Champagne Road Trip: A Region Like No Other
There is no wine region in France, or perhaps anywhere, like Champagne. The name conjures up a glass of elegance, festivity, and romance. It’s a wine that launches ships and celebrates milestones…but the region itself has a gritty history that few fully understand.
As one of the oldest wine regions in the world, Champagne has experienced millennia of highs and lows. It’s a region of both glamor and strife…a hub of commerce as well as the site for some of the world’s bloodiest battles. (Its most famous city has been ruined and rebuilt more than 20 times.)
It’s no secret Americans love Champagne. Last year the region shipped more than 34 million bottles to the U.S. – a 63.9 percent increase from 2020. Yet few Americans appreciate the emotional and historic ties we have to this region.
In our American in Champagne tour, we will attempt to unpack the region’s complexity and intrigue, exploring the famous slopes, churches, cellars and notable figures that have shaped its esteemed reputation.
Located in northeastern France, Champagne is a 40-minute train ride from Paris (2 hours by car). We’ll be traveling the Champagne Trail, going to four of the main sub-regions in this trip: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côte des Bar. We’ll also highlight the famous cities of Épernay and Reims, the former known as the unofficial capital of Champagne and the latter as the place where kings were crowned.
To orient ourselves, let’s begin with a historic overview…
Vines were first planted in Champagne by the Romans in the 4th century. The first wines were not sparkling.
The wine style that we know today, with a controlled second fermentation, was developed by the late 17th century.
You could say it’s a wine worth fighting for. Battles have been happening nearly as long as grapes have been planted in the region. In 1088, when Champagne was a patchwork of fiefdoms, medieval soldiers fought over allegiances to King Philip I, the Duke of Burgundy, and the emperor of Germany.
The constant warring and upheaval led the Church to decree a “Truce of God ” upon the region, which made fighting during religious festivals, Holy Days and Sundays illegal. But the weekends’ truce idea only worked temporarily.
Ironically, the Crusades relieved tensions among fiefdoms by calling the soldiers to Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land.
With the calm that followed, Champagne became a hub of commerce activity with fairs and trade from Italy, Spain, and other areas. Its fortunate geographic location at the crossroads of Europe’s trade routes meant exotic goods and delicacies flooded into the region. Wine, however, was not offered to the visiting merchants. That would come later. At that time, there was precious little to be had — even for the locals.
Nearly 800 years later, in the 20th century, Americans and the French forged a unique bond in Champagne. The World War I Chateau-Thierry American Monument commemorates the violent battle there in 1918, showing France and America hand-in-hand in battle. Less than two hours east, the Sommepy American Monument honors the more than 70,000 Americans who served in the region during WWI. In between the two sites in Reims is 10 Rue du Président Franklin Roosevelt, a small schoolhouse where Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945.
It can be natural to view this singular AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as an overall one-size fits all but that would be a mistake. There are unique and sometimes extreme differences between the 4 subregions of Champagne and how they express themselves in their style.
The three main grape varieties of Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. Pinot Noir represents 38% of plantings, Chardonnay 30% and Meunier 32% of plantings.
Chardonnay: Vigorous early ripening variety, provides white floral and citrus aromas and a fresh palate
Pinot noir: Early variety, provides body, red berry and floral aromas of rose and violet
Meunier : Vigorous and late-ripening variety, provides smoothness and yellow fruit aromas + roundness on the palate.
On this road trip, we will visit the four main sub-regions and see how climate and soils affect the successful outcomes of these varieties, and how they contribute to the world-famous sparkling wine.
An important concept in Champagne is that it is tradition to use blending in winemaking: blends of vintages, blends of grape varieties, blends of villages.
The production area has 319 villages (crus, communes) spread across 4 sub-regions:
- Montagne de Reims,
- Côte des Blancs
- Vallée de la Marne
- Côte des Bars
The vineyard has close to 280,000 plots, with an average area of 1,200m2.
Although the classification of Champagne vineyards was abandoned almost 20 years ago, the scale is still mentioned by some Growers and Houses. Historically, 17 villages enjoyed Grand Cru status, while 42 villages had Premier Cru standing.
