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What is Champagne?

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Ever caught yourself asking one of the BIG questions, “but hey, WHAT is Champagne”? And then started feeling anxious because nobody has ever helped you make sense of it? Don’t fret anymore, I’m here to help. So, stay with me and read on.

Champagne is both a kind of Sparkling Wine and the name of the Region where it’s made!

What is Champagne post - funny image

There. I explained it. But wait! There’s more!

Most people hear the word champagne and they will associate with the sparkling wine, and as so it is written with a small c. In French this is also the case but it also changes the gender of the word: the champagne wine is le champagne, and the region is la champagne, because wine is masculine and region is feminine in French. Funny, non?

The champagne wine was not sparkling until recent, like the late 1600s. But the region has been called champagne for a looooong time, as in Roman times. So let me start with that, and you will understand what is champagne in a heartbeat (or two).

The Champagne Region

The region Champagne is located east of Paris, 45 minutes by high speed train (the TGV), south of Picardie and the Ardennes forest, west of Lorraine and Alsace, and north of Burgundy. It was occupied by Celts when Jules Cesar invaded 2000 years ago. Geographically, it’s where the rolling hills of Paris end and starts the vast open field of white chalky soil. The Romans would call this kind of open fields campania in Latin, so the name stuck and through sound changes became Champagne. If you remove the h, the word campagne literally means countryside in French.

Position of Reims in France - What is Champagne post

The largest city is Reims (google maps link), with more or less 180.000 citizens, and oh boy, when you here French people pronouncing this name you will think “how in heck the letters sound like THAT“?! Click on this link to hear the sound. I’m picturing your face right now 😂.

Reims boasts Roman ruins, nice shops, a good number of restaurants and bars (many Michelin stars), many of the important Champagne Houses are here like Veuve-Clicquot, Mümm, Taittinger, Pommery, Lanson, Piper & Charles Heidsieck, Ruinart, Louis Roederer, Henriot, Chanoine, Jacquart, Castelnau, Charles de Cazanove, G. H. Martel, Bruno Paillard, the small Pol Couronne and soon the siege of Thienot. On top of all that we have the gothic Reims Cathedral Notre Dame, a magnificent church 800 years old, where more than 30 French kings were crowned.

Reims Cathedral Notre Dame

Photo Cyrille Beudot – Reims Tourisme

The second city of touristic importance is Épernay, with 30.000 people. This city is home to Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët, Pol Roger, Gosset, Mercier, De Castellane, De Venoge, Boizel,  André Bergère, Bourtin, Charles Ellner, Tarlant, Testulat, and more. It is located 30 km south of Reims, by the Marne river, one of the biggest rivers in France. So this is a smaller ton that feels more like countryside.

View of Champagne De Castellane from the Marne River bridge in Epernay.

Besides those two cities there are other towns like Troyes, Chalons and Château-Thierry, and then hundreds of villages from dozens of people to some hundreds of souls. Some of them are full of character, with beautiful sights for the  explorer to behold. Most of the grapes are planted around the 320 villages that make part of the regulated viticultural area.

Aerial view of a village surrounded by vineyards in Champagne.
 

Now let’s talk about the Champagne wine!

But what is champagne ??? You probably already heard that it can’t be champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region from France. This is an actual law in the European Union, and they refer to sparkling wines made in Champagne through the Champagne method using local varieties of grapes grown in the regulated areas in the region. There are many rules comprised in the Champagne method, and I’ll talk about them in a later post, so stay tuned for that.

 


Generally, the kind of champagne you find everywhere is made by big Houses like Moët and Veuve, with grapes they grow and that they buy, so they can blend and give you the same taste, or style, every year. Most champagnes are made to be light, fruity and easy to drink. Perfect for parties, after work, weddings, appetizers, New Year’s eve and the like.

 

Ripe Chardonnay grape bunch being cut off with a cutter during harvest season in Champagne.

The grapes used in Champagne are 99,9% either Pinot noir, Chardonnay or… Meunier. Yes, Meunier, a grape I’d bet you never heard about, but is pretty common here. It’s red like Pinot noir, but with smaller berries, it’s more resistant to the frost and brings notes of yellow and tropical fruits. Pinot noir is associated with red fruit notes, while Chardonnay tends to express white lowers and citrusy notes. Typically, thenceforth, champagne wines are blends of those 3 kinds of grapes, in different percentages according to each producer.

 

Stack of champagne bottles in a small producer's chalk cellar - What is Champagne post

Photo Epernay Tourisme

After some 3 years aging in the beautiful underground cellars surrounded by chalk rock, the bottles are finished and then shipped all around the globe for your pleasure. It takes a lot of time and space to make those bubbles!

 

Wrapping it up

 

Now you know what is champagne! Subscribe to receive new posts and become a champagne connaisseur.

 

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