A little bit of history?
A happy mix of a place, a period, a land and luck, the history of the Champagne region is as prestigious as the product itself.
Appearing in the Middle Ages, at a time when growing vines and making wine were mostly a religious affair (wine was blessed and only drunk during mass), before 496 champagne was only known around the outskirts of Reims.
Because this is when, after the place (Reims), the period (Middle Ages) and the land (Champagne), luck came onto the scene.
It all started on the battlefield, in the year of our Lord 496. Clovis, at death's door (well, him and his troops...) during the battle of Tolbiac against the Alamans, as a last recourse begged the god of his wife (the Christian god) to spare him his life and promised that he would convert if he did. Luck? Miracle? Either way, his army was able to carry Clovis out after which he converted and was baptised by Remi, the bishop of Reims, on Christmas night in the aforementioned year of 496.
And what do we drink during mass at a royal baptism in Reims?
That's right, wine from Champagne.
The place of baptism of France's first king, Reims quickly became the official site for the crowning of kings. Between 825 and 1825, all of France's kings were crowned in Reims, while champagne was consecrated during the enormous banquets that were given for these occasions.
Thus, starting in the 12th century, this drink (for which the fact that it was the wine used at the time of the baptism of Clovis would have sufficed for its reputation) became increasingly popular and even made it across borders.
Its taste, finesse, novelty and the originality of its bubbles filled the various courts where it was served with enthusiasm.
Having grown to be an exceptional drink over time, champagne was even an entry at the World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 (Paris and Brussels) and is served today during special events.
So how did it come to be what it is?
At the beginning of the 20th century, champagne had already reached a legendary status and could have been taken advantage of by companies willing to exchange quality for financial gain. This is why the wine producers of Champagne collectively decided to define a very precise area where the beverage could be produced as well as rules governing how it could be produced in order to protect their trade. Thanks to this initiative, the Champagne AOC (Protected Designation of Origin) label was established in 1927, thus protecting an age-old wine-growing area.
The soil here, which is so particular, is part of a territory described as 'northern-oceanic', meaning it is influenced by both an oceanic and a continental climate.
This double influence is characterised by temperatures that vary little between seasons, by an average rainfall (influenced by the oceanic climate), and by frosts in winter and plenty of sun in summer (the continental influence). Although it is a relatively harsh climate for grapevines, it does seem to be one of the keys of success in the production of this exceptional wine.
Exactly how is it made?
There are a large number of steps necessary in creating a quality champagne.
One of the most, if not the most, important is selecting the blend. Generally designated as the first step, the blend will determine the champagne's typicity and thus give it its taste.
There are three possible blends in Champagne: vintage, grape variety, a mixture of different years.
The next step is the tirage, when sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the blend is left to ferment. This is the step that will determine the sweetness of the resulting wine and thus whether it will be of the extra-brut, brut, sec or demi-sec variety.
Finally, the ageing process. This stage can last anywhere from 15 months to 5 years or more and is when the wine develops its aromas which evolve over time, offering a variety of notes ranging from simple to complex, superficial to deep and distinct to merged... Yup, it's a whole another world in itself!
Hmmm... Where exactly is this described?
On the label!!
Like most products, champagne comes with a label.
It offers a whole host of information that allows you to differentiate it from the others.
First, its designation as 'champagne' (not everything that glitters is gold and not every carbonised drink can be called champagne!), brand name or name of its producer, its 'dosage' (amount of sugar making it a brut, demi-sec, etc.) and its particularities. If the label reads 'Blanc de Blanc', it means the bottle in your hands is a white wine from Champagne which was made using only a variety of white grape: Chardonnay. If it says 'Blanc de Noir', the white wine used was made exclusively from dark grape varieties, like Pinot noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
But you might also have a vintage champagne (a blend consisting of wines produced in the same year, if the typicity allows for this), a rosé champagne (which owes its pretty pink colour to either its blend or fermentation), or a special vintage (in this case, the blend has been especially chosen by the producer and may be a grand cru, a single variety blend, a champagne with a long ageing process, etc.).
On the back label!!
And no, this isn't just the back of the front label.
Instead, on it you will find additional information like the grape varieties used in the blend, how long it was aged for, a description of the aromas, and suggestions on which foods it is best enjoyed with.
Ok, but now how do I choose?
Armed with this information, you find yourself in front of the many choices offered by the producers and... you still don't know which champagne to choose!
To help you, here are the distinctions that can be made between the four families of champagne:
Champagnes with body (young to more mature) are characterised by their power, their intensity and how robust they are. Champagne with a predominance of Pinot grapes develop a powerful and hardy aroma and have a golden yellow colour. Their perfumes of violet, spices, truffles, ripe wheat, biscuit batter, etc. (yup, all that!) make these some fun, easy-to-drink champagnes that are ideal for serving at banquets, parties, New Year's Eve or any other event where a wide variety of food will be served.
Champagnes with heart (usually bruts) have the same qualities as their name: generosity and warmth. These are balanced champagnes of the vintage variety (predominantly Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes), or rosés and some of the demi-secs.
Their colour, which ranges from golden yellow to a deep pink wonderfully reflects the aromas they evoke; rose petals, honey, peaches, pears, cinnamon, candied citrus fruits and gingerbread. Thanks to their balanced and mellow body, everybody loves these champagnes, which are great for occasions where different palates are brought together, like anniversaries and weddings.
Champagnes with character (bruts, Blanc de Blanc or predominantly of the Chardonnay variety), with rapid light bubbles are simultaneously sharp, delicate and light. Their perfumes of fresh fruit, in which you can particularly make out notes of citrus and exotic fruits, mint and fresh almonds, give them all the necessary sparkle for receptions where good humour is obligatory, like masked balls, elegant suppers or cocktail parties.
Champagnes of the soul are those which can be called exceptional champagnes. With their complexity and subtlety, they aren't made for just anyone. Mature and rich, these champagnes correspond to rare vintages, champagnes with fullness (few bubbles), special vintages and prestige vintages.
To be able to appreciate all the nuances of their complex flavours which unveil precious and delicate bouquets of spices, you need to have a well-exercised palate.
These first-class vintages with colours ranging from old gold to amber to rye straw are thus reserved for extremely important occasions where rarity, perfection and refinement are included on the menu.
A proposal, a very large contract to be signed, a unique New Year's Eve? Champagnes of the soul, with their very fine bubbles, are perfect for these exceptional occasions.
There are three types of grapes that can be used to make champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.© Eric Gevaert / age fotostock
Champagne is served in flutes as a cocktail, with meals or even with desert.© Alessandro Termignone / age fotostock
Champagne is synonymous with festive occasions; it is THE drink for celebrations.© Datacraft / age fotostock