Believe me, it is not my intention to make your life more difficult. Yes, I know that reading and understanding French wine labels can seem completely esoteric and confusing. Champagne has, through exceptional branding (and blending), been able to woo drinkers throughout the world to adopt wines from the region as the world’s pre-eminent, sparkling wine. But really, what makes Champagne so unique? Soil is one factor, and more specifically that super specific form of limestone a.k.a chalk, (more about this later). In addition, the 5 distinct regions of Champagne, where different varietals excel, often contribute to the creation of sparkling wine of a superior balance, intensity and ageworthy-ness that can only be found Champagne.
5 regions of Champagne:
Montagne de Reims
Vallee de la Marne
Cote de Blancs
Cote de Sezanne
Cote de Bar/Aube
Let’s start at the top…
Montagne de Reims:
The first region on our stop is the Montagne de Reims, the northern and eastern most region in Champagne. Located directly south of the Champagne capital of Reims, the vineyards here are planted overhwhelmingly to pinot noir, which produce some of the most precise and intensely structured wines in Champagne. Although a signifigant number of vineyards in this district face north (a factor which would inhibit adequate ripening, especially in such a cool climate) the free-standing Montagne de Reims (really more a series of hills) allows for the cooler air to “slide” and settle down in the plain, while warmer are rises above it, and just about where key vineyard sites are located, therefore permitting the grapes to ripen sufficiently.
I often find wines from the Montagne de Reims to display a certain “strictness”.. a wine with chiseled edges. For instance, strong and racy are adjectives that I have used more than once to describe Jean Lallement’s pinot noir powered champagnes. These wines are taught, fit and with such high acidity, often times very ageworthy. What inspiring qualities! In addition to being showcases for the terroir of this region(see the grower-producer list below), grand marques houses will often utilize pinot noir sourced from the Montagne de Reims (in particular Ambonnay and Bouzy) to add structure, depth and power to their blended champagnes.
Important villages located north to south:
Bouzy – also famously known for their limited production of still red wine!
Important Grower -Producers located in the Montagne de Reims:
Vilmart et Cie
If by now you are chomping at the bit to try a great example Champagne from the Montagne de Reims, then a great place to begin is with Jean Lallement. When describing the some of the classic characteristics of wines from this region, this Verzenay based domaine is nearly always at the top of my list. Approximately 80 percent of their 4.5 hectares is planted to the mighty pinot noir, the rest to chardonnay. Their vineyards are located in and around the villages of Verzenay, Verzy and Ludes. Although labeled as a non-vintage Champagne, the current release of Lallement’s Brut Cuvee Reserve comes exclusively from the 1998 vintage. The 80% pinot noir and 20% chardonnay all come from one north-facing vineyard plot in the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. This wine is strict, dry (less than 3g/l dosage) and intensivo. It’s what the Montagne de Reims is all about.