Champagne, at first glance, seems easy to understand. It is after all the most popularized and recognized wine in the world. It has been endorsed by Napoleon, Churchill and Warhol (it’s the “war” theme). However, once the fizz of gaiety evaporates and the veil of simplicity is pulled back, Champagne reveals a region with a fascinating history that has for centuries fastidiously cultivated a complex wine appellation. It is an appellation governed by complicated regulations that touch all aspects of production, a classification system of villages that sets grape prices and a myriad of styles including: wines of a single vintage, of blended vintages, of a single grape variety, of blended varieties; all of which can have different levels of dosage ranging from Extra Brut to Doux. Dare I mention content measurement? How did a 15 Liter bottle of Champagne come to be associated with Nebuchadnezzar?
The Romans gave this region its name. I suspect that these explorers had already dipped into the “local water” before naming it Campagna in memory of the area around Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps in contrast to the vast plains that flank the region to the west the geological undulations of Champagne appeared to be a similar wonder of nature. The region’s boundaries are basically unchanged since the 15th century and the “champagne viticole” (vineyard area) today spans five “départments” , the vast majority of them located in the Marne and the Aube. The vineyards cover approximately 30,400 hectares, although this area has recently been expanded. Most of the vineyards fall into the following broad areas: Vallée de la Marne, Côte de Sézanne, Côte de Blancs, Montagne de Reims and the Côte de Bar. A complete and more precise categorization divides the vineyards into twenty regions and is explained in the wonderful book Grand Atlas des Vignobles de France.
Champagne became an important center in France after Hugh Capet was crowned in Reims Cathedral in 987. Kings were crowned in the Cathedral for the following eight centuries and during this period considerable grants were given to the local monasteries which in turn became centers of winemaking until the revolution in 1798.
Until the 17th century the wines of Champagne were labeled according to small geographic regions such as vins de la Montagne or vins de la Riviere or more specifically by village or place names such as Bouzy, Verzenay, Ay and the Abbey of Hautvilliers. These wines were predominantly made from red grapes, their color compared to an onion skin or the eye of a partridge and they were gently effervescent or not. As fashion changed, so did the style of the wines to the extent that the producers could control it. The style of Champagne that we know today began in the 19th century and continues to evolve. The biggest change in the last twenty years is the increase of small scale recoltant-manipulant, “RM” producers. These estate bottled champagnes offer a remarkable diversity of expression resulting from the different philosophies of the independent producers and the more specific terroirs with which they work. These more personal expressions of champagne stand in stark contrast to the large negociant manipulant, “NM” producers who blend wines from hundreds of villages and often produce Champagne with a calculated uniformity.