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Home > The Champagne terroir: a living heritage

The Champagne terroir:
a living heritage

Terroir. An ancient French word certainly but only adopted by the wine world in the twentieth century to describe the complex interplay of natural and human factors that influence the character and quality of a wine – soil, subsoil, climate, vineyard aspect and most especially human commitment. The winegrower is to winegrowing what a conductor is to an orchestra.
Nowhere is this truer than in the Champagne region, where centuries of human expertise have fashioned a terroir unlike any other in the world, crafting wines that bring together unique skills and very specific winemaking techniques. Vine-growing and wine production in Champagne are subject to particularly stringent, not to say draconian, specifications, with each stage strictly supervised to produce wines that bear the stamp of excellence.
Champagne winemaking is heir to a living legacy of skills handed down through generations of Champenois, always striving to achieve just the right balance between tradition and innovation, technical proficiency and creativity, discipline and imagination.
Featured in these photos are Champagne makers at the turn of the twentieth century – women and men who made the most of advancing technology while remaining faithful to age-old skills at the foundation of their common heritage. Singular that survive today in the expertise that distinguishes Champagne wine from every other wine in the world.

Most of the photos on exhibition here are drawn from the archives of the Union of Champagne Houses, with particular thanks to Champagne Houses Moët & Chandon, Mumm & Cie, Perrier-Jouët, Pommery, Veuve Clicquot and Vranken for agreeing to contribute examples of their own material. Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to trace the source of every image presented here and apologize to the persons concerned or their beneficiaries.

The vineyards

The Champagne appellation currently has a production area of some 34,000 hectares spread across 319 communes (or crus). It encompasses 280,000 individual plots, mainly planted on slopes to three grape varieties: the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. While the undulating terrain can make vineyard maintenance difficult, it ensures that each vine enjoys optimum exposure to sunlight. The predominantly limestone subsoil is another big advantage, providing ideal growing conditions for the vines and perfect storage conditions for the wines: Champagne’s famous crayères, dug into the chalk around Reims, remain at a constant temperature and humidity. It is this combination of factors that makes the Champagne region so special – this mosaic-like terroir comprising different plots with different soils, different grape varieties and different exposures. Bringing it altogether is Champagne wine, every bottle as unique as the blend that created it.


Pruning is the most important of all the vineyard tasks and also one of the most time-consuming. It commences as soon as the leaves start to fall and continues until mid-December when the grapevines enter winter dormancy. It resumes a month later and is carried out on a regular basis until late March. Pruning regulates growth and vine performance and has an influence on fruit yield and quality. By removing any unwanted canes, the grower encourages sap flow to the buds, but making the right cut requires a great deal of thought and practice. It takes a skilled eye to see how best to prune a vine so that each cut is tailored to the particular growth habit of each plant.

Soil maintenance

The soil anchors the vine root system, serves as a water and nutrient store and imparts specific characteristics that affect the composition of wine grapes and the taste of the wines themselves. Soil is as vital to the vine as air and water, but it is also a complex and fragile ecosystem in itself. Sustainable soil management is therefore an absolute priority for the Champagne Houses and Growers, always aiming to strike the perfect balance between vineyard production and respect for Nature. Hence the drastic reduction in herbicide use and shift towards alternative methods of soil maintenance and improvement, most notably cover cropping and in-row tillage. Champagne’s environmental commitment dates back to 2001 and a voluntary undertaking to comply with the principles of Viticulture raisonnée (“low-input” viticulture), followed in 2014 by the introduction of the Viticulture Durable en Champagne certification – a sustainability milestone in the history of Champagne.

Protecting the vineyard from disease

Throughout its life cycle, the vine is at the mercy of various pathogens and pests that pose a threat to the grapes and sometimes even endanger the survival of the plant itself. The most extreme example of this was grape phylloxera: a blight caused by an insect of the same name that arrived in France from north America in the late nineteenth century and left a trail of devastation in its wake. Phylloxera wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards and caused considerable damage in Champagne. Disease prevention is therefore vital, preferably using natural methods but sometimes complemented by vine treatments (used sparingly) where a more radical approach is needed. The Champagne industry is meanwhile at the forefront of research into new disease- and pest-resistant grapevine varieties.

