More about Champagne

Champagne   The particular demands of the champagne method, which takes a number of years (three on average and many more for vintage years), requires that over a milion bottles be kept in storage at any one time. According to the CFCE (Centre Francais du Commerce Exterieur), exportation of champagne represents an important part of total French wine exports.

   Wine has been made in Champagne since at least the time of the Roman invasion. The first wines to be produced were white; laster production was of red and then 'gris' (grey), which is white or nearly-white wine that comes from pressing black grapes. At an early stage the wine had the irritating habit of fizzing up in the barrels. Systematic bottling of these unstable wines was invented in England, to where, dissolve in the wine, and sparkling wine was born. Dom Perignon, the procurator of the Abby in Hautvillers and a forward-looking blending technician, produced the best wines at his Abbey; he was also able to sell them for the highest prices.

   In 1728 the king's council authorized the transportation of wine in bottles; a year later, the first champagne house was founded: Ruinart. Others were to follow, including Moët in 1743, but the majority of the great houses were started or established in the 19th century. In 1804 Madame Clicquot launched the first rose champagne, and from 1830 the first labels to be stuck on bottles appeared. From 1860 Madame Pommery was famous for her brut wines, while around 1870 the first vintage champagne began to appear. In 1884 Raymond Abelé invented the first disgorging rack cooled with ice, before phylloxera and two world wars ravaged the vineyards. A great deal of modernization has taken place in the half century since: wooden barrels have for the most part yerlded to stainless-steel vats, fining and finishing have been automated and, nowadays, remuage or riddling – shifting the angle of the bottle to make the deposit gravitate towards the cork – is being mechanized as well. 

   A large number of wine-growers in Champagne belong to a category known as grape producers, who “sell by the kilo”. They sell all or a proportion of their harvest to the great houses, which vinify, make and sell the wines. This practice has led the champagne makers' trade association to set recommended prices for the grapes and to give each commune a classification depending of the quality of the grapes produced: this is known as the échelle des crus (scale of the crus). The wines made in winemaking communes classified on this descending scale, which first appeared at the end of the 19th century. Wines classified as 100% have the right to be called Grand Cru, those from 90% to 99% may be called Premier Cru; the normal appellation is classified between 80% and 89%. The price of grapes is set according to the percentage allocated to the commune. The maximum amount of grapes produced on each hectare is altered each year, with a maximum of 13,000 kg, while 160 kg of grapes produce more than hectolitre of must suitable for being vinified as champagne.

Read about Champagne - Part three