THE NIGHT THEY INVENTED CHAMPAGNE
Champagne, the region of flatlands northeast of Paris, has been the center for what is arguably France’s best-known wine since the 17th century when the innovative monk Dom Pierre Pérignon perfected a technique for making sparkling wine.
Champagne is made from the red Pinot Noir, the black Pinot Meunier or the white Chardonnay grape. Each vine is vigorously pruned and trained to produce a small quantity of high-quality grapes. Indeed, to maintain exclusivity (and price), the amount of champagne that can be produced each year is limited to between 160-220 million bottles. Most of it consumed in France and the UK, followed by the USA, Germany, Japan and China.
Making champagne- carried out by innumerable maisons (houses)- is a long, complex process. There are two fermentation processes, the first in casks and the second after the wine has been bottled and had sugar and yeast added. The bottles are aged in cellars for between two and five years (sometimes longer), depending on the cuvée (vintage). Part of the reason Pérignon’s technique was more successful than earlier efforts was because he put his product in strong, English-made bottles and capped them with corks brought from Spain.
If the final product is labeled brut, it is extra dry, with only 1.5% sugar content. Extra-sec means very dry (but not as dry as brut), sec is dry and demi-sec slightly sweet. The sweetest champagne is labeled doux.
Unlike cognac, 95% of which is consumed outside of France, 60% of the more than 300 million bottles of champagne produced each year are popped open, sipped and savored in France itself. Large maisons with global brand recognition, many of them owned by international luxury-goods conglomerates, send a high percentage of their production to other countries, in part because profit margins are higher, but the many small producteurs continue to serve an almost exclusively domestic clientele.
The Champagne Route weaves its way among neatly tended vines covering the slopes between small villages, some with notable churches or speciality museums, some quite ordinary. All along the route, beautiful panoramas about and small-scale producteurs welcome travelers in search of bubbly; many are closed around the vendange (grape harvest) in September and into October.
If traveling to Champagne, don’t forget Lonely Planet France (published January 2007), an indispensable guide to this land of grapes and fizz. To request a review copy of this guide, please contact PressUSA@Lonelyplanet.com.