Only sparkling wine produced in the French region of Champagne can be called champagne. Yet France produces many other French sparkling wines including Blanquette de Limoux which was the first ever sparkling wine and was first made in 1531.
What is Champagne?.
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by inducing in-bottle secondary fermentation of the wine to effect carbonation.
In the European Union, the name is legally protected by the Treaty of Madrid (1891). The name was reserved it for the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France and adhering to the standards defined for it as an Appellation d’origine contrôlée; the protection was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
The winemaking community, under the auspices of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, has developed a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for all wine produced in the region to protect its economic interests.
There are more than one hundred houses and 19,000 smaller vignerons (vine-growing producers) making Champagne a major wine producing region in France.
The wine first gained world renown through its links with French kings. Royalty from throughout Europe spread the message of the unique sparkling wine and its association with luxury and power in the 17th-19th centuries.
There are no tricks to recognising a good champagne – a good champagne is one you like!
The leading manufacturers put huge amounts of energy and resources into creating an identity for their wine. Through advertising and packaging they sought to make the wine synonymous with luxury, festivities, and even rites of passage. T
heir efforts proved coincidental with the rise of the nouveaux riches looking for ways to spend money as evidence of upward mobility.
More than 15,000 families cultivate 90% of the AOC land. Some of them make (either themselves or in co-operative groups) the wine from their vines with over 6,000 full-time employees and extra help from seasonal workers (over 50,000 for the grape harvest for example).
Although the ‘main’ vineyards are clustered around Reims and Epernay, those produced by smaller vineyards, such as in the Cote des Bars, have their own, justified, following, too. Don’t overlook these.
The most renowned vineyards are on the Montagne de Reims, along the valley of the Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the less well-known but no less delightful Côte des Bars in Aube-en-Champagne. Many of the most renowned producers have cellars in Reims in the Grand-Est, and offer guided tours and dégustations, notably:
Mumm 34 r. du Champ-de-Mars. www.mumm.com
Piper-Heidsieck 51 bd Henry-Vasnier. www.piper-heidsieck.com
Pommery 5 pl. du Gén.-Gouraud. www.pommery.com
Ruinart 4 r. des Crayères. www.ruinart.com
Taittinger 9 pl. St-Nicaise. www.taittinger.fr
Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin 1 pl. des Droits-de-l’Homme.
A number of the vineyards offer champagne tasting courses, and the opportunity to study the mystique of this fascinating wine.
Other French sparkling wines
Limoux wine is produced around the city of Limoux in Languedoc in south-western France under four Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) designations: Blanquette de Limoux, Blanquette méthode ancestrale, Crémant de Limoux and Limoux.
The first three are sparkling wines and dominate the production around Limoux.
Crémant d’Alsace is also an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for sparkling wines made in the Alsace wine region of France. Produced since 1900, the Crémant d’Alsace AOC was recognized in 1976 by the INAO and the designation Crémant regulated by the European Parliament in 1996.
The main grape of the Limoux region is the Mauzac, locally known as Blanquette, followed by Chardonnay and Chenin blanc. In 2005, the Limoux AOC was created to include red wine production consisting of mostly Merlot.
Blanquette de Limoux the oldest French sparkling wine
Wine historians believe that the world’s first sparkling wine was produced in this region in 1531, by the monks at the abbey in Saint-Hilaire.
Blanquette de Limoux is considered to be the first sparkling white wine produced in France, created long before the Champagne region became world renowned for the sparkling wine Champagne.
The first textual mention of “blanquette”, from the Occitan expression for “the small white”, appeared in 1531 in papers written by Benedictine monks at an abbey in Saint-Hilaire.
They detail the production and distribution of Saint-Hilaire’s blanquette in cork-stoppered flasks. The region’s location, north of the Cork Oak forest of Catalunya, gave Limoux producers easy access to the material needed to produce secondary fermentation in the flask, which produces the bubbles necessary for sparkling wine.
Local lore suggests that Dom Pérignon learned how to produce sparkling white wine while serving in this Abbey before moving to the Champagne region and popularizing the drink.
It’s a nice story but this is almost certain to be false since Dom Pérignon was involved with improving Champagne’s still wines, and not the sparkling ones.
In 1938, Blanquette de Limoux became one of the first AOCs established in the Languedoc region (1936 AOCs included Muscat de Frontignan in the Languedoc and Rivesaltes, Maury, and Banyuls in the Roussillon). While the classification is recent, the wine itself has long been a traditional apéritif or dessert accompaniment in the area.
Crémant d’Alsace is produced in north-eastern France, in the region Alsace, nearly in the whole Alsatian vineyard but mainly in Barr, Bennwihr, Eguisheim. Ingersheim, Riquewihr, Wintzenheim and Andolsheim.