Located just 100 miles away from Paris, Champagne is a historic province in northeast France, famous for its wines. The region is divided into five districts that produce wine―Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims, Côte de Sézanne, Aube, and Côte des Blancs. This 76,000-acre region roughly encompasses 320 villages, where more than 14,000 inhabitants sell grapes, and approximately 5,000 make wine.
Did You Know?Vineyards in the Champagne region were first planted by the Romans and not the French, as is commonly believed.
About the Soil ...
The characteristic smoothness and finesse of this wine is credited to its soil. When the ocean structure changed about 70 million years ago, it left behind chalk subsoil. After 60 million years, disastrous earthquakes rocked the region leaving belemnite fossils and marine sediments. Together, this resulted in a fertile, belemnite-chalk terrain. This type of soil absorbs the sun's heat during the day and releases it during the night; the soil also has great drainage.
About the Place ...
The place was always a crossroad for both, military as well as trade. The ongoing military conflicts made a huge impact on this region. At the time of The Hundred Years' War, the region was completely devastated. The commune of Hautvillers was completely destroyed during The French Wars of Religion, which were fought between the French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). Again, The Thirty Years' War and the Fronde Civil Wars―during which military troops stampeded across the vineyards―caused huge losses to the whole region. This cycle of wars and the devastation it caused, continued till the reign of Louis XIV, when finally, the region saw peace.
Champagne's reputation prospered in the late Middle Ages, when several poets and writers made the wine of this region popular. At one point of time, many popes and royal authorities like, Pope Leo X, Charles V of Spain, Mary, Queen of Scots, Francis I of France, and Henry VIII of England also couldn't resist buying a tract of their own. After a few years, the exportation of wine began. The first recorded wine export happened in the year 1518, when Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the chancellor of Henry VIII, exported wine from Champagne to England.
Wines of this region were sold in Paris under two categories―des vins de montagne (wine of the wooden mountain) and la rivière des vins (wine of the Marne river); they were also sold for a very high price. There was a trade rivalry between Champagne and Burgundy wines for more than a hundred years. After much thought and trouble, it was decided that Champagne would concentrate more on manufacturing and selling sparkling wine, which was then gaining popularity.
The foundation of a Champagne house was laid in late 16th century, when Gosset, a vineyard owner, produced and exported still wine under his name. This concept was new to the other farmers and soon after, producers like Ruinart, Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, etc., entered the market and became successful wine producers. The total wine production was around 300,000 bottles a year in 1800; as technology advanced, the total production had reached up to 20 million bottles a year by 19th century,
In the early 19th century, the administration of Champagne decided its viticultural boundaries and the five districts were formed. All districts produce grapes of different types and qualities. This helps various Champagne houses to maintain their own unique taste and style. There are three main types of grapes cultivated in the Champagne region―Pinot Noir (Aube, Montagne, and Reims), Chardonnay (Cote des Blancs), and Pinot Meunier (Vallee de la Marne).
In 1942, CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) was formed. Its main objective was to protect the equality and reputation of Champagne. It worked as a market force and later decided the rules and regulations for vineyard owners. Champagne was the only region that got permission to not use AOC (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) on a bottle's label.
Though sparkling wine is totally dominating trade in the Champagne region, other types like the non-sparkling still wines (Bouzy and Coteaux Champenois), rosé (in the region Rosé des Riceys), vin de liqueur (Ratafià Champagne) are also produced here.
Since ancient times, wine from this region was popular as a celebration drink, among the rich of the world. Since white wine is in huge demand (it also makes more profit), the vineyard owners seem to concentrate more on it. So, on your next visit to France, don't forget to reserve some days for this beautiful place.