French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have famously said: “Champagne! In victory, one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it” and his quotation remains relevant a few centuries later, as champagne continues to be synonym of celebrations and sought after in less joyous times.
So, where does Champagne come from? The most famous sparkling wine in the world is only such if it comes from the Champagne region in northeastern France: although its name is often “borrowed” and misused, the term Champagne is a legally protected AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée: "Controlled Designation of Origin") and can only be called so if it is produced following the strict regulations of the appellation.
It is actually redundant to say “French Champagne” as it is illegal to give this name to any other sparkling drink that is not exclusively produced from grapes grown, harvested and made into wine within the Champagne delimited region in France. According to the AOC’s regulations, not only is geography a determining factor for producing Champagne but so are the grapes used, the production method and the yielding quantities.
Some of the main criteria in the Champagne regulatory framework are: there are only three authorized grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier); the wine has to be made following the Traditional Method (Méthode Champenoise) which consists of a second alcoholic fermentation in the bottle; a minimum period of 15 months of storage for bottled wines prior to shipping; juice extraction strictly limited to 102 liters of must per 160 kilos of grapes; minimum annual required alcohol levels by volume; dedicated Champagne wine-making and storage premises; capped grape yields per hectare and short pruned vines.
The French Champagne production zone is less than two hours away from Paris, which makes it the perfect spot for a bubbly daytrip from the capital. The Champagne region covers a surface of approximately 34,000 hectares of vineyards with the cities of Epernay and Reims at its heart. Nature and history are equally present in the entirety of the area so it is easy to combine a visit to a grand maison du Champagne, lunch in a bucolic village and a relaxing walk in an enchanted-looking forest and still have plenty of time to spare before dinner! Join us as we explore the regions of Champagne…
The Champagne region is divided into four main regions and 17 sub-regions:
Montagne de Reims. Incredible rich from a touristic point of view, the Champagne region of Montagne de Reims is nestled between the namesake Regional Natural Park and an agricultural plain. Among the many interesting sights to be discovered in the area, are the UNESCO heritage sites like the imposing 13th century Cathedral of Reims -where most French kings were crowned; the Faux de Verzy, a thousand-year-old forest of twisted beech trees; the Phare de Verzenay, a 25m-high lighthouse in a sea of… vines and, of course, the maisons (“houses”) of the most famous French Champagnes in the world and their underground cellars.
Côte des Blancs. On the edges of the Brie plateau, we find the Champagne region of Côte des Blancs. Home to incredibly picturesque little villages like medieval Sézanne and Mesnil-sur-Osger, Côte des Blancs produces mostly Chardonnay, one of the three Champagne authorized grapes according to the appellation’s rules.
Vallée de la Marne. It is on this Champagne region that you can walk down the exquisite Avenue de Champagne in Epernay to admire the magnificent façades of the world’s most recognized French Champagne houses and step inside to enjoy an unforgettable tasting tour. After spending a day in Epernay, you will understand why it is commonly referred to as the ‘Capital of Champagne’. Not far from there, you can visit the quaint village of Hautvillers, home to Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk known the world-over for his important contributions to the production and quality of Champagne in the late 1600s. He is buried in the town’s abbey.
Côte des Bar. In this Champagne region, Pinot Noir is king. The idyllic landscape around Bar-sur-Seine is dotted with typical villages like Essoyes (home of painter Auguste Renoir), Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (where you can pay your respects at General de Gaulle’s graveside) and Troyes, with its majestic private mansions, half-timbered houses and winding streets. The verdant countryside with its mosaic of geometric parcels of vines and the famous cadoles (traditional vineyard worker’s stone huts) complete the awe-inspiring picture.
It is often said that “from humble beginnings come great things” and so is the case of Champagne. Although it is associated with glamour and luxury (as it should be), we shouldn’t forget that it starts its life in a rural, beautifully green region in France, surrounded by nature and vines. A place definitely worth visiting during a wine trip to the country and guaranteed to surprise you. Just like F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”