Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Champagne wine region: Terroir and viticulture

Almost like no other, the word Champagne resonates with both the drinker and non-drinker; with the casual drinker and the celebrant; and, especially, with lovers of the finest vintage cuvées of the Champagne Houses, produced, as they are, in only high-quality years.  Champagne is the foremost sparkling wine in the world and has come to be, moreover, one of the defining markers of luxury.  Sparkling wines are made the world over but only sparkling wines made from grapes grown in legally defined areas in Champagne, and constructed using the rigidly defined methodé champenoise, can be called Champagne.  I will explore the path taken to construct this temple of luxury and pleasure beginning with this post on the terroir and viticulture of its home region.

Champagne (translates to "open countryside") is located 160 kilometers east of Paris and, at 49º N latitude, its northern portions are at the northern edge of the world's wine-growing regions.


The formulation of the Champagne region was a two-step process beginning with a 1908 decree delimiting the area within which the wine could be produced and culminating with a 1927 law which specified: the limits of the wine-growing region; grape cultivation, pruning and harvesting; and the fermentation method in the bottle.

Located as far north as it is, Champagne has the lowest average temperature of any French wine-growing region and, consequently, grapes do not ripen adequately over the course of a growing season.  The northernmost outposts of the region are about 290 kilometers from the English Channel and are subject to oceanic influences.  These areas experience regular rainfall but very little variation in temperature from season to season.  As the traveler journeys south, however, continental climatic influences come into play to include: winter and spring frosts; summer sunshine coupled with violent thunderstorms; cold, wet weather in June; and hailstorms.  Mean rainfall in the region is 700 mm.

The soil in Champagne is composed of massive chalk deposits interspersed with rocky outcroppings and covered with a thin layer of topsoil.  The chalk deposits in Champagne are finer-grained and more porous than other French limestone soils -- and have extremely high concentrations of the mineral marls Belemnite (younger and found higher up on the growing slopes) and Micraster (older and located on the valley floors) -- while the rocky outcroppings are 75% limestone plus chalk and marl.  Chalk has excellent drainage as well as water-retention properties in that its micro-pores can absorb water during wet periods and slowly release it during drier periods.  In addition chalk will also reflect sunlight and heat thus aiding in the ripening of the grapes (Click here for a fuller description of Champagne's soils).

There are 34,00 hectares of vineyards in Champagne, 3.4% of France's vineyard total.  The Champagne vineyards are worked by 15,000 growers (an average of 2 ha per grower), 150 cooperatives, and 300 Champagne Houses.  Growers own 90% of the vineyards but sell most of their production to Champagne Houses.  The Champagne Houses own 10% of the vineyards but account for 69% of Champagne shipments (champagne.fr).

Champagne's vineyards extend over 5 districts (shown in the map below) and 319 villages.  The districts are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Bar, and Aube.  Montagne de Reims is a forested plateau south of Reims that is known for rich, full-bodied Champagnes and the dominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Vallée de la Marne has Epernay at its center as it hugs the banks of the River Marne.  The soil here is comprised of a limestone topsoil overlaying layers of Belemnite and Micraster chalk.  Chardonnay is dominant here as it is in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Bar.  The soil in the Côte de Bar is Portlandian cap rock overlaying Kimmeridgian soil, a geologic profile that is much closer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne.

Source: champagne.fr

The best Champagne vineyards are planted on slopes at elevations falling between 90 and 200 meters.  Such locations situate the vineyard high enough to be clear of the frost and low enough to avoid extreme weather.  This siting also places these vineyards smack dab in the middle of the Belemnite formations that are slope-located.  The vineyards are predominantly located on south-, east-, and southeast-facing slopes which average 12% but can be as high as 60% in areas.

Unlike the Burgundy wine region, the Grand/Premier Cru designation for a vineyard is not necessarily an indication of a vineyard's quality.  Rather, the designation -- Échelle des crus (ladder of growths) -- is an index of price based on the quality of grapes from classified vineyards.  Grapes from Deuxieme Cru vineyards can be assigned scores of between 80% and 89%, grapes from Premier Cru vineyards can be assigned scores between 90% and 99%, while Grand Cru grapes are assigned scores of 100%. As formulated, the score that a grape-lot is assigned within a specific season is an indication of the price that the Champagne House is willing to pay in relation to the pricing for Grand Cru grapes in the season.  The Champagne vineyards with Grand Cru designation are shown in the table below.


The allowed vineyard pruning methods are specified in the Champagne AOC requirements.  The allowed methods, along with their characteristics, are presented in the table below.


Source: Compiled from Michael Edwards, The Finest Wines of Champagne (University of CA Press) and champagnegallery.com.au

The dominant grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.  After many years of testing, these grapes have been shown to best provide the needed inputs for quality Champagne: (i) a good balance of sugar and acid; (ii) rich, subtle taste, and (iii) an affinity for bubbles.  In addition to these three, Champagne can also include Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Arbane.  These are rarely used and only in small quantities.

My next post on Champagne will cover viniculture and maturation.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

4 comments:

  1. I started my own blog on champagne a few months ago and I'm learning so much. This is a really great overview of the terroir. Thanks! www.fortheloveofchampagne.blogspot.com

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    Replies
    1. I checked out your blog and you are drinking some high-quality Champagne. Please keep checking back as I expect to continue the coverage of Cjhampagne over the next two or three posts.

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  2. Champagne had been the open secret for me until I read your article

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