Wine styles in Champagne are defined by the level of sweetness, from Brut Nature to Doux, and by the description of the blend – Non-Vintage, Vintage, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and Rosé.
- It can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France – everything else is just sparkling wine.
- In 2015, the hillsides, houses, and cellars of Champagne were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its outstanding universal value.
● Each year 120,000 vineyard workers descend upon Champagne to hand-pick the grapes
during the three-week harvest.
● Champagne is the coldest grape growing region in all of France.
● There are approximately 49,000,000 bubbles in a standard bottle of Champagne.
While we are excited to get out into the vineyards, you can’t fully appreciate Champagne without visiting the region’s two most important cities: Reims and Épernay.
We begin our journey in the picturesque city of Reims to get a feeling for the soul of this vibrant region. Reims’ fame comes from the High Gothic architecture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, which was France’s coronation site from the 1200s to the 1800s. All told, 25 Kings of France were crowned here, including Charles VII in 1429 in the presence of Joan of Arc. In 1991, the cathedral was designated as a UNESCO site.
Reims is also famous for its Reims ham. Nutmeg, parsley and shallots are added to the ham then cooked in stock and coated with seasoned yellow breadcrumbs. Another local treat is the Pink Biscuit de Reims, created in the 1690s. These delicate twice-baked treats are perfect for dipping into Champagne!
Twenty-five minutes from Reims is the township of Épernay, home to perhaps the single most expensive avenue in the world: L’Avenue de Champagne. The caves beneath this famed street hold millions of bottles of Champagne and are over 62 miles long!
As the hub of many famous houses in Champagne, you can stroll along L’Avenue stopping and tasting wines from many of the region’s iconic producers.. Much of the opulent architecture of these residences dates back to the 17th century, the advent of modern day Champagne.
MONTAGNE DE REIMS
In between the two cities is Montagne de Reims – the most diverse area of grape variety plantings. The elevation is around 600 feet, a far cry from ‘mountain’ status. It’s more of a plateau with hills and valleys that surround Reims.
The forested landscape is home to vineyards and small villages with a green corridor that runs alongside the Canal de l’Aisne to the Marne River. Its unique microclimate and soil — a combination of chalk, clay, limestone and sand — produces Pinot Noir with a firm structure. However all three main grape varieties in Champagne thrive here.
Montagne de Reims has a particular soil ingredient, lignite or “cendres noires,” which is compressed peat and clay. This so-called ‘magic ingredient’ helps hold critical nutrients in the soil, preventing diseases such as chlorosis (leaf-yellowing).
We will focus on the Grande Montagne de Reims area, which arcs around the southeastern portion of the Montagne de Reims hill. Pinot Noir dominates the area with almost half the plantings (41%) with Meunier coming in a close second (35%). Chardonnay represents 24% of plantings.
As tempting as it is to schedule as many tastings as possible, you must break for lunch in either Reims or Épernay at one of their many Michelin Guide restaurants. Dine on smoked duck breast, salads with Reims jambon, and end with a macaron made of Reims pink biscuits.
● Joan of Arc was present for (and somewhat responsible) for the crowning of King Charles VII – a statue of her is in Reims.
● Montagne de Reims is the site of the world’s ONLY preserve of dwarf beech trees, a rare specimen, locally known as ‘Faux de Verzy’. Scientists do not yet understand why they grow in their unique shape.
● The caves underneath the street hold millions of bottles of Champagne and are over 62 miles long!
● Épernay has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 20 times
Next we head to Côte des Blancs, the coolest growing area in Champagne and the heart of the region. If Chardonnay ever was to be happiest, it is here on the famed chalk-encrusted ridge, an area known for its crystalline finesse. (Chardonnay represents 85% of the vineyards; Pinot Noir only 7%).
The eastern exposure gifts the ground with early sunshine and warmth. Since Chardonnay is an early bloomer it needs that warmth to kick start pollination. Plantings are low to mid-slope to take advantage of the soils and warmth.
While Chardonnay thrives in the chalk soils, Pinot Noir can suffer. The high calcium and alkaline content cause a reaction in the soil that pulls back iron and magnesium, which is needed for photosynthesis. This lack of nutrients can create chlorosis (leaf yellowing), to which Pinot Noir is highly susceptible.
