Champagne through the sub-regions
We usually look at the Champagne wine region as a unit, as the mecca of sparkling winemaking. It’s characteristics – a cooler climate and the limestone ridge that cuts through the wine region – create a unique terroir in the world and are ideal for making base wine for champagne.
Although, it isn’t much talked about, there are sub-regions within Champagne, with completely different features and styles. We gathered the most important aspects of the five sub-regions.
Vallée de la Marne
The Pinot Meunier record-holder
The 100-km long east-west stretching wine region in the Marne River Valley is the largest out of the five. Besides the two grand crus, it’s home to several premier cru villages. Among others, Hautvillers is here, which is where Dom Pérignon, who developed several aspects of making champagne, lived and worked. The trendiest areas can be found around Épernay and their value follows the proportion of limestone: the more there is, then the more valuable they are. Mareuil-sur-Ay, home to Billecart-Salmon, for example, is 7 km away.
The best Pinot Meunier vineyard in the whole of Champagne can be found in this sub-region, but regarding the size and proportion of these plots, it’s also the record-holder (with more than 60% of the area under vine). True, in terms of finesse, Meunier is still downplayed by the two superstars (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), though the lesser-known Pinot is gaining in popularity. The further west we drive in the wine region, the more the experimental spirit that can be encountered. More and more wineries are coming out with 100% Meunier champagnes, with vintage or single-vineyard versions. Maritime and continental influences both prevail in the ‘lengthy’ climate of the wine region. With its cooler climate, ripening or ‘hang time’ is longer, which favours the formation of aromas and flavours. The base material of a Valleé de la Marne is usually vibrant, youthful and fragrant. It brings freshness and dynamism to the blend.
Côte des Blancs
Limestone and Chardonnay
Côte des Blancs is possibly the most ideal sub-region of the Champagne wine region: essentially a long-stretching, east-facing hillside. The grapes can ripen perfectly in the morning sunshine, but the midday and afternoon sunshine don’t jeopardise them either on the hotter summer days – and the grapes do not become overripe. Côte des Blancs, that is the ‘white coast’, was named after its easily recognisable, limestone-rich hills. Limestone is at its most dominant here within the wine region, at times lying under a very thin layer of topsoil, and deep down in the ground it can be found almost exclusively. Its beneficial effects on the grapes: it keeps and reflects the heat, which helps the ageing of the grapes; it’s a good water diverter, thus, no serious damage can be caused by the rain, even in this wet wine region; and it also enriches the final flavours of the wines with unique mineral notes. For the latter, the most suitable grape variety in Champagne is Chardonnay. Unsurprisingly, 97% of this sub-region is planted with Chardonnay. The name Blanc de Blancs is not rare in this sub-region, which refers to a white champagne made from a white variety. Out of Champagne’s 17 grand cru villages, six can be found here, so it’s not surprising that the Chardonnay for almost all prestige cuvées comes from here.
Côte de Sézannes
Clay and Chardonnay
Although, judging by the map, this wine region might appear as the direct southern descendant of the Côte des Blancs, which is even strengthened with its Chardonnay dominance (64% of plantings), yet the similarities end here. The two wine regions are separated by a marshy area. Alongside the grand cru-filled glitter of the Côte des Blancs, the Sézannes has lower prestige, which, on the other hand, is a colourful field of play for those who seek champagne excitement (also see Côte des Bars). Due to the forests and the swampy marshland, the climate of Sézannes is wet, and there is hardly any limestone – instead it’s rich in clay. This dual effect gives the wide, full, rich character of the Chardonnay that comes from here. The grapes ripen earlier here, with rounded acidity and fuller flavours, which are a lot fruitier than its northern neighbours. After Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier is the next most planted with a 20% share, and is often the raw material of rosés.
Montagne de Reims
Grand cru, Premier cru, Pinot Noir
Champagne’s northernmost sub-region and presumably its most famous as well, as there are more grand cru villages here than in all the rest of the sub-regions put together. Furthermore, Champagne’s heart, Reims – a picturesque town full of Michelin-star restaurants and the headquarters of lots of large champagne houses – can also be found here. Among others, Veuve Clicquot and Piper-Heidsieck are located in Reims, and in the case of both, the dominant grape variety is Pinot Noir, which adds red berry fruit flavours, acidity and structure to the champagne. The soil of the Montagne de Reims is extremely diverse, but mostly limestone and clay dominate – as it does in Burgundy, Pinot Noir also enjoys the clay and marl areas in Champagne. The grape variety takes up 60% of the vineyards of Montagne de Reims.
As the northernmost part of Champagne, frost constitutes a great danger, thus plantations are almost exclusively on south-facing vineyards, so that the plantations get the highest possible amount of sunshine. Within the sub-region, the Grande Montagne de Reims, which surrounds the hill to the south of Reims, stands out. All the nine Montagne de Reims grand crus, and as many premier crus, can be found here.
Côte des Bar
The land of surprises
As the southernmost part of Champagne (it’s almost two hours from Reims by car), the Côte des Bar has a completely different profile to the other sub-regions. Although Pinot Noir is the dominant variety (86%) here as well, regarding its climate and soil structure, it’s truly distinctive. Here – similarly to Burgundy’s Chablis – the soil is made up by Kimmeridgian marl. One might rightfully raise the question of why they don’t deal with Chardonnay then. There are two answers for that: within the region, it’s the warmest place, thus it primarily favours black grapes, besides even the Romans already cultivated the predecessor of Pinot Noir around here.
Up until the 2000s, the Côte des Bar’s main focus was grape growing, and the large houses purchased the grapes from here, in order to achieve an even more complex flavour. For example, Piper-Heidsieck fuses Pinot Noir from Reims and from here. At the beginning of the 2000s, some of the local family wineries started making their own champagne. The champagnes that are made from an estate’s own grapes are called grower champagnes. Since these wineries do not have lots of reserve wines, most of the champagnes come from one vintage, single-vineyard wines are very frequent, and among some of those grape varieties that come to the forefront, such as Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier – most people don’t even know that they are permitted in the wine region.
Base wines are often given barrel ageing. One can easily encounter a single-vineyard, barrel-aged Blanc de Blancs of a perfect vintage that is made from varieties we’ve never heard about – all this in a very limited number. So, it’s understandable why places that were downplayed before are becoming more than exciting by today. What’s more, there’s even an appellation formed here from the joining of three villages that makes solely rosé champagne. Some 86% of the sub-region is covered by Pinot Noir but there are also villages that exclusively cultivate Chardonnay. The Côte des Bar has become home to surprises and pioneering thoughts within Champagne, all this stemming from sustainable vineyards and family wineries.