Weather hazards

The extreme northerly location of the Champagne vineyards places them at particular risk of devastating frosts, spring frosts being the worst offenders because they strike at the beginning of the annual growth cycle just when the vines are at their most vulnerable. Vineyard coverings, smudge pots, braseros – ever since the nineteenth century growers have tried all manner of ways to protect their vines but the emphasis in Champagne today is on more environmentally friendly methods. With climate change now increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the “Champagne wine reserve” (wines set aside in good years for use in bad years) is more than ever important as a form of insurance against crop failures.

Crown suckering and lifting

The arrival of spring sees the vine wake from winter dormancy and produce new growth. The emphasis from now until summer is on regulating vine development to optimise performance, what’s known as travaux en vert or canopy management. The first task is disbudding: the removal of vegetative (non-fruitful) buds to concentrate the vine’s energies in the fruit-bearing shoots. Late May then marks the beginning of lifting: as its name suggests, this is the process of lifting the fruit-bearing shoots from the ground and arranging them vertically to shape the vine and give it a tidy habit.

Trellising and shoot topping

By June the shoots require trellising: separating from each other to avoid a tangle of leaves and untidy stems. Trellising improves air circulation and exposure to sunlight, thereby preventing the damp conditions that nurture botrytis bunch rot and other mould-induced diseases. The next stage, rognage or summer pruning, begins just before or after flowering and consists in the removal of non-fruit bearing shoots to regulate growth and channel the vine’s energy directly to the berries. These days rognage is carried out by machines.

Harvest time

Summer’s end means harvest time: the big event of the year when the whole of Champagne swings into action. Picking lasts from two to three weeks and absolutely nothing is left to chance. The dates of harvesting are precisely calculated to bring in the grapes at their peak – in pristine condition, with that perfect balance of ripeness, acidity and alcohol that will define the quality of the future wine. Predicting that balance is the responsibility of the ripening observation network set up by the Champagne Houses and Growers. The resulting data informs the setting of picking dates to suit each growth and each grape variety, subject to approval by the Comité Champagne joint trade association and the levée du ban des vendanges (“lifting of the ban on harvesting”) by the local authorities.

Grape picking

Champagne has the distinction of being a white wine made from mainly black grapes (more than two thirds of the AOC production area is planted to the Pinots Meunier and Noir). To keep the berries intact and prevent the skins from colouring the juice, the entire crop is picked by hand, selecting only whole, undamaged clusters that must remain that way right up to the point of pressing. Every year sees more than 120,000 pickers descend on the vineyards of Champagne to take part in an event that is a determining factor in the quality of the finished wine. A time for celebration certainly, but also hard, exacting work that requires a great deal of skill and stamina on the part of the picker.

Transporting the grapes to the pressing centre

The freshly picked clusters are taken to the pressing centre as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence if the grapes are to remain intact – a requirement that posed a serious problem in the days of the horse and cart and still quite a challenge today, depending as it does on perfectly synchronised teamwork. To reduce the journey time, Champagne Houses and Growers can choose from more than 2,000 pressing centres located throughout the AOC area.


The bulk of the yield is handled by the Champagne Houses, which produce and market more than 70% of total production volume. While Growers account for 90% of the area under vine, they sell 60% of their crop to the Champagne Houses, whose buyers (or their representatives) check that the freshly delivered grapes are of “sound, fair and merchantable quality”. Each batch of fruit is then weighed to ensure traceability and pressed separately according to grape variety, growth and other distinguishing characteristics (environmental certification, plot selection, etc).


Pressing is a key stage in the production process and strictly regulated to meet uncompromising quality standards. Its purpose is to extract juice from the grapes, working only with whole clusters that must be placed intact in the press and pressed gently and slowly to prevent the skins from colouring the juice and preserve the elements contained in the pulp. The juice is “fractionated” as it leaves the press: assuming a 4,000 kg press load, the 20.5hl of clearer, purer juices drawn off at the beginning – the cuvée – are separated from the 5hl of juice produced at the end – the taille. Each fraction has its own set of characteristics (sugar, acidity, aromas) and will be vinified separately and used differently in blending. While pressing these days is largely automated, 18% of press centres continue to use the traditional method based on the retrousse: the breaking up of the press cake with pitchforks to bring the more lightly pressed edges of the cake back into the middle.


The juice, or must, is filtered as it runs out of the press to eliminate any skin particles, pips, stalks and other solid residue that may remain despite all the precautions taken with pressing. Settling (debourbage) comes next, the musts having first been transferred to sedimentation tanks where any remaining impurities (bourbes or sludge) naturally sink to the bottom – a process that takes several hours. What remains is clear juice, which is siphoned off and sent to the winery to begin fermentation.

