Long before the wines of Champagne were made to sparkle, they were highly prized in Paris under the names of 'vins de la rivière' and 'vins de la montagne'.
The river was Marne, the 'mountain' at best rising to less than 300 meters, that separates it from the sacred city of Reims where France's kings were crowned. Most prized of all were the wines of Ay, with its propitious south-facing slope down to the river opposite Epernay.
All the vineyards are on dark chalk soils, uniquely rich in a rare fossil called belemnite. Chalk drains excellently; it reflects the sunlight onto the vins, but needs constant top-dressing with organic fertilizers. In this marginal climate full ripeness is the exception, and slight variations of slope and aspect are crucial.
Today three grapes dominate. First, with an acreage with about 40% , comes Pinot Meurnier, a cousin of the Pinot Noir, which is easier to grow and ripen, if not quite so fine. This is the best wine for all but the very finest champagnes. Pinot Noir is responsible for about a third of the total acreage and Chardonnay for about a quarter.
The master plan for great champagne is to combine the qualities of the best grapes from the distinct parts of the region - of which, broadly speaking, there are three. The Montagne de Reims is planted with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, both of whose black grapes have to be pressed very rapidly to give white wine without a trace of colour. No one has quite explained how in the most northern vineyard can give such a good wine. The theory is that the air heats up on the plain bellow, and flows encouragingly up through the vines... Montagne wines contribute to the bouquet, the headiness and with their firm acidity, to what the French call the 'carpentry' - the backbone of the blend.
The Valleè de la Marne has a succession of south-facing slopes which trap the sun and make these the fullest, roundest ripest wines, with plenty of aroma. These two are predominantly black-grape vineyards, famous for Pinot Noir, but now increasingly invaded by Champenois keep for themselves. It can be like rather faint but exquisite burgundy. The east- facing slope soth of Epernay is Cote des Blancs, planted with Chardonnay that gives freshness and finesse to the blend and encourages the sparkle. Wine from here is frequently sold as Blanc de Blancs, without the traditional proportion of Pinot Noir. Cremant, Avize and Le Mesnil are the three villages with long-respected names for their unblended wine.