Wine Ark Friday Focus : Vallee de la Marne, Champagne
The Champagne region has been considered the pinnacle of sparkling wine production for centuries, imitated in wine growing regions across the globe to varied success. 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, one of which we look at today, and each 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.
So what makes Champagne so individual? Well firstly, wine labelled ‘Champagne’ can only come from the Champagne region; this was legislated in the Madrid system for the international registration of marks in 1891, and further strengthened in later legal challenges. As of 1994, even the words méthode champenoise cannot be used on a bottle of wine not made in the Champagne region. However there’s more to it than just a name- although that goes back a long way; the first people to plant vines were the Romans back in the 5th Century, who called the region Campania, which eventually became the current Champagne. One of the secrets to the wine’s individuality is the soil; almost the entire region sits on a bed of limestone chalk, which the Romans mined out for building materials, leaving huge Crayers or cellars, where the wines were stored, and where some are still stored today. The limestone soil is something you can actually taste in the wine- all Champagne has a distinctly mineral taste, kind of like licking an oyster shell, which, funnily enough is what the limestone is made of!
The Vallée de la Marne is one of the 4 sub-regions of Champagne (I’ll be focussing on each region separately in following Friday Focus emails). Bordered to the East by the city of Epernay and the famous production town of Aÿ, the Vallée follows the Marne river West on its way to Paris for 70km. It has 6 sub-zones; The Grande Vallée de la Marne which sits just North of Epernay and is based around the famous town of Aÿ, then as we move west there is Rive Droite on the north bank of the Marne, across from Rive Gauche on the south bank. Next on the slightly flatter plains out from the river is Condé en Brie, then the two zones that sit east and west of the large production town of Château Thierry, aptly named Château Thierry Est and Château Thierry Ouest.
With a planted area of 11,500 hectares La Vallée de La Marne is the largest, by some margin, of the 4 main regions in Champagne. However unlike any of the other 3 regions, 2/3 of vines in La Vallée are the Pinot Meunier grape. This is due to the high frost risk in this low-lying valley hemmed in by steep hillsides which funnels the cool air over the vines. Champagne is the most northerly wine growing region in France, so frost is a yearly risk, however it is this cold climate that gives the wines their trademark crisp freshness from the high natural acid. Pinot Meunier buds and ripens later than both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, meaning by the time the vine flowers, warmer weather is present, dispelling the cool morning air. Pinot Meunier is the workhorse of the 3 Champagne varieties, adding structure, drive and acidity. The layer of limestone this region is so famous for is deeper in the Vallée de la Marne- a top layer of clay sits over the deeper chalk, and Meunier grows well in this soil. In vineyards where the limestone is closer to the surface is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown, such as around the town of Aÿ in the subzone Grande Vallée de la Marne, do we find more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is this area where we also find some household names such as Champagne Bollinger, Pol Roger, Ayala, Brimoncourt (who may not be household just yet- we will be showcasing in our tasting next week) and Taittanger. Also found in this area is the famous town of Hautvillers, where the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon lived and is buried (next to Dom Ruinart). It was at this abbey that the monk pioneered many techniques that paved the way for modern sparkling wines such as cork closures (before this wax and oil was used), the use of red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes to make white wine and most importantly, reinforced bottles that would not explode with the higher pressure of the bubbles. Dom Perignon was originally charged, as cellarmaster of the abbey, to prevent the random explosion of bottles through secondary fermentation- he was the first one to consider keeping the bubbles and making the glass stronger- the result was Champagne as we know it today!
So we find that through geological circumstance and clergy-inspired hard work, the Vallée de la Marne is the engine room of the Champagne region, responsible for many of the breakthroughs that made the Champagne name what it is today, and growing the majority of its workhorse variety, Pinot Meunier. Its wines are marked by subtle finesse, crisp acid and refreshing minerality. There are few Grand Cru sites, and even fewer single-plot wines (although you’ll find one listed below in the Bollinger Cote Aux Enfants) like in the other regions of Champagne, however as time has shown, wines from the Vallée are some of the longest-lived Champagnes of all; they have swapped initial prettiness for longevity and class. Not a problem in our books.