- Champagne is only true champagne if it’s made in the Champagne region of northern France.
- All other sparkling wines made outside of this region, even those from neighboring parts of France, must be labeled differently.
- Champagne often costs double the price of other sparkling wines, such as prosecco or cava. A decent-quality bottle of it can cost you anywhere from $50 to $300, and vintage bottles often sell for thousands.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Champagne is synonymous with wealth and luxury. It often costs double the price of other sparkling wines, such as prosecco or cava. A decent-quality bottle of it can cost you anywhere from $50 to $300, and vintages can often sell for thousands.
So, what makes Champagne so expensive?
Champagne is often used as a generic term for sparkling wine. But, in fact, Champagne is only true Champagne if it’s made here, in Champagne. About 150 kilometers east of Paris, this highly protected region of France is home to the world’s most prestigious, and expensive, Champagne sellers and cellars, such as Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët. All other sparkling wines made outside of this region, even those from neighboring parts of France, must be labeled differently.
Which means, in this relatively small area, a little over twice the size of San Francisco, the world’s entire stock of true Champagne is made. That’s over 300 million bottles every year, with an annual revenue of over $5 billion. Champagne sales have grown steadily since the 1950s, but its future growth depends on the protection of the region’s unique climate. Northern France’s variable conditions are the first factor for elevated prices. With an average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, this location is cooler than France’s other wine-growing regions, which gives the grapes the right acidity for sparkling-wine production. However, an often-freezing continental weather front makes the winemaking process more difficult than other dependable ecosystems.
Fabrice Rosset: “What distinguishes Champagne as being unique is mostly a question of its geography, as well as climatic conditions. Obviously, it’s also about the production process, which has been shaped and improved over the course of time — we’re talking about over two centuries. The grapes are harvested at the peak of their ripeness — that’s a really important factor — and then the alcoholic fermentation process will give you a white wine or many — a variety of white wines”.
Narrator: During harvest, 120,000 workers descend on Champagne to pick grapes from 84,000 acres of vines.
Aurèlien Laherte: “It’s harvested by hand, because the machines are forbidden by law. It’s important to select only the best grapes, especially because of the heterogeneity of each different plot and each different vine. It’s a really important sign of quality. To be on the hill, it’s a really good for the exposition; the sun is always going on the vines, all the day. When it’s raining, the water never stops. It’s going on the bottom. This is where, historically, we have the best structure of the soil. Champagne is clay and chalk, this is really the best quality in terms of soil”.
Narrator: Authentic Champagne is produced via the méthode champenoise, where the wine undergoes a primary fermentation in oak or stainless-steel vats and a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. This method is controlled and restricted within the European Union, so that wines from outside the Champagne region cannot be described as Champagne. However, wines from all over the world are produced in exactly the same way and instead are labeled as sparkling wine, produced via the méthode traditionnelle.
Some winemakers in countries outside of the EU ignore European labeling laws altogether and continue to produce sparkling wine bearing the Champagne name. These imitations are constantly challenged by the Comité Champagne, which works with more than 80 lawyers worldwide to protect the authentic Champagne brand. Ultimately, despite similarities in production and possibly taste, only true Champagne comes with the history and prestige of the region.
Champagne production dates back to the third century, when the Romans first planted vineyards in northeastern France. During the mid-17th century, with the development of bottled fermentation, Champagne officially became a sacred drink when it was served at the king’s courts during the accession of Louis XIV. However, the carbon dioxide gas, which built up inside these early bottles, often caused them to explode in the cellars. Therefore, great efforts went into ridding the wine of its bubbles.
But, by the 19th century, the sparkling version of Champagne had grown in popularity, especially among the rich and royalty. As the large Champagne houses optimized mass production of sparkling Champagne with the development of thicker glass and corks, the modern Champagne industry began to form.
Amazingly, despite the region becoming a key battlefield during both World War I and World War II, some Champagne production still continued. It’s estimated that by the end of the Great War, about 40% of Champagne’s vineyards had been destroyed. Because of the cutback in production, bottles made during either war fetch a high price. In 2015, Sotheby’s auctioned a Krug cellar visit and a tasting of their wartime 1915 vintage for $116,000.
Champagne’s affiliation with luxury, wealth, and celebrity has kept prices high, from crowning kings, to launching great ships. Even Jay-Z has gotten in on the action. In 2014, he became part-owner of Armand de Brignac, also known as “Ace of Spades,” a Champagne brand run by the Cattier family. In September 2019, they released their rarest, priciest cuvée yet, comprised of three vintages, from 2009, 2010, and 2012. The wine was left to age for six years until the bottles, only 3,535 of them, were made available for a cool $1,000 per bottle.
But what about the future? Champagne became the world’s first wine-growing region to examine its carbon footprint and implement a carbon plan, as a result of worrying statistics. Global warming has seen temperatures in the region rise by 1.2 degrees Celsius over the last 30 years, and the grape harvest dates have moved forward by a fortnight. As Champagne’s perfect climatic conditions are changing and the Paris accord climate targets fail to keep up with global warming, the future of winemaking in this historic region could be in jeopardy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in September 2019.