Champagne 2: The Lie of the Land

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° centigrade 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 per cent; villages with a score of 90-99 per cent are classified as premier cru and villages with the top score of 100% as grand cru. There are 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 per cent chardonnay, so-called blanc de blancs. In contrast, 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).

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 neither quite achieves 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. 35,000 hectares spread across c. 281,000 vineyard plots (each with an average size of c. 1,200 square metres), 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 which 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 13,000 kg/ha but from 2007 this was increased to an even higher 15,500 kg/ha for a trial period of five years in an effort to meet ever growing demand.

The champagne industry is dominated by about 100 big houses, so-called Grandes Marques or négociants-manipulants (identified as NM on bottle labels) such as Laurent-Perrier, Moët et Chandon, and Perrier-Jouët, which together account for almost 90% of all export sales. However these big houses collectively own a mere 13% of the vineyard area, which means that many are heavily reliant on purchased grapes from some 15,000 growers or récoltants. Then there are also the récoltants-manipulants (RM), the growers who make wine from the fruit of their own vineyards. Récoltants-manipulants are gaining both in numbers and in prestige, and their wines are usually much more terroir-driven that those of the big-blend houses. Growers can also sell their grapes to diverse co-operatives that fulfil a variety of functions such as pressing the fruit, completing the first fermentation, or, in the case of the co-opératives-manipulants (CM), going the whole hog and marketing the finished champagne.

For the sake of completeness, other entities are the recoltants-co-opérateurs (RC), growers who sell champagne made in their co-operative under their own name and label; societies de récoltants (SR), growers who group together to produce a champagne outside of the co-operative system; and négociants-distributeurs (ND), négociants who buy champagne that is ready for sale and market it under their own name and label. Finally, marque d’acheteur (MA) refers to a retailer such as a supermarket group that sells champagne (usually purchased from a co-operative) under its own label.

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  1. Trackback: Champagne in a nutshell | The Oxford Wine Blog

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