Montagne de Reims, Champagne

The Champagne region has been considered the pinnacle of sparkling wine production for centuries, imitated in wine growing regions across the globe with varied success. Whilst imitation of French wine is nothing new, I believe that Champagne is the truest example of a product that is head and shoulders above its replications; it is heavily imitated, but ultimately inimitable- something set as global law in 1994 when all other sparkling wines not originating in the Champagne region became unable to use this name on their labels. Champagne is synonymous with celebration, summarized exceptionally by Napoleone Boneparte “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.” However a lot of people don’t understand that there is much more to Champagne than bubbly wine- the region is split into 4 sub-regions, the first, Vallée de la Marne we looked at a few months ago, and today we dig deeper into the Montagne de Reims. Each region has several sub-zones which usually surround villages, just like in Burgundy, and similarly, each village has its own style and flavour profile, which can be shown individually (as in Champagne Krug’s single vineyard masterpiece ‘Clos de Mesnil’) or blended to add complexity to the final wine.

The Montagne de Reims is located in the most northern part of the Champagne AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée- the controlled region of origin, with strictly adhered-to laws that ensure quality and consistency of style), and is arguably the most famous of the 4 sub-regions due to three factors. First, it is where the ‘Heart’ of Champagne, Reims, resides. Secondly, it has more Grand Cru sites than any of the other 3 regions in the Champagne region, which leads to factor 3; it produces absolutely amazing wines! Geographically, the region traverses the mountain of Reims, which undulates south from the northern-most town the mountain is named for and the more southerly capital of the Vallée de la Marne region, Epernay. Both these towns have great significance to the region, being the tourism hubs of the Champagne appellation. Many of the globally-recognised Champagne houses have set up in these towns to make it easier for visitors to stop by (after an appointment is made of course!) and try some wines. These towns also have a bustling gastronomic scene to further entertain visitors, including 2 Michelin star Restaurant ‘Les Crayers’- well worth a visit if you’re near the town of Reims. The vines in the Montagne de Reims, being the most northerly section of Champagne, sit almost exclusively on south-facing slopes, which is done to avoid the morning frost which effects the base of the mountain severely, as well as exposing the vines to a full day of sunlight to encourage as much ripening as possible.

Reims sits on the peaks of a mountain of chalk, which centuries ago the Romans mined to build their cities. What was left was huge empty limestone pits (known as Crayers) with 60-70% humidity and a constant, cool temperature of 14 degrees; perfect cellaring conditions for the slow, careful ageing of wine. Many of the larger wineries setup in Reims to store and age their wines, softening the cold-climate harsh, biting acid with time on lees, developing creamy flavours, as well as the all-important bubbles! For example, in Reims, one can find the cellars of Louis Roederer, Ruinart, Veuve Cliquot, Krug, Taittinger and Mumm. Epernay on the other hand, sits it the base of the mountain along the river trading route, meaning many houses have setup here as well; along the ‘Avenue de Champagne’ for example, one can find the houses of Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger and behemoth Moët & Chandon- keep in mind this is just to name a few of course!

3km north of Epernay sits a very important piece of the region’s history; within the tiny, unassuming village of Hautvilliers, sits an abbey, where the now-famous monk Dom Pierre Perignon spent his life. As the story goes, Dom Perignon (along with his lesser-known ecclesiastical colleague Dom Ruinart, after whom Champagne Ruinart is named) discovered the secret of safely putting bubbles in wine, paving the way for modern-day Champagne. This was not a simple exercise however, and several processes were required before the final sparkling wine could be produced safely; first was the use of blending- both grape varieties and vintages, to balance out and soften the acid of the region’s wines. He also used the blending process to get the bubbles into the wine; he would mix one vintage’s finished wine with sweet unfermented wine from the following vintage, which would then kick off secondary fermentation the following spring, with bubbles as the result. Next was the use of gentle presses to obtain clear juice from red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, as the tannins were too astringent if left in the final wine. The final step, and in my opinion one of the most crucial and overlooked, was the use of corks to seal the bottles. Reims sits on a now-defunct trade route between Spain and Germany, and when a Spanish merchant stopped at the alley selling pliable, breathable cork, Dom Perignon had the brilliant idea of using this instead of the traditional method of sealing bottles used at the time, which was using wood chips and a layer of sealing wax, which would explode out of all bottles that underwent secondary fermentation. This of course became the most common method of sealing wine bottles all across Europe not long after, however few people realise it was here in the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne, in the tiny abbey of Hautvilliers that it was first used. It is also interesting to note that all this was done in the year 1670. At this time, nobody understood why wines fermented, or how bubbles were placed in the sealed wine bottle – it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough Germ Theorum in 1857 that fermentation, both primary and secondary, was attributed to tiny, invisible yeast cells. Dom Perignon’s work was not only ahead of its time, but would most likely be seen as some sort of magic at the time!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager