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Only made in Champagne, France
Champagne is world famous for its unique sparkling wine. Location is a big part of what makes Champagne the region—and therefore Champagne the wine— distinctive. This region undisputedly, produces the world's finest sparkling wines because of its unique cool northerly latitude and chalky white soils. Champagne houses have also utilized this chalk by carving hundreds of miles of tunnels and cellars underground in which to store their wines at constant cool temperatures.
By Carole Kotkin
Photos by Simone Zarmati Diament
The region, known around the world for its extraordinary winemaking process based on strict regulations and hundreds of years of experience, is like no other. It’s no wonder that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region made with grapes grown in the region can legally be called Champagne. This is no mere trademark issue.
The characteristics of the soil and weather in that 100-mile section of northeastern France create circumstances that are ideal for this sublime effervescent wine. Most of the great Champagne Houses are based in or around the city of Reims (pronounced something like "Rrrhons" - but the locals understand "Reems", with an ironic smile).
It is most noted for its Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, which was begun in 1210. The world famous cathedral was the setting for 25 coronations. The facade of Notre dame is one of the most beautiful in France; it's best seen in the soft glow of afternoon light. Take special note of the sculptural masterpiece, the Laughing Angel, above the north left door. Equally remarkable are the stained glass windows, particularly the 13th century rose window and those in the apse painted by Marc Chagall in the 1970s. The latter are striking for their luminous blue and subject matter--the story of the Old Testament on the left; the New Testament on the right. Today, pollution is a constant threat to its fabric. Consequently, restoration is a continuing process and may block some views.
Nearby are many of Reims' biggest Champagne houses, with their chalky underground cellars known as crayères. Several offer video presentations and free guided tours of their cellars. Reims' tourist office, close to the cathedral, has the times of wine tours. Across the Marne River from Reims is Epernay, where many major Champagne houses are located, logically, along the Avenue de Champagne. Perhaps the most famous of all is Moet and Chandon, which is linked to the story of Dom Perignon (1638-1715), a monk in the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, who discovered the use of corks, the blending of wines, and the second fermentation process--in other words, Champagne as we know it.
Dotted around the gentle rolling countryside are pretty wine villages, acres of vineyards, and winding little roads. Take the opportunity to drive around the wine villages with enchanting names like Verzy, Mailly-Champagne, Ambonnay, and would you believe Bouzy! Here's a chance to stop and sip in a small Champagne house and make a discovery all your own. Just follow the signs along the Route de Champagne. Harvest time for the grapes is September, and picking is done entirely by hand. Some vineyards allow visitors to become a grape-picker for the day, with training by a regular harvester and a generous lunch, followed by a tasting at the end of the day.
Today, sparkling wine is made all over the world under different names such as prosecco and cava--but it cannot be called Champagne. This region undisputedly, produces the world's finest sparkling wines because of its unique cool northerly latitude and chalky white soils of the region that allow Champagne grapes to ripen fully in flavor while maintaining high levels of acidity.
Champagne is the most northern great wine region, not only in France, but also in the world. The climate there is so severe that normal winemaking is nearly impossible. A series of earthquakes millions of years ago caused ripples in the land, giving the vines the proper altitude and exposure to the sun. Without these hills, wines would not be possible. The area was once very flat and covered by hundreds of feet of ocean and the Marine organisms created layers of chalk that would prove essential to the uniqueness of Champagne's wines. Due to erosion, soil often has to be hauled onto the vineyards, where it is mixed with the existing soils to create a special mixture that cannot be replicated. Vines go deep into the porous chalk and extract mineral components that show up in the wines. The chalk also offers excellent drainage for the heavy rains. Champagne houses have also utilized this chalk by carving hundreds of miles of tunnels and cellars underground in which to store their wines at constant cool temperatures.
A visit to a Champagne House reveals just how labor-intensive the Méthode Champenoise, the traditional method by which Champagne (and some sparkling wine is produced) is. After primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle. This second fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of rock sugar. At this time the champagne bottle is capped with a crown cap. The bottle is then riddled (turned), so that the lees (dead yeast and sediment) settles in the neck of the bottle. The neck is then frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide.
Champagne is a modern wine, developed only three centuries ago. Much of the credit for the great advances in champagne production goes to Dom Perignon, but despite his Champagne campaign, the bubbles sputtered in France. It took Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot, a 36-year-old widow winemaker in need of cash, to change people's minds. She secretly shipped 12,780 bottles of her finest to Russian czars, who loved it. Soon the rest of Europe became intrigued and Champagne was a hit. But the sweetness still wasn't for everyone. So in 1874, a champagne house called Pommery developed a drier style called brut, which now accounts for 9.5 percent of champagne consumed.