Transport to the winery

In the past, the freshly racked musts were sent to the winery in barrels but today they are transported in multi-compartment tank trucks – different compartments for different musts is essential to ensure traceability. Throughout the harvest, hundreds of these tank trucks drive up and down the roads of Champagne ferrying the musts from the press house to the winery. Every trip is recorded and every delivery must pass stringent quality testing before being approved by oenologists and transferred to tanks to undergo the first stages of fermentation.

Primary fermentation

Without fermentation, there is no wine. In Champagne, there are two types of fermentation:
-  Alcoholic or Primary fermentation (essential): the process that turns the grape juice into wine through the action of yeast that consumes the natural grape sugars in the must to produce alcohol.
-  Malolactic fermentation (optional depending on the cellarmaster): the process that deacidifies wine by converting tart malic acid into mellow lactic acid.
It is at this stage that the style and aromatic profile of a Champagne begins to take shape, always under the watchful eye of the winemaker/oenologist. These days Champagne wines are mostly fermented in stainless steel tanks but a few Champagne Houses remain faithful to the traditional practice of barrel fermentation for some if not all of their wines.

Racking and clarification

By the end of fermentation, all of the sugar has been converted into alcohol leaving a deposit of dead yeast cells and other particles – the gross lees – at the bottom of the tank or barrel. Keeping the wine in contact with these lees for several months enhances its aromatic profile, the precise technique varying according to the style of wine the producer has in mind. Thereafter the wine is racked off the gross lees and clarified, leaving what’s known as vin clair – the still base wines used in blending, each one classified according to grape variety, vintage, cru and sometimes, vineyard plot. Next comes the vins clair tasting in preparation for assemblage (blending).


Assemblage is the art of blending wines of different grape varieties, from different vineyards and different vintages, to create a Champagne that showcases the signature style of the producer: a wine that, year after year, recreates the unmistakable flavour of a particular Champagne brand by playing on the different but complementary characteristics of its ingredients. Therein lies the talent of the winemaker/oenologist – in this ability to craft a cuvee that is greater than the sum of its parts, drawing on their experience, their palate and their memory to make the vins clairs work infinitely better together than alone. In truly exceptional vintages, the winemaker may decide to a create a Champagne exclusively blended from the wines of that year: what’s known as a Vintage Champagne or Champagne Millésimé.

Drawing off and secondary fermentation

The newly blended wine is then drawn off into bottles awaiting secondary fermentation – the famous prise de mousse that will transform the still wine into effervescent Champagne. The French term quite literally means “capturing the sparkle” and has come to embody the mastery behind Champagne-making. It is at this stage that the bubbles are born, helped by the addition of the liqueur de tirage: a solution of wine, sugar and yeast that kickstarts a second fermentation. This time the yeasts consume the sugars as before but producing carbon dioxide (not alcohol) that remains trapped in the bottle, generating bubbles. The term prise de mousse represents the essence of the méthode champenoise and is indeed exclusively reserved for sparkling wines produced within the Champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée delimited area.

Aging on lees

Immediately after bottling, the wines are taken down to the cellars where they are stacked one on top of the other, the neck of one bottle resting in the hollow base of the bottle below. And here they remain for many months, in the cool, dark cellar where the temperature remains the same all year round. It is now that the wines undergo lees aging (vieillissement sur lies), the lees in this case being all that remains of the yeasts in the liqueur de tirage. The temporary bottle cap meanwhile allows a low rate of gas exchange that together with lees aging, has a significant impact on aroma development. Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months aging in the cellar, rising to three years for vintage Champagne. In practice, aging on lees often continues for much long than that, especially for prestige cuvees. For Champagne makers, quality comes before time considerations.


After many months of aging on lees – decades in some cases – what remains is a perfectly matured but cloudy wine with a deposit of spent yeast cells. The next step therefore is to displace this deposit by rotating the bottle an eighth or a sixteenth of a turn at a time, the while slowly tilting the bottle from a horizontal to an inverted vertical position so that it ends up bottleneck down (sur pointe). The effect is to drive the sediment slowly but surely into the bottle neck – an age-old technique known as remuage (riddling), formerly carried out by hand but these days mostly automated using a gyropalette (automated riddling cage). Gyros, as they are known, make the cellar worker’s job much easier at no expense to quality, but they have not entirely replaced humans. The ancestral savoir-faire of the manual remueur lives on in the new generation of Champagne riddlers, all of them trained like their forerunners to “read” a bottle of Champagne with uncanny precision.

