Ex principle of WSET school London, and founding Director of The Global Wine Academy
Climate, soil type and topography provide unique conditions for the growing of the three main varieties that allows for a multitude of blending and style options. The different terroirs within Champagne enable winemakers to maintain high levels of refreshing acidity combined with pure, vibrant and concentrated flavours expected in Champagne. It is the unique topography of the region, the exposure and angle of the hillsides deliver sunlight and heat that allow grapes growing in a cool climate to develop sufficient concentration in order to develop in bottle for years. In other wine regions it is possible to leave the grapes on the vine for longer in order to achieve ripeness and intensity, in Champagne the terroir arguably plays more important role in achieving the perfect result.
Terroir is a term that is used often but is widely misunderstood. Terroir describes the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the climate, soil and topography (the shape of the land). We may never completely understand why different grape varieties consistently ripen and grow in different ways across the Champagne region but luckily there are significant elements that we do know well.
The main varieties in Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier) are each better suited to different terroirs within the Champagne region.
Terroir that is good for one grape may not be good for another, to coax out their best attributes you often require different natural factors.
However, varieties can thrive in a multitude of terroirs, and there is a degree of subjectivity about which combination of variety and terroir is best.
A key technique for understanding the suitability of a terroir is to ask ‘what is the grape-grower trying to achieve?’ For example, are they looking for high sugar levels, ripeness, or a high tannin level? Are they looking for grapes with some softer and fruiter character to them or some incredibly high acidity and elegance to provide the backbone for a wine that will age gracefully for years? A perfect terroir for producing a red Pinot Noir such as Gevrey Chambertin is completely at odds with the terroir needed for a sparkling white Pinot Noir blend from Champagne.
Cool climates like Champagne, where grapes struggle to ripen, are perfect for sparkling wines. The grapes are just-ripe in flavour and display much more of the apple and citrus notes compared to those grown in warmer climates.
They retain the high and refreshing acidity needed for high-quality sparkling wines. The grapes ripen slowly with quite low sugar levels compared to the rest of France. The alcohol levels rest at around 9-11 per cent in the base wine.
This might sound like a failure but this is exactly what is required for a wine that will then go through a second fermentation that produces an additional 1–2% abv.
TOPOGRAPHY & SOILS
A thick layer of seabed chalk and limestone provides the main soil-type of northern hillsides of Champagne where the growing of high-quality grapes suitable to make base wines. High chalk content is recognised to be particularly important in the production of powerful and elegant Chardonnay. The white chalk reflects the light back onto the vine and allows the vine and grapes to gain that extra sunshine they need in this cool climate. The chalk is often linked to a higher acidity level and a fresher more citrus and apple character in the wines.
Chalk stores water easily as it is highly porous and so dry spells in the summer which happen annually are mitigated by this steady supply of water. Most vineyards are on rolling hills from 90–300 m above sea level. These gentle slopes in combination with the chalk and limestone allow the soils to drain well to avoid water logging which would be negative for vine health.