The wines are classified in terms of sweetness or dryness, depending on the amount of sugar added during the fermentation process. The sweetest, containing more than 5 percent sugar, are classified doux (they aren't very common anymore) and those with 3.3 to 5 percent sugar are called demi-sec; sec, which means "dry" but is still a little fruity, is 1.7 to 3.5 percent, and "extra dry" contains 1.2 to 2 percent. Then you get to the truly drier wines which have no added sugar, brut (less than 1.5 percent) and extra brut (no more than 0.6 percent); the term means "savage" or "rough," and supposedly it is so called because the French, who in the early days drank their Champagne sweet, thought the British rather barbarian for obligingly buying up the drier stuff.
To qualify to become champagne by the appellation of Controlled Origin, only three grape varieties grown within the Champagne region have been allowed in the production: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The blend of wines used in Champagne is called the cuvee.
Most Champagne is a chardonnay blended with pinot noir or pinot meunier; blanc de blanc champagnes are made entirely of chardonnay and are generally dry and crisp; while the intriguingly named blanc de noirs wines, the "white of the blacks," have the skins of the pinot noir grapes left in long enough to add just a blush of color and flavor.
Many houses produce what is called their prestige cuvees or têtes de cuvees (head of the class), special rare, fine blendings with prices to match. Dom Perignon, for example, is not a winery itself but the prestige cuvee of Moet et Chandon; Cristal is the star in the Louis Roederer crown; and Rene Lalou is Mumm's cuvee.
Since grapes may ripen unevenly or a hail storm can wipe out all or part of a vineyard, the chef de cave (as the winemaker is called) must blend the three different grape varietals allowed from many different vineyards in order to make quality wines each year. He then further blends the wines from several different vintages to create a consistent house style. It is the quality of these non-vintage blends that really shows the true skill of the chef de cave. Vintage Champagnes are those made in the rare exceptional harvest. Because the grapes are high quality and are all from a single vintage, the chef de cave has a fairly easy time of it.
An estimated 18,000 of the small, long-lasting bubbles can be found in every bottle of Champagne. A narrow flute or swelling tulip glass preserves both the carbonation and the fragrance longer. The ideal temperature for Champagne, between 40 and 45 degrees, can be achieved by placing the bottle in the refrigerator for three hours.
The sound of a popping Champagne cork once traditionally signaled a celebration, but today people are choosing Champagne to accompany almost any meal, celebratory or not. Because of its lively acidity it is a good match with food, especially seafood, including sushi, and anything with a cream sauce. Napoleon said it best, “In victory, you deserve champagne; in defeat, you need it.”
The Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin (33 (0) 3 26 89 54 40) cellars form an impressive maze of underground rooms with connecting tunnels. Visitors go down a long staircase into this network of chambers and tunnels, where the temperature is perfect for making the "wine of the gods." The free guided tour explains the entire Champagne making process. Incidentally, Veuve Clicuot’s success was due to Nicole Barbe Ponsardin who took over the business when her husband Francois Cliquot died in 1905. Veuve (which means "widow") Clicquot or as she came to be known, La Grande Dame de la Champagne, invented remuage, a process which rids champagne of its impurities and makes it transparent. She was also the first of her peers to realize the value of exports and made her wine the toast of the town from Vienna to London. Tours of Veuve Cliquot are by appointment only.
The cellars of Champagne Laurent Perrier ,33 9 3 26 58 91 22. This House, founded in 1812, is recognized as one of the finest in Champagne. It is owned by Bernard de Nonancourt and it is the largest family-owned House in Champagne. The Nonancourt family’s values of independence and quality guide the Laurent Perrier team, now led by Yves Dumont.
Champagne Mailly Grand Cru, 33 0 3 26 49 41 10, is one of only 17 Grand Cru vineyards in Champagne sells only what it produces itself. The House was founded in 1929 produces 450,000 bottles a year.
For true luxury and pampering, the place to stay in Reims is Les Crayères (64, boulevard Henry Vasnier, tel. 33 26 82 80 80) diagonally across the boulevard from Pommery headquarters (Louise Pommery herself built Les Crayeres in 1904). The 19th century cream-colored chateau is set in several acres of park land with 100-year-old trees and sweeping lawns. Beige marble, tapestries, and ornate chandeliers dominate the public spaces; the 19 guest suites are large and elegant with baths to match.
The Holiday Inn Garden Court, 46 Rue Buirette a Reims, 33 (9) 3 26 78 99 99 is centrally located to the Cathedral and to shopping and at a more modest price.
Getting There: American Airlines to Paris.