The traditional beverage of celebration, champagne is perhaps one of France’s most famous contributions to the world of gastronomy.
Whether it is an anniversary, a sporting victory or perhaps the sealing of an important business contracts, the consumption of champagne symbolised the event’s importance. This celebratory custom began in the 17th century when French kings were crowned in Rheims, one of the valleys that produce the beverage.
Earlier versions of champagne were quite sweet and meant to be drunk with dessert. In the 19th century however, Brut Champagne was created which enabled the beverage to be drunk as an aperitif as well as accompany a fine meal. In modern times, these rules have been dispensed with and champagne is enjoyed at any time of day or night.
The French are justifiably particular about the methods of production used for champagne and have even passed legislation regarding the location of champagne vineyards as well as the kinds of grapes that can be used. The three sanctioned grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are permitted to be grown in the Montagne de Reims, Vallée du Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côte des Bar regions only.
Pinot Noir, a black grape that produces white juice, is produced in the Montagne de Reims and Côte Bar regions. Pinot Meunier is also a black grape yielding white juice. It is much more supple than Pinot Noir and is grown in the Vallée du Marne. Chardonnay is a white grape that is grown almost exclusively on the Cote de Blancs (White Coast). This grape is often used to make other white wines and gives floral undertones and finesse to champagne.
The French Appellation (Naming) Committee is in charge of ensuring standards of food and drink are upheld. It has introduced regulations regarding the pruning and height of the vines, their space and density as well as insisting that the grapes are harvested by hand. Recently, the law has been changed to lengthen the minimum maturation period; 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage champagne.
All three varieties of grapes are slow pressed and the resulting wine is carefully mixed in order to replicate the distinct flavour and aroma that is so characteristic of champagne. Every champagne house produces a slightly different wine and a true connoisseur will be able to tell, after just a mouthful, which part of the valley the particular champagne was grown in.
The growers and producers of champagne, called Champenois, are notoriously friendly and love to tell about the history of their vineyard and explain the champagne making process. You can either be impressed by the large-scale operation of a Champagne House or visit a local grower and his family for a more personal tour.
If you’ve done the usual French wine tour before or perhaps are just looking for something a little bit different why not come on over to France and have a bit o’ bubbly!