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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things Champagne. Listeners will learn about all the subregions that make up the French province of Champagne, which today produce some of the finest sparkling wine in the world. However, Champagne wasn’t always known for its sparkling wines.
Listeners will learn the unique history of how sparkling wine was discovered, which involved British winemakers and a process that involved the blending of grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Beavers also explains why Champagne is more expensive than most other sparkling wines on the market.
Tune in to become an expert on Champagne.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and are we popping our collars? It’s going to get warm out, so I need to know if I’m going to pop my collar.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 12 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” Podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tasting director of VinePair. Hola! Oh boy. OK, wow. Champagne. Heavy stuff, guys. We got to explain some stuff here because it’s pretty intense. Let’s just rip the Band-Aid off and talk about Champagne.
I mean, when it’s that special occasion and you are looking for a bottle of bubbly, as an American wine drinker you obviously go to the word Champagne. When you walk into a wine shop, you ask, where are the Champagnes? “Oh, thank you. Yes, our Champagne section is right over here.” They walk you over to the Champagne section, and they show you their Champagnes. You look at and say, “Oh, wow. Oh, well, those prices are high; $50 is the lowest price? Yeah. OK, all right. Thank you so much. Do you have any other bubbly?”
What is it about Champagne? Why is it where it is in our brains as Americans? We walk into a wine shop, we assume if it’s bubbly, it’s going to be Champagne, but we don’t always end up buying the Champagne. It’s really expensive. If we do buy it, what do we actually know about it? What is it about Champagne? The thing is, I wish I could do a thorough history of the Champagne region for you guys to give you a really good sense of how this place became what it is. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I can’t do that so we’re going to discuss Champagne. I’m going to talk to you guys about the Champagne region and what happens there.
The thing about this wine that is made in this place called Champagne is very special. The people that created what Champagne is today are some of the most innovative wine people on the planet because of what they have and what they’ve had. I’m sure in your mind, when you think about drinking a bottle of Champagne or if you think about the lifestyle around the idea of Champagne, you think of this celebratory laissez-faire. This is so wonderful, and the thing is, this is how the people in Champagne are. Their wine does absolutely reflect who they are and how they celebrate life. Now, that love for life and that celebratory stuff is all very cool, but they had to create that out of some significant challenges.
The Champagne region is located about 100 miles, give or take, east of the city of Paris. It is the most northern wine-growing region in France and the most northern wine-growing region in Europe. The Romans called this place Campania, which, translated in Latin means “open country.” Champagne, Campania. That’s how it came to be, and that’s what this place is. It’s this big open country of rolling hills with a river called the Marne running through it. In these hills, in the soil, is this very special white chalk. It’s a limestone base. Some people call it Kimmeridgian. That soil adds to why Champagne is so special. In addition to that, this open country is not protected by any mountain ranges or anything like that. It’s open, it’s in the north, and the climate is crazy at times. It can be unpredictable. It can be intense. It can be extreme.
Vines have been here for a long time, since antiquity, but this area of France is a major crossroad of trade to Belgium, Switzerland, Paris, and beyond. For a long time, this land has been fought over. The first recorded battle was in 455 A.D. when Attila the Hun was actually here, and they got him out of there. Then, there was this big civil war in the middle of the 17th century. Then, of course, in World War I, there was a major battle in this area. To this day, when you’re walking around in Champagne, you can still see remnants of the trenches soldiers were fighting in. There’s a big memorial and a cemetery there. As if climate and humans in conflict are not enough, that thing I’m going to talk about, phylloxera, came here as well and almost decimated the place.
Through all of this, the people of Champagne persisted and continued to make wine no matter what. The thing about Champagne’s history is the wine wasn’t always sparkling wine. They also did not invent sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is a natural thing that happens, but they were in a position that when they started to see that there’s this second fermentation thing, they were in a position to do something about it and harness it. That location where the Champagne region is, there’s a big town there called Reims, and the Marne River is there as well. They were right in that crossroads of trade. The Champagne region was selling wine, it was just still wine. It was thin and it was basically just Pinot Noir. Also, sometimes it gets cold up there, the winters get really cold. They would have these occurrences wherein the spring when everything warmed up, bottles would begin to explode. That is the second fermentation happening, which we know now, especially from Episode 7, Season 1.
The problem is that they didn’t like that, that wasn’t cool for them. They were losing wine. At some point, a wine from Champagne makes its way to England, and the English put it into their bottles. A second fermentation happens but at the time, the English glass was some of the strongest glass in the world. They opened the bottle after a while, and it’s fizzy, but they say, “Well, this is actually pretty good.” The Champagne region at some point decides that this is what they can focus on. Again, these are all very general statements. The history is pretty deep. and I can’t go into it but this is basically what’s going on here.
