Champagne, the sparkling holiday drink

What could be more festive than a glass of bubbly? If there’s one drink that’s synonymous with celebration, it’s champagne. Whether it’s to celebrate the New Year or a special occasion, this sparkling wine produced in the Reims region is a festive drink to be enjoyed with friends and family. In this article, we will trace the long and rich history of this iconic drink, as well as the different types and brands of champagne available. We will also discover the different terroirs that produce it, the grape varieties used, how this sparkling wine is made, and more. Finally, we will take a look at some interesting statistics on the consumption of this sparkling drink. Here’s to you!

The story of a sparkling wine

The first vines in the Champagne region appeared in the 7th century to produce mass wine for the Eucharist. In 660, the abbey of Saint-Pierre-aux-Monts multiplied the planting of vines in the areas it owned. An act was drafted in 1114, the Great Champagne Charter, an act which confirmed the agricultural and wine-growing possessions of the abbey, thus allowing the monks to develop vines in the Champagne region. The name “vin de champagne” then appeared under the reign of Henri IV and it became highly prized by the royal courts of France and England. Aging poorly in barrels, wine was bottled in 1660 before the end of its first fermentation, in order to ensure better preservation of aromas. But the combination of sulfiting barrels and corks makes champagne wine naturally sparkling. In 1670, the monk Dom Pérignon gathered grapes from different crus and varietals to improve the quality of sparkling wine, while reinforcing the bottles with thicker glass to prevent them from exploding. The first bottles were marketed across France at the end of the 17th century. However, it will be necessary to wait for the 19th century and the work of Louis Pasteur to improve the fermentation of the wine. The famous French wine developed internationally from the end of the 18th century, in particular thanks to bourgeois families who owned vines. The best-known champagne houses remain:

  • The Bollinger Family : founded in 1829, this French family owns a vineyard that covers 178 hectares. Bollinger is also James Bond’s favorite drink!
  • The Pommery family : this family invented brut champagne and produces 2 million bottles each year.
  • The Clicquot family : nicknamed “the great lady of champagne” or even “the widow Clicquot”, this family mainly exported its production to eastern countries and to Russia.
  • The Claude Moët family : founded in 1743, this house now belongs to the LVMH group. Since 2011, it has brought together the following 3 brands: Moët et Chandon, Ruinart and Dom Pérignon.
  • The Perrier family: founded in 1887 by Mathilde Emilie Perrier, widow of Eugène Laurent Perrier, this house was renamed “Veuve Laurent Perrier et Compagnie” in 1920. Its customers are mainly distributed in Europe.
Champagne vineyards around a village
Champagne vineyards around a village

The different terroirs of the vineyard

The Champagne region is located in the northeast of France, 150 km east of Paris. The Champagne vineyard covers 4 regions:

  • The mountain of Reims,
  • The Marne valley,
  • The coast of the whites,
  • The bar coast.

That is an area of approximately 31,000 hectares. 635 municipalities make up the controlled designation of origin (AOC) champagne and these municipalities are spread over the following 5 departments:

  • the Marne,
  • the Aisne,
  • Dawn,
  • Seine-et-Marne,
  • Haute Marne.

The Champagne vineyard has 280,000 plots with an average surface area of 12 ares. 17 villages have the “grand cru” appellation and 44 villages have the “premier cru” appellation. The terroirs are classified according to 3 categories:

  • The “grand cru” terroirs : 17 villages benefit from this prestigious AOC appellation.
  • The “premier cru” terroirs : 44 villages are found in this qualification.
  • The “other crus” terroirs : these include all the other villages.

The different grape varieties used for the production

3 grape varieties are used to make champagne wine:

  • Chardonnay B: it is a white grape which makes it possible to obtain a fresh and delicate wine. Blanc de blanc wine is made exclusively from this grape variety.
  • Pinot noir N : it is a black grape which gives a white juice because its skin does not have time to tint the pressed juice. Pinot Noir makes it possible to obtain a full-bodied champagne with a fine bouquet.
  • Le meunier N or pinot meunier : derived from pinot noir, this variety is a black grape with colorless pulp which makes it possible to obtain more fruity wines.

