The Five Regions of Champagne
There is only a single AOC for sparkling wine in the Champagne area of France, the Champagne AOC. However, there are five sub-regions, production areas or “districts”, each with distinct viticultural characteristics. It should be noted that not all the vineyards located in the Champagne AOC are contained in these five districts.
Each of the five districts are often strongly associated with one grape, however, the soils and aspects of each district is not uniform, so there are pockets of the three main grape varieties in each district.
Montagne de Reims
The Montagne boasts more grand cru villages than the other four districts. Nine of the seventeen grand cru level villages of the Echelle des Crus can be found within its borders. This district is primarily known for black grapes, with Pinot Noir accounting for forty percent (40%) of its plantings and Pinot Meunier for thirty-six percent (36%). The best-known grand cru villages are Ambonnay, Bouzy, Mailly, Verzenay, and Verzy.
The area is shaped roughly as the letter “U” lying on its side with the opening pointing westward. It runs from just southwest of Reims to just east of Epernay. Soil type, aspect and exposures vary across the region, although the grand crus are mostly situated on chalky bedrock. It can be roughly divided into a northern and southern “montagne”, which is really more plateau than mountain. The soils lie on a deep bed of chalk.
The vineyards of the northern section of the montagne sometimes have an unusual aspect, as in they face in a northerly direction. The grapes are still able to ripen because the chilled night air moves down to the plain, being replaced by a convection of warmer air from above that builds up during the day.
According to the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling wine, the northern montagne produces “more structured, linear and fresh wine than those of the southern montagne”, while in the villages of Ambonnay and Bouzy, the wines have “even more depth, power, and extract”.
Vallee de la Marne
Pinot Meunier is the king of the grapes in the Vallee de la Marne production zone, accounting for sixty-two percent (62%) of the plantings. The grape is more successful than others in this area because of its late budding and early ripening, and thus able to be cultivated in the frost-prone valley vineyards which line the river Marne. The zone starts just east of Ay on the north side of the river and just west of Epernay on the south side of the river. Once again, the vineyards on the south side of the river have a northerly exposure, a rarity among northern hemisphere vineyards, especially in cool climates. The soils are mainly marls, sand or clay.
Wines produced with grapes sourced only from the Vallee de la Marne are usually easy-drinking and fruity, mostly due to the large percentage of Meunier that they normally contain.
The Vallee de la Marne is the only production zone with a vine training method named after the region. The training method is only allowed for Pinot Meunier and cannot be used in grand cru or premier cru villages. It is similar to Guyot pruning but it shows a higher number of buds. It can be single, double or asymmetrical.
Cote des Blancs
The name of this district is derived from its propensity to produce high quality Chardonnay grapes. Eighty-two percent (82%) is planted to Chardonnay and its four grand crus villages (Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger & Oger) produce some of the most sought after fruit in the entire Champagne AOC.
According to Christie’s Encyclopedia, the wines from the village of Avize are “praised for their harmony” while Cramant “offers the most delicate, feather-like wines”. Oger & Le Mesnil-sur-0ger are “tighter, mineral and posses a razor-sharp quality in their youth. Blanc de blancs wines from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger are among the most expensive champagnes on the market.
The wines of the Cote des Blancs express the shallow Belimnite chalk in which they root with the most minerality found in any of the five production districts. Most of the vineyards face east, soaking up the morning sun while dispelling humidity, which reduces the risk of powdery mildew.
Cote de Sezzane
This district is essentially a continuation of the Cote des Blancs and is still largely dominated by Chardonnay, which accounts for sixty-four percent (64%) of its plantings. The vineyards benefit from a mainly southeasterly exposure and the soils are mostly cooler soils of clay and silt with some pockets of chalk.
As a result of the combination of the cooler soils and more favorable ripening exposures, the grapes from this district tend to produce softer, rounder and more approachable wines than the wines of the Cote des Blancs. Thus, the fruit is very useful for blending into the multi-vintage releases of larger houses.
Aube (Cote des Bar)
The Aube district located in the Aube department is closer to Chablis then to Reims. Pinot Noir is king here, accounting for eighty-seven percent (87%) of the plantings and almost half of the Pinot Noir plantings in all of Champagne appellation. The prevailing theory is that this should be a Chardonnay heavy district but, prior to World War II, the area was planted to Gamay. When the Gamay was phased out, Pinot Noir was planted instead. The soils are mainly marl overlaying Kimmeridgian limestone bedrock.
The grapes produced tend toward full flavored, ripe Pinot Noir and the area is less frost prone than the more northerly districts. The Pinot Noir produced here is an important backbone of the blend produced by many fine Champagne Houses.