While many consider Côte des Blancs “Chardonnay country”, there is one area that defies that. Along the banks of the Petit Morin River – which divides Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne – red varieties dominate thanks to clay and alluvial soils joining the chalk.
There are five subregions of Côte des Blancs, each with notable characteristics.
- Côte des Blancs: heart and soul of the region
- Val du Petit Morin: the red grape outlier
- Côte de Sézanne: more aromatic and tropical with less acidity.
- Vitryat: a weightier wine with citrus and exotic fruits. Note: has a longer history than Côte des Blancs, dating back to the mid-1700s.
- Montgueux: known for its tropical notes
As a southern extension of Côte des Blancs, grapes ripen somewhat earlier. Soil is a mix of mostly clay and less chalk, resulting in a style that is fruitier, yet less elegant. Often these grapes are utilized by other Houses as part of their non-vintage blends.
While you’re in the area, you must pair your Champagne with a fresh, creamy cheese.
● Chardonnay from this area commands the highest prices per kilo.
● Côte des Blancs is a relative late-comer to the Champagne region, having only been planted since the mid-19th century.
Vallée de la Marne is often referred to as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims.
A notable feature is the River Marne, which runs west and bisects the region. If you hopped in a boat in the far western part of the valley, you’d notice vineyards dominated by Meunier thanks to a soil structure of cold, clay and sandy-based riverbank soils.
Meunier is successful here because of its late budding and early ripening, which allows it to be grown in the frost-prone valley along the River Marne. The style reflected here is a powerful one from the structured Meunier.
Your first thought might be to call this area Meunier Country. But we have to caution ourselves not to paint Champagne – or Vallée de la Marne – with a single brushstroke.
As you enter the eastern part of the valley, the river widens near the city of Épernay and forks. If we fork to the north, we head into the Grande Vallée, where the terroir becomes more Pinot Noir dominant.
Some consider this area the best Pinot Noir by grace of the south-facing slopes in the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
Had we turned south, we would have noticed chalky soils and more Chardonnay dominant plantings as we neared Côte des Blancs.
There are six smaller sub-regions here, and all but the Grande Vallée de la Marne are primarily Meunier:
- Grande Vallée de la Marne: Pinot Noir reigns here
- Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite: the right, or north, bank of the River Marne
- Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche: the left, or south, bank of the River Marne
- Coteaux Sud d’épernay: Meunier and Chardonnay about 50/50 in plantings
- Vallée de la Marne Ouest: western area of the valley
Other delicacies not to miss are the region’s gourmet honey and cabbage dishes.
● Americans often confuse Vallée de la Marne in Champagne with Marne-la-Vallée, a city near Paris where Disneyland is located. Read your maps carefully!
● The Vallée de la Marne is the only zone with a vine method named after the region. The method is similar to Guyot and is only allowed for Meunier
Last but certainly not least, we head to Côte des Bar. Driving the two hours southeast from Reims or Épernay, you’ll notice the landscape changes quickly.
We are now in the Aube (the most southern region of Champagne) and the vineyards are nothing like the dense plantings of Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, or Côte des Blancs. Instead, vineyards are randomly set in between and alongside farms, streams, and forested areas.
Cotes de Bar takes its name from “bar” meaning summit in Celtic – referring to the steep reliefs carved by the various streams and rivers that crisscross the landscapes and run along the Langres plateau.
This area makes up about 25% of the region and has a different personality than other areas of Champagne.
You could say the region is a bit of a late bloomer. The move to producing wine in Côte des Bar started at the end of the 19th Century. Prior to that, it was considered a “grower” area.
Today, Pinot Noir is the primary grape of the Côte des Bar. Chardonnay makes up 10% of plantings and Meunier 4%. This is attributed to the warmer climate in the Aube, which ensures ripening of Pinot Noir and leads to riper, fruit-driven styles.
Be sure to enjoy a wine and cheese pairing with, a local cheese made from cow’s milk. You must also try Andouillette, an aromatic sausage.
● Côte des Bar officially gained its classification as a Champagne region in 1927.
● The region is the largest location in all of Champagne for historical, heritage grape varieties, like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbanne.
● Côte des Bar is the warmest area in Champagne.