5 other grape varieties are also authorized in the manufacture of champagne, but their use remains limited.

  • Arbane : an old variety of white grapes little grown because of its late maturity and low yield.
  • Le petit meslier : here too, an old grape variety little used because of its low yield.
  • True Pinot Gris : a gray grape variety with complex smoky or floral aromas.
  • True pinot blanc : white variety of pinot noir, this grape variety is present in an anecdotal way in the production of champagne.
  • Gamay : its use must be subject to an authorization request.

Champagne wine is made using different grape varieties from different harvest years. Vintage champagne is a rare cuvée and it represents only 5% of Champagne production. Indeed, a vintage champagne is an exceptional champagne whose harvest comes from the same year. The prestige cuvées come from the best plots of vines and are vinified with great care. The price of a bottle of prestigious champagne can reach several hundred euros per unit. A Jeroboam Dom Pérignon vintage 2008 now costs nearly €3,000. On the other hand, blending is an art which imposes to marry each year wines of grape varieties from different terroirs and vintages.

Champagne can be drunk with cheese

The Champagne method

Invented by the monk Dom Pérignon in 1695, this method exclusively reserved for wines produced in the region, made it possible to produce sparkling wines. A first fermentation is carried out in vats and transforms the must into wine. The wine is then bottled and a mixture of sugar and yeast is added. This second fermentation called “prise de mousse” creates CO2, allowing the champagne wine to become effervescent, while balancing itself with the aromas of fresh and exotic fruits that compose it. The 5 stages of vinification are:

  • Pressing : it receives the freshly harvested bunches before being quickly put into vats before the grapes oxidize. The grape is weighed and its juice is extracted. 4 tons make it possible to extract 2.5 tons of juice which is called cuvée, the rest goes to the distillery.
  • Blending : this stage takes place at the beginning of the year and allows, after tasting, the addition of wines from different grape varieties and terroirs.
  • The draw : this stage takes place in the spring and allows the bottling of the wine. It is during this stage that we add a liqueur made up of sugar and yeast allowing the effervescence.
  • Riddling and ageing : every day the bottles are turned a quarter of a turn in order to loosen the lees from the wall of the bottle. Aging is the period when the bottle remains in the cellar for at least 15 months, up to 3 years for a vintage champagne.
  • Disgorging : this final step consists in excluding the deposit formed by the lees and adding a dosage liquor.

The different types of champagne

  • Brut champagne : this is the best known and most consumed wine, made from traditional grape varieties such as chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. It contains less than 12 grams of sugar per litre.
  • Brut nature champagne : as its name suggests, this wine is made without added sugar, the sugar present being the natural sugar of the grapes.
  • Demi-sec champagne: this wine made from the same grape varieties as brut champagne contains between 32 and 50 grams of sugar per litre.
  • Sweet champagne : it contains more than 50 grams of sugar per litre.
  • Rosé champagne : made up of several black grape varieties, it owes its color to the skin of the grapes that have macerated in the juice.
  • Blanc de blanc champagne: this wine is exclusively made from chardonnay, a white grape variety.

The biggest champagne houses

There are many champagne houses and each winemaker has their own house. However, 15 major houses account for more than half of bottle sales and exports worldwide.

  • Bollinger
  • Canard-Duchene
  • Cattier
  • Canon
  • Charles Heidsieck
  • Gausset
  • Moet and Chandon
  • Ruinart
  • Pommery
  • The Veuve Clicquot
  • GH Mumm
  • Louis Roederer
  • Piper Heidsieck
  • Lanson
  • Taittinger

The figures around the fizzy drink

The figures around champagne are impressive: vineyards like Nicolas Feuillatte bring together, for example, up to 84 cooperatives, which represents nearly 5,000 winegrowers. Here are some key figures:

  • 16,200 winegrowers share the 360 champagne houses.
  • 231 million bottles were harvested in 2020.
  • Half of the production is destined for the international market.
  • The turnover around champagne amounts to 4 billion euros in 2020.
  • The United Kingdom, the United States and Japan are the biggest consumers of champagne.
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