Wine in France, Champagne

Champagne is not just a sparkling wine, but the region from which the famous drink derives its name. The climate of the area is cooler than that of the southern French vineyards, making for a shorter growing season.

Almost a hundred miles (144km) northeast of Paris near the Belgian border, it's usually divided into three parts — the Côte des Blancs, the Vallée de la Marne and Montagne de Reims, though there are other zones.

Of the region's 75,000 acres of vineyards, the largest portion and the greatest vineyards are planted in the département of the Marne.

The vines there sit comfortably in chalky soils, providing excellent natural moisture regulation with good drainage. The chalk reflects ample sunshine and heat upward to the grape and within to the roots. The thin layer of arable topsoil receives the needed addition of fertilizer by the regions world-class vintners, some of whom only work the land part-time.

The annual temperature hovers slightly above the minimum required to ripen grapes (50°F/10°C), where the best vineyards reside high enough to be clear of frost (above 90m/295ft), but low enough (below 210m/689ft) to be sheltered from extreme heat.

One premium example is the vineyards of Montagne de Reims, a forested plateau south of Reims. Blessed with a deep bed of crustaceous chalk beneath a thin layer of topsoil, the highly ranked Grand and Premier Cru are found in these two areas, where grows primarily Pinot Noir.

Among the northernmost vineyards, the unique micro-climate in Montagne is well suited for producing this variety, which goes into producing some of the world's best champagne.

Along both banks of the River Marne lies the Vallée de la Marne, with predominantly south-facing, lower-lying vineyards, which produces largely Pinot Meunier. And just over 13 miles (21km) south of Epernay juts a ridge in Côte des Blancs where the chalk subsoil yields a glorious Chardonnay.

A newcomer to Champagne is Côte de Sézanne. Planted in the 1960's almost exclusively with Chardonnay, its southern location allows the grapes to ripen better than many of the other zones.

In Champagne's most southerly zone, we reach The Aube located about 70 miles (112km) south of Epernay, where the climate experiences greater temperature extremes. Less well-known, much of its output adds to numerous blends of the major champagne houses.

The theory of producing a great champagne is to blend together the best qualities from each of the best grapes grown in all these areas. The large houses store millions of gallons of wine from various vineyards for blending purposes. The blends are produced primarily from three varieties.

Pinot Meunier remains the dominant variety in Champagne, where it's exclusively grown (on nearly 40% of the total acreage) and makes up the base for all but the most exclusive champagnes. Pinot Noir comes in a close second at about 35% of the total acreage. It provides much of the longevity of champagne. Chardonnay accounts for the remaining 25% and adds lightness.

Champagne is perhaps the best known wine in the world although it represents only about 5% of French wine production and 10% of all sparkling wine produced in the world.

Rightly acclaimed as one of the most important historical regions, Champagne's quality remains undiminished in the modern world as well.