Let’s start by talking about location, location, location. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s at the absolute extremity of feasibility for grape growing and, by the way, the crop will most likely fail on average once every three years. Yes, we’re referring to the magical ‘C’ word – that very special climactically challenged tiny corner of North Eastern France, less than an hour away from Paris, that is devoted to making one of the world’s most enduring luxury products.
Fortuitously, grapevines are hardy plants, requiring only a mean temperature of 10ºC to function, which is just as well because the average daily temperature in the vineyards in Champagne is barely 10.5ºC and prevailing weather conditions can literally change in a flash. Caught between continental and maritime influences, Champagne, from the Latin ‘Campagna’ (meaning flat farm land), is an ancient strategically located windswept region of gentle rolling hills topped with partial forests, prone to numerous meteorological dangers ranging from frost, hail, drought and downpours – yet the resilient locals all share a twinkle in their eye and a spring in their step because they know only they can produce the world’s pre-eminent sparkling wine.
La Champagne (the region, not the wine, which is ‘le champagne’) is a continuation of the English South Downs, once part of an inland sea that covered most of France until about 70 million years ago. Being as far north as vines can possibly grow pushes the vineyards’ growth cycle to the limit (ie. it takes longer to ripen grapes). Having only poor chalky or clay-based thin soils doubles the workload of the vines (ie. they have to work extra hard to burrow their roots as deeply as possible). Magically, the heady combination of all these challenges actually results in a higher sugar/acid ratio in the grapes, which later on gives subtler aromas, elegance and finesse in the wine itself. Furthermore, the vines’ deep root system and the nature of the Champenois soils offer a natural control for both vine temperature and water supply. Of course, thanks to the Romans who quarried the chalk to build the city of Reims millennia ago, there is also no shortage of cool, dark, humid cellars to age and mature the wines once made. And finally, when the wine has been sold, there has always been a ready-made national river network to assist with distribution and delivery.
Le champagne (the wine), despite recent tough financial times, is still a world class role model in brand marketing and worthwhile long-term business investment. Throughout the torrid and bloody course of Champagne’s history, there has been no shortage of miraculous twists and turns of fate. Most of all, it’s true to say that the story of champagne is a majestic tale of triumphs and tragedies and the power of the pioneering human spirit, which is probably what makes champagne so fascinating as well as delicious to so many people the world over…