From the 17th century until the 20th century, there was a lot of innovation. You had people like Dom Pérignon, the monk that basically created the center of winemaking in Champagne in the town of Épernay, which we’ll get to in a second. You had Veuve Clicquot, the widow, Nicole Ponsardin, who inherited her Champagne house from her husband at the age of 27 after he died an untimely death in the early 19th century. She took it over and innovated like crazy. She actually created riddling, or as they call it, remuage. And if you listen to Episode 7, in Season 1, how wine gets bubbly, you will understand all that stuff. Also, the 19th century is when all the marketing starts to happen. This is when people like Bollinger, Krug, Roederer, these large houses had marketing prowess. There were local growers, and then there were these houses. They had the money and the means to market this wine. What would happen here is you had this place that was cold and the wine was a little bit thin. The good news is thin wine or high-acid wine makes a really good base wine for sparkling wine. They also realized over a period of time, through trial and error, that there are certain varieties that do well here and those are the varieties they’re going to work with.
They also started singling out villages that had the best vineyards in them. They also started realizing that the winemaking process here was going to be very different so they had to focus on that. In 1927, when the Champagne appellation was created, a lot of rules had to be put in place. That was the job of the CIVC, the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Champagne. If they were going to make this work, this sparkling wine thing, everyone had to get on the same page. This Champagne region is the only AOC here. It’s the only region in France that the entire region is only one AOC, and everyone has to follow the rules. The rules get pretty specific, from what grapes you can grow — that’s very general — to when you can actually harvest (there are windows of time to harvest the amount of wine you bring in), to the press. You can only put a certain weight onto the press. The amount of times you press those grapes and the length of time for each press is also regulated. There are so many rules in Champagne, but they’re there for a reason. Those rules keep this wine region moving, keeping everything pretty uniform. There’s plenty of room for creativity within those rules, and that’s why Champagne gets a little bit crazy.
For us, if you’re a regular wine lover who just wants a bottle of Champagne, it’s very hard just to understand Champagne. There are over 80,000 acres of land under vine. 76,000 of those are planted in 300 villages. 17 of those villages, the entire village is grand cru. 43 of those villages are premier cru. In Champagne, the grand cru and premier cru are entire villages, not actual plots of a vineyard like they are in Burgundy. Champagne is big, but the heart of Champagne is concentrated in the northern part of the region, just south of a major city center called Reims. I’m probably butchering it, but that’s how they pronounce it in French. From that city center sprawling out mostly to the south, Champagne is basically made up of five general districts. What’s nice about this is that three of these districts, which are concentrated basically in the heart of Champagne, each district is known for a certain variety. The wines of Champagne are made from two red varieties and one white variety, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, which is a mutated Pinot grape, and Chardonnay. OK, did I apologize about my French? OK, good. All right.
Just south of the town of Reims is the district of Montagne de Reims. This area is Pinot Noir primarily, and there are grand cru villages in this district. If you keep going south, you hit the river, Marne. If you go west on the Marne River, you enter Vallée de la Marne. This is the second district and this is mainly Pinot Meunier, the other red wine variety that makes up the Champagne blend. If you were going to go south and you crossed the Marne River and kept going south, you enter into what is called Côte des Blancs, the hills of white. This is Chardonnay country with a significant amount of grand cru villages in it. These villages and three districts are where that white chalky clay is. This is the gold of the area. If you go even further south, maybe 100 miles, there are two very southern districts in the Champagne region. One is called Aube, and it’s primarily Pinot Noir. Then, there’s Côte de Sézanne, which is primarily Chardonnay. Then, there’s a lot of outlying areas as well, but these five districts are what make up the fine wine region of Champagne.
Even though Champagne is bubbly, it does have a depth to it. These three varieties have roles to play in the wine. Pinot Noir often brings a little bit of weight, some sort of headiness to Champagne. Pinot Meunier brings the acidity, gives it a little bit of a backbone, tartness, and a bit of fruitiness. Chardonnay is said to bring elegance around this, sort of finesse. You’ll notice this when you start to understand the different styles of Champagne. You have these big Champagne houses that own or have contracts with vineyards all around this area. They usually just bring it all into a big merchant house. It’s called a Champagne house, and they make wine within their style. Then, you have Champagne makers that have the ways and means to own their own vineyards and make their own wine. Those are called growers. You’re going to hear this term a lot called grower Champagne, which is more of local, smaller production. Champagne houses are larger production.
What’s so crazy about this wine region in the world is the climatic challenges. Not every year is a great year. In Champagne, what they do is they’ll make wine and put it into a barrel, but they’ll hold on to it and they’ll blend it with previous years. I think it’s up to three years you can blend for a release. You can have vintages going back, I think Bollinger has it going all the way back 20 or 30 years. In a year that you don’t have a good vintage, you make a non-vintage wine where you blend some of your current vintages with older vintages, and then you release that. That usually tends to be the house or the grower’s style. Every year, they sit down and they taste through everything, through all the vintages, and they build something for you. When a vintage does happen and they’re happy with one vintage, they put all the wine into one vintage instead of blending with previous vintages. Vintage Champagne is a very special thing. It’s a very big deal.
