Nowhere else in the world are you allowed to make a drink called champagne, though many people do, calling it “champan”, “shampanskoye” and all manner of variants. You can blend grape juice harvested from chalk-soil vineyards, double-ferment it, store the result for years at the requisite constant temperature and high humidity in sweating underground caves, turn and tilt the bottles little by little to clear the sediment, add some vintage liqueur, and finally produce a bubbling golden (or pink) liquid; but according to European law you may refer to it only as “méthode traditionnelle”. The jealously guarded monopoly helps keep the region’s sparkling wines in the luxury class, although the locals will tell you the difference comes from the squid fossils in the chalk, the lay of the land and its climate, the evolution of the grapes, the regulated pruning methods and the legally enforced quantity of juice pressed.
Three authorized grape varieties are used: chardonnay, the only white grape, grown best on the Côte des Blancs and contributing a light and elegant element; pinot noir, grown mainly on the Montagne de Reims slopes, giving body and long life; and pinot meunier, cultivated primarily in the Marne valley, adding flowery aromas.
The vineyards are owned either by maisons, who produce the grande marque champagne, or by small cultivators called vignerons, who sell the grapes to the maisons. The vignerons also make their own champagne and will happily offer you a glass and sell you a bottle at two-thirds the price of a grande marque (ask at any tourist office in the Champagne region for a list of addresses). The difference between the two comes down to capital. The maisons can afford to blend grapes from up to sixty different vineyards and to tie up their investment while their champagne matures for several years longer than the legal minimum (one year for non-vintage, three years vintage). So the wine they produce is undoubtedly superior.
If you could visit the head offices of Cartier or Dior, you’d probably find the atmosphere similar to that of the champagne maisons, whose palaces are divided between Épernay and Reims. Visits to the handful that organize regular tours are not free, and most require appointments, but don’t be put off – their staff all speak English and a generous dégustation is thrown in. Their audiovisuals and (cold) cellar tours are on the whole very informative, and do more than merely plug brand names. Local tourist offices can provide full lists of addresses and times of visits.
If you want to work on the harvest, contact any of the maisons direct or Pôle Emploi Vendanges (03 177 86 39 49)