art: Cinghiale alla liquirizia / Wild boar and licorice, food photography by Alessandro Boscolo Agostini - The Rambling Epicure | The Rambling Epicure

  3. Pingback: Flowers Perennial - Pinot Noir, Syrah, Pinot Meunier & Chardonnay

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