What is it that makes champagne special and helps to distinguish it from other quality sparkling wines?
It’s a reasonable question to ask and the simple answer is ‘cool climate’. Not just that of course, there are the chalky soils on which most of the best vineyard is planted and over three centuries of human endeavour to consider too. But cool climate lies at the heart of champagne production and in part explains how it came to be made in the first place.
It is hard to believe it today but the Champagne region used to be a vineyard area largely devoted to the production of light red wine for the local Parisian market. At that time, eon’s before the modern era of temperature-controlled ferments in stainless steel vats, the fermentation process would grind to a halt as the temperature dropped with the onset of winter, often before it was complete and the natural yeasts had turned all the sugar in the grapes into alcohol.
When spring arrived and the temperatures started to rise, the wines, already in bottle would start to ferment again, giving them a slight spritz. These young, gently fizzy wines proved fashionable in markets like England in the mid to late 17th century. The modern era of champagne was born once this ‘secondary’ fermentation was understood, controlled and actually deliberately induced in the bottle after the initial alcoholic fermentation was complete. This didn’t happen overnight of course, inducing controlled secondary fermentation in the bottle wasn’t a widespread practice until around the 1880s.
While the cool climate partly explains the very existence of champagne it is also one of the keys to the wine’s quality, for the Champagne region is France’s most northerly vineyard located only just to the south of the 50th parallel (50degN). Somewhere it is only possible to ripen grapes sufficiently to produce decent table wine perhaps a couple of times each decade, but the perfect place to produce the thin, acid base wine from which to make top quality fizz.
The relatively high acidity in the grapes, a vital ingredient in Champagne’s long ageing, is naturally preserved by the slow ripening process this far north. This is still true although with the advent of global warming average annual temperatures in the region have risen slightly over the past couple of decades.
It is Champagne’s ability to age slowly and gracefully, adding nuances of flavour and complexity as it does so, while still retaining a delightful freshness for many years, which sets the top level of Champagne production apart from even the best sparkling wines made elsewhere around the world.
The cool climate also explains why, unlike almost any other fine wine region in the world, 90% of the wine produced in Champagne is unvintaged, or rather a blend of several different harvests. At the outset it was all made from a single year or harvest, but just like today, harvest quality was extremely variable year to year. As the demand for Champagne grew, blending different harvests together was seen as a way of making sure a larger volume of a more consistent quality could be produced, with poor harvests improved by adding material – reserve wine as we now call it — kept from the crop in previous better years.
And so, at a very early stage in its development, blending became a key component in the production of Champagne, blending of the three grape varieties that are most widely planted, blending a judicious mix of grapes drawn from Champagne’s 319 different villages spread all over the appellation as well as blending different harvests (in the case of non-vintage production).
Blending is the wine maker’s art, the human factor in Champagne that should not be forgotten. Champagne the drink is not solely the result of a marginal climate. It’s a magical combination of cool climate, chalky soil and hundreds of years of refining, adjusting and improving both vine cultivation and winemaking that enables something unique to emerge in the bottle.