The most prestigious sparkling wine region in the world and the home of traditional method bubbly.
The Champagne region has a cool continental climate and chalky limestone soils. These are considered as optimum conditions for sparkling wine grapes - allowing fresh and delicate flavours and a retention of zippy acidity.
Alongside these optimum conditions, generations of tradition and a flair for marketing have made this possibly the most highly prized wine region in the world.
The area within which Champagne can be produced is tightly regulated. This allows the wine to come only from land that has been deemed of high enough quality. Champagne also houses 17 Grand Cru villages and 44 Premier Cru villages. There are three major towns in the champagne-producing region: Rheims, Ay and Epernay.
There are several permitted grape varieties, but only 3 are important - taking up 99.7% of plantings: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Together there are 15,000+ grape growers, 100 cooperatives and 349 Houses which are responsible for the majority of exports.
Champagne production is a complicated affair. A simple base wine is made from the grapes (although this is not so simple when you consider that 2 of the 3 grape varieties used are black, and the wine is white!) by first pressing and resting the juice, and then fermenting in either oak (less common) or stainless steel. Most wine used for champagne undergoes malolactic fermentation, giving a more buttery and rich flavour. At the end of this first phase, the wine is called vin clair.
Before the wine is bottled, liqueur de tirage is added (a mixture of sugar, yeast and nutrients) that will stimulate a second fermentation in the bottle. This is followed by riddling (remuage in French) whereby the bottles are kept with their head below their base at a diagonal angle and gradually turned (largely by machine these days) to slowly bring the yeasty deposit left by second fermentation into the top of the bottle.
Later this deposit is disgorged and a liquer d'expedition is added, made of wine and sugar syrup, to give the wine the desired level of sweetness.
NV: Non-Vintage: Champagne, and sparkling wine in general, is more often sold without a vintage date. This is important in allowing for a house style. Due to adverse weather conditions in these cool, marginal regions, it would be counter-productive to try and produce a vintage wine each year. Instead, the Champagne House can blend several vintages and many vineyards together, often giving them 200 base wines to choose from when blending. This allows 'Moet & Chandon' or 'Veuve Cliquot' to taste the same year after year.
Vintage: Vintage champagne is generally only produced in the best years. It must be aged in bottle for a longer time period that NV Champagne (36 months as opposed to 15 months), which allows for generally for more bold and yeasty flavours, such as brioche and toast, to come through.
Blanc de Blancs: a wine made only from white grape varieties. This tends to be fresher and leaner in style. Excellent style for aperitifs.
Blanc de Noirs: Made only from the black grape varieties, this tends to be richer and good with food.