A historic terroir
The Romans were great wine connoisseurs and expert wine growers. They knew which slopes were best suited to vine cultivation, choosing well-drained lands with good exposure to sunlight, and vines capable of withstanding the rigours of the northern climate.
Next came the bishops and the great ecclesiastical vineyard owners. The Bishop of Reims and the great abbeys of Hautvillers, Saint-Thierry, Reims – St-Remi and St-Nicaise – all owned substantial vineyards and laid the basis of the growing methods and winemaking skills.
In the Middle Ages, Champagne wines had a slightly effervescent quality due to an incomplete fermentation process that created tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide in the bottles. These were red wines, almost clear in colour (ie clairet) and already quite distinguishable: light, crisp and dry, with an unmistakeable expression of their northern origins and chalky sub-soils.
The vines at that time were planted close together (‘en foule’, literally ‘in a crowd’) and required a constant succession of seasonal tasks – starting with pruning, already regarded as the basis of successful viticulture. Hence the pruning hook that symbolizes the winegrower.
The Genius of Champagne winemaking: Blending
In the time of the monasteries, blending was an automatic part of the winemaking process. Grapes were delivered by local farmers as payment of their tithe, then pressed collectively regardless of differences in grape variety or vineyard site.
But blending became an art in the hands of such notable religious wine-makers as the monk Dom Perignon, bursar of the Abbey of Hautvilliers in Champagne. Their particular expertise lay in combining selected grapes of different origins to improve the balance of the finished wine.
Many years later, the Champagne Houses would adopt the same approach, exploiting the rich diversity of their terroir by blending wines from different grape varieties, different sites and even different vintages to produce a cuvee that was superior in quality to any one of them.
Blending made it possible to create more harmonious wines. It also opened the way to wines of a certain defined character with a consistent taste and quality – something that was quite unheard of at the time when winemakers were largely at the mercy of Nature.
The Genius of Champagne winemaking: Wines from black grapes
Traditionally, there were two main grape varieties in Champagne: Gouais, used to make the red vins de Montagne (wines of the mountain); and Fromenteau, a variety with pale pinkish gray berries, used to make the clear white vins de Rivière (wines of the river).
These limpid white wines were made from the first musts to avoid colouring the juice and already much appreciated for their natural sparkle. The 14th Century French writer Watriquet de Couvin talked of them as “clear, quivering, strong, delicate and fresh on a discerning palate”.
The 14th century also marked a change in direction as popular taste turned towards white wines with more colour and pale, light reds known as clairet wines. The most fashionable wines at the time were those from Aÿ, a cru in the Marne Valley that for a while became an umbrella designation for all the vins de Rivière. By the mid-16th century all Champagne wines had become famous and the river vineyards, in a constant quest for improvement, started production of a vin gris (grey wine) from a new, better-quality grape called Pinot Noir. Harvesting commenced half an hour after sunrise and lasted until 9-10am. The grapes were then pressed slowly so as to avoid colouring the first musts, producing a brilliant white wine with good cellaring potential.
The Genius of Champagne winemaking: Champagne wines
The breakthrough that was to prove the making of the Champagne legend was learning to master the effervescence.
It seems that the Aÿ vineyards did originally produce a traditionally fermented, sparkling wine called Tocane. Although notoriously acidic, Tocane was much in demand by 1675, encouraging an increasing number of estates to jump on the bandwagon. None of them really understood what caused the wine to sparkle, only that it became effervescent once bottled, in the time between the harvest and the following May.
For the next 50 years effervescence remained a hit-or-miss and potentially explosive process, solely reserved for acidic, blanc de blancs wines with a pronounced tendency to natural fermentation. It was not until the 1730s that winegrowers started to experiment with vin gris, noticing that it too started to sparkle if bottled in the first quarter of the March moon following the harvest.
Meanwhile, faced with the mounting cost of breakages, producers looked for ways to improve the quality of the glass and stopper. New bottles were designed that were capable of withstanding the intense pressure. Then the traditional wooden plug (‘broquelet’) was replaced by a cork that created an air-tight seal. So began a drive to improve the “prise de mousse” (literally “capturing the sparkle”) that continues to this day.