Terroir

Author

Jim Gore

Ex principle of WSET school London, and founding Director of The Global Wine Academy

www.globalwineacademy.com

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

CONCEPT

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. 

CLIMATE

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.

FIVE MAIN PRODUCTION SUB-REGIONS

Côte des

Blancs

Runs due south from Epernay, the name comes from the fact that it is almost exclusively devoted to the cultivation of white grapes and has 95 percent Chardonnay. The chalk content is high, providing an excellent balance between water retention and drainage. The grapes ripen slowly which provide the base wine with high levels of acidity and intense apple and citrus notes which are essential for long bottle ageing. They can be austere in their youth and need age to show their full potential. This area includes the four Grand Cru villages of Cramant, Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

Vallée de

la Marne

This valley is prone to frost and so this specific terroir is suited more to the later budding and earlier ripening Meunier variety, producing fruity ripe wines with slightly lower acidity than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, often these wines can be used to soften higher acidity and austere wines. The soil type varies from chalk and limestone to more clay, marl and sandy which also promote the fruity and softer character of the wines. 

Côte de

Sézanne

 

Mostly planted with Chardonnay this area is a continuation of the Côte des Blancs. Some chalk remains but a higher proportion of clay is found which, alongside the warmer south-east facing slopes, gives fruitier, riper grapes. These grapes can be used to soften up some more austere styles of wines to make them suitable for earlier drinking. 

Côte des

Bar

 

A vast area in the south of the Champagne region with plantings dominated with Pinot Noir. Kimmeridgian calcareous marls that are also found in nearby Chablis and Sancerre are the main soil types, these steep stony soils particularly help Pinot Noir ripen to give its fullest and ripest flavours.

Montagne de Reims

This sub-region is known for its black grapes Pinot Noir and Meunier. It is a wide, gently sloping plateau rather than the mountain the name suggests. Some of the top quality sites unusually face North where there unfortunately is a higher risk of frost. This exposure and the chalk-based soil tends to produce wines with a very high acidity that are austere in youth. Although Chardonnay is present the black varieties dominate especially in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy, Mailly, Verzenay, Ambonnay, Aÿ and Bouzy

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