Champagne is the region 90 miles north east of Paris that is the only region in the world that can make a wine labelled Champagne.
The region’s chalky soils are well documented and the main Champagne region is split in half by the river Marne. Most Champagne comes from one of three regions; the Marne Valley, which is home of the grape variety Pinot Meunier, the Côtes de Blancs, which is considered perfect conditions for Chardonnay, and the Montagne de Reims, which is where Pinot Noir thrives.
The city of Reims is home to a number of well-known champagne houses, and is the commercial centre of Champagne. Half an hour’s drive south of Reims, on the other side of the Montagne de Reims, is Epernay, a town that’s rich in famous Champagne names and which is considered to be the heart of Champagne.
Although a large proportion of Champagne comes from three regions, the region extends further south too, into the Côte de Sézanne and much further south again, in an isolated patch called Côte des Bar.
Much work has taken place in recent years to amend the boundaries of Champagne, partly to make its boundaries the most appropriate according to conditions, and partly to maximise its output, as until the global recession took hold back in 2008, Champagne consumption was rising at a rate of knots (and after an inevitable consumption blip, is now back on the rise again).
Champagne is mostly known through a small collection of brand names, many of which are labelled grandes marques, the remainder can come from co-operatives or those which are termed ‘growers’, effectively grape growers who make a Champagne on a comparatively small scale, as well as growing the grapes (which many used to, and still do, sell on to bigger Champagne houses).
No matter what size the producer, all Champagne houses will have one thing in common, they will have a house style, and this is usually showcased in the house’s most basic (cheapest) wine – the Brut NV, which is blended year after year to achieve a consistent house style.
The trend for Champagne has been to make it drier over the last few decades, something which has been epitomised by the introduction of the ultra-dry zero dosage Champagnes. While house styles vary hugely in Champagne, the most common styles are Brut, Rosé (where red wine can be added to make it pink), Blanc de Blancs (only white grapes used), Blanc de Noirs (only red grapes used), Vintage, some form of semi-sweet Champagne and then, of course, the prestige Cuvées which give a house prestige and occasionally command some eye-watering prices.