Disgorgement and dosage

By the end of riddling, the deposit has slid down into the bottle neck and is ready to be ejected, a process known as disgorgement. Large bottles and certain vintages are still disgorged by hand (à la volée) but by far the commonest technique is to plunge the neck of the bottle into a frozen brine solution for a few minutes – long enough for a little ice plug to form around the sediment, which is then ejected under pressure when the bottle is opened. Disgorgement comes as a shock to the wine, letting in oxygen that enhances flavour development. The bottle is then topped up with “dosage”: a mixture of sugar and old Champagne that adds sweetness depending on the desired style of wine (whether Demi-Sec, Brut, Extra-Brut, etc.)

Corking and fitting the wire cage (muselet)

Immediately after the addition of the dosage, the bottle is sealed with a cork stopper. Famous for its mushroom shape, the Champagne cork is specifically designed to provide an airtight seal while still allowing an exchange of gases that plays a critical role in the aging and preservation of the finished wine. The very chemistry that gives Champagne its fizz also means that Champagne corks must withstand a tremendous amount of pressure – around 70-90 pounds per square inch or nearly three times the pressure inside a car tyre. As an additional precaution therefore, the cork is held in place by a wire cage called a muselet (“muzzle” in English). After final corking comes mirage (clarity inspection), followed by a return to the cellars for several months awaiting packaging and labelling.


The bottles are now brought up from the cellars for the last time and carefully washed and dried in preparation for labelling and packaging. The first step is to wrap the cork, wire cage and part of the neck in a foil capsule (coiffe), usually complemented by a neck band. The coiffe these days has become inseparable from the image of greatness that defines Champagne itself – gone are the days when it merely served to hide any traces of the lees remaining in the bottle neck after disgorgement. Over the years as labelling techniques have grown more flamboyant, so brand labelling has grown ever more refined, for marketing and presentation purposes certainly but also for the sake of clarity. Labels must display certain mandatory information that must be clearly understood by the consumer, not least the words “Champagne AOC”, the sugar and acidity content and the name of the producer. The labelling and packaging process is now largely automated, with manual labelling reserved for special-format prestige bottles.


A lot of thought goes into Champagne packaging. The last stage before the bottles are released for shipment, Champagne packaging plays a vital part in keeping the wine safe in transit and giving the customer the right impression. Sustainable packaging is therefore a priority – a commitment given shape in Champagne a few years ago by shaving some 65 grams off the weight of a standard bottle. Now seven per cent lighter, the new bottle considerably reduces the industry’s transport-related carbon footprint without comprising product quality or safety.


Dressed in all their finery and securely packaged, Champagne bottles are finally ready for release. More than half of total shipments are exported, going to more than 190 countries around the world – that’s six out of every 10 bottles dispatched. But whether destined for customers in France or abroad, every bottle has its roots firmly in the Champagne production region. Much of the reputation enjoyed by bubbly today is the work of the Champagne Houses. It was their globetrotting representatives who back in the 1700s first identified local taste preferences in Champagne, then focused on promoting Champagne wines specifically made to suit those preferences. Their valuable insight matters more than ever today in a world where customer qualification is vital to conquering new markets and safeguarding Champagne’s image as the symbol of the French art de vivre. The Champagne industry accounts for France’s second largest international trade surplus and 25% of the total export value of French wines and spirits.

Drinking Champagne

Champagne is a great wine, certainly. But it is also a universal symbol – a wine with iconic status, born of an exceptional combination of human and natural factors. Its creators were people with a feeling for the land but also a good nose for business – adventurous people who were not afraid to innovate. Together they crafted a wine with a name that is now synonymous with the French art of living. Coronation wine and wine of kings, feted by the nobility and the elite of the Europe, extolled by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, regarded as a symbol of the French Nation under the First Empire and beloved by the party people of the Roaring Twenties… Champagne is a wine full of stories. Today this uncommonly versatile wine remains what it has always been: the wine of celebration par excellence, whether the celebration of peace, success or Frenchness oblige, French cuisine. The people of Champagne can rightly take pride in having put their appellation on the world stage the while zealously protecting its sovereignty. For as everyone knows or should know by now:

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