The winemakers every year say, “We try to make this work and oh my gosh, here’s a year where everything is almost perfect. We’re putting this into a bottle, and there’s not going to be a lot of it.” There are three general styles of Champagne that are made based on the three varieties that are used to make the wine. These names don’t necessarily have to be on the wine label. But more prominent Champagne houses will do that so you can understand what’s going on. Back in the day, red wine grapes were considered black grapes, so the first style of Champagne is called blanc de noirs. It is a wine made from black grapes, literally translated white made from blacks. The two red varieties in Champagne are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, so blanc de noirs is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It’s often just Pinot Noir, it does have some Pinot Meunier in there to give it some verve. Wines made from blanc de noirs are nice, deep Champagnes.
If there’s a blanc de noirs, there has to be a blanc de blancs, right? Blanc de blancs Champagne is Champagne made primarily from Chardonnay. If Chardonnay gives a Champagne blend its finesse, then with a blanc de blancs, you’ll notice that there’s not a lot of headiness to it. It’s soft, round, bright, and smooth. Blanc de blancs has a little more cleanliness to them, where blanc de noirs has a little more headiness to it. A third popular style, especially today, is Champagne rosé, or pink Champagne. If you listen to the blending episode, I talk about this one blending style that doesn’t really happen, and it really only happens in Champagne. It is taking red wine and diluting it into white wine a little bit, which creates a pinkish color. That is how pink Champagne is made. They’ll actually vinify some of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier red, blend a little bit with the Chardonnay, and that’s how they make it.
Wine lovers, I’m trying to get something across here. I’m hoping I’m getting it across. This place, just the way they make wine is, is incredible. The fact that they make elegant, fine wine is incredible. The fact that they took their climate and the situation they had there and created something beautiful out of it. Like I said, sparkling wine was not invented in Champagne. It’s a natural occurrence, but the people in Champagne took it and just created something beautiful. The standard of sparkling wine around the world is based on Champagne now. When you get sparkling wine anywhere in the world, it’s probably going to be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sometimes Pinot Meunier. The famous sparkling wine of the Penedés in Spain, which we’ll get into at some point, Cava, is people trying to copy what they saw in Champagne with the local varieties they had in their area.
Today, Chardonnay is allowed in the blend of these three native varieties. They were initially used for this for Cava because it’s known and proven what Chardonnay can do in a blend based on what they do in Champagne. The thing about Champagne, and this is going to be a little frustrating for you as a wine lover, is every house and every grower that makes Champagne has their own style.
It’s just so fascinating because you have a wine region that is huge and only one AOC, one big appellation, and it has a long list of rules across the appellation. The people in Champagne are like, “Well, if we’re going to adhere to all these rules, we’re going to make what we do more individual than what our neighbor does.” It’s hard to categorize what Champagne is because Champagne is just all kinds of stuff. It’s all kinds of textures and flavors. It’s everything. It’s really hard to say. It’s all about the winemaker, what they do and where they get their grapes from. It’s not the easiest thing to get into Champagne because of that. You can understand the styles, you can understand the grand cru villages and the premier cru villages, you can understand all that stuff. However, until you start getting into the wines and actually drinking them, can you really understand the different styles?
Unfortunately, Champagne is expensive. It’s expensive because of the labor involved in making this wine, which you can listen to in Episode 7, Season 1. It’s also a significant amount of marketing. Madame Bollinger went to England and just traveled all over the country promoting her Champagne. Charlie Heidsieck came to the United States, to New York, just before the Civil War and started giving Champagne to the elite society of New York City. It’s marketed as a luxury item. It’s labor-intensive, it’s marketed as a luxury item, and you’re holding on to a bunch of inventory in back vintages as well.
It’s a lot to get into. So the way to get into Champagne, really, is just to start drinking. But it’s tough because, as I said, it starts at $40, $50 a bottle for a non-vintage. Champagne is one of the hardest wines to get into because of the cost. If you want to get into Champagne and you really want to start understanding it, this is where you really should know somebody. Get to know your wine merchant and find a wine shop you trust and get to know those people. Let them guide you through Champagne because when you do buy it, you’re going to want to try something new and different. This is the category of wine that you should definitely trust somebody with.
OK, that was a general discussion and overview about Champagne. I wanted to give you a sense of the challenges they have there, what they created out of those challenges, what we have today, and the styles you can encounter. At some point, we can do a nice deep dive into the history and really understand how everything really developed. Until then, enjoy the bubs.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new everyday. See you next week.