Wine from Champagne becomes popular at the French and the English court during the XVII. Century. At this time the wines are without any bubbles and sometimes red.
Rather light and poorly structured, their storage in oak barrels doesn’t always work out as desired. A major dilemma for the wine growers. Fortunately, the British diplomat Sir Kenelm Digby invents the wine glass bottle in 1632. A great relief for the winemakers, who trust cork sealed glass bottles for wine storage rather than unreliable oak barrels from now on. Furthermore, early bottling of the wines has the advantage that freshness and flavours are well preserved. But there are also disadvantages. The wines tend to finish fermentation of residual sugars in the spring. This liberates carbon-dioxide in the bottles and the still wines mute to sparkling. At least as long as the cork resists to the rising pressure the bottles will not explode. Due to this “suicidal tendencies” the wines acquire the title of “the Devil’s wine” amongst producers. But the English love those new wines! That much, they bring it over to England in barrels, just to re-ferment it in bottles. They even add in sugar to get more “bubbles”. Thus, we might admit, that English wine-lovers lay the foundation for a second fermentation, still used in modern “Méthode Champenoise” (with a little more expertise than 400 years ago of course).
It was the famous monk from Hautvilliers Dom Pérignon (1638 - 1715) himself, who began to organise the manufacturing process of sparkling wines, bringing home some ideas he got on a pilgrimage to Limoux in southern France, where the still famous “Blanquette de Limoux” was already made for quite some time. For instance, he generalizes the use of “assemblage” in Champagne (assemblage = blending different grapes, origins or even vintages. In France, the latter is only allowed for Champagne!). He also orders pressure-resistant bottles made of thicker glass and fixes the cork during secondary fermentation with a string of hemp. Despite all this, it takes another two centuries, before Louis Pasteur reveals the mystery fermentation and to improve the process of making Champagne…
Nowadays, Champagne mainly uses three varieties to make its wines: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The wines are blends for a large part: Different varieties, different terroirs, several vintages. Of course varietal champagne also exists (the famous “blanc de blancs” for example, only made from Chardonnay), as well as vintage Champagne, made from grapes exclusively picked in a specific year (about 10% of total production).
Geographically, we distinguish 4 terroirs, which may all produce Champagne:
The “Montagne de Reims” with its chalky subsoil and Pinot Noir planted as the main grape variety.
The “Vallée de la Marne”, whose soils of limestone, clay and marl (“marnes” in French) are planted mainly with Pinot meunier.
The “Côtes des Blancs” south of Epernay, whose chalky soils point out the excellence of Chardonnay grapes.
The “Côte des Bar”, situated in the more southern department “Aube”, with its marly soils and Pinot noir vines.