Terroir - a somewhat ambiguous term but generally should be taken as describing the entirety of a natural environment in which the object is growing. So in our case it’s the climate, soil and geography of the Champagne region and our favourite grapes that grow in it.
To give some context into how seriously terroir is taken, Champagne has a history of vine-growing that dates back to the dawn of Christianity and has had the technical boundaries of Champagne and its vineyards defined by France’s appellation system since 1927. Each country has a different way of labelling it’s protected and designated areas, in France they are called Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC. This regulation is designed to preserve and protect Champagne’s region, terroirs and the quality of champagne making.
Despite Champagne’s world-famous wines, it’s terroir, the heart of the region, remains little known. Because of the importance that terroir has on the finished bottle of champagne and the tasting experience, we wanted to should dig a little deeper and share a bit more on why it is so important.
We’ll start with some Geography...
Champagne is divided up into 4 ‘grandes régions’:
- The Montagne de Reims.
- The Côte des Blancs (and the Côte de Sézanne)
- The Vallée de la Marne
- The Côte des Bar
Each of these regions is subdivided into villages and each of these contain a mosaic of micro-vineyards (also called plots) each one bringing together a unique combination of climate, soil and topography. Making the most of this diversity is Champagne’s 15,000-strong team of highly skilled winegrowers.
Now for the weather...
The vineyards in Champagne are exposed to dual climate; the oceanic influence brings steady rainfall during the year with cool summers and mild winters with temperatures averaging around 11 degrees throughout. With that, continental factors ensure ideal levels of sunshine in the summer but then bring potential damaging frost in the winter and spring. All harsh weather conditions for the gentle vine.
To give the vines a fighting chance, they are planted on hillsides. These provide excellent drainage (when raining) and excellent exposure to sunlight, setting them up with the best cross section of conditions for making great champagne.
But how is drainage AND appropriate soil conditions achieved?
Now we get onto the defining characteristic of the region’s terroir. Champagne’s subsoil is predominantly limestone and in particular, chalk.
Chalk soil is a perfect foundation on which to grow the particular grapes used to produce Champagne. It has an excellent water retention capacity, enabling wine to enjoy a regular water supply but not an inundation when combined with those sloping hillsides as mentioned above.
These subtle nuances have guided the selection of grape varieties favoured in the region, with only those best suited to this kind of environment being retained. What you may not know is that there are 7 authorised varieties of grapes can be used when producing champagne:
The most valued players: Pinot Noir, Meunier, Chardonnay
- 99 % of champagnes are produced using these three grape varieties.
The underdogs: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier
- Just 1% of champagne produced contains these varieties.
As you can see, a lot of things come together to build the foundations for a champagne grape growing environment. That’s before we’ve even got to the actual nurturing, growing, tending, harvesting and the age age-old expertise of the champagne producers (fear not, we will get to these too).
To summarise on terroir; with Champagne’s northern location, rugged climate, distinctive soil type and hillside vineyards, the Champagne terroir is one of a kind. It’s as original as the wine it produces.