Down to Earth – an extract from The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 »

Tyson Stelzer describes the landscape of Champagne

Contributed articles and stories
Subscribe to
<i>The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 </i> by Tyson Stelzer

The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 by Tyson Stelzer [©Hardie-Grant]

Australian wine author, presenter and judge Tyson Stelzer


The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 by Tyson Stelzer is considered the definitive book both on the wine and the region. Along with assessments of over 600 wines and information on the top 100 producers at this time, Tyson provides interesting and informative background information on the history and geography of the region.

In this extract from the Guide, it's all about the landscape. On a small range of hills that rise from a chalk plain some 145km north east of Paris are planted the vines that miraculously produce the wonder that is Champagne. The five sub-regions, known in France as departments, each have their own special features that suit the vines grown.

Tyson writes:

On a small range of hills rising less than impressively from a chalk plain 145 kilometres north-east of Paris lies the patchwork of 33,762 hectares of vineyards that is Champagne. Too exposed to wind and rain and not sufficiently blessed by the sun, there is no chance of ripening grapes on the flatter land here. And yet this land sends a shiver down my spine every time I come close. By some miracle, its drab hillsides produce fruits that thousands of winegrowers around the globe strive desperately to emulate, yet none have equalled.

Austere and impoverished soft white chalk is Champagne’s secret, a remnant of a 90 million-year-old seabed. Its true blessing is espoused not only in cool, damp 17-century-old cellars, but especially in the vineyards, bestowing its fruits with crystalline minerality, reflecting and storing heat and retaining moisture – a perfectly regulated vine humidifier. Champagne comprises five departments: the Marne (most importantly the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne), the Côte des Bar, the Aisne, the Haute-Marne and the Seine-et-Marne.

The Montagne de Reims

The Montagne de Reims is no mountain – more a wooded hillock, rising to an unimpressive 180 metres above the surrounding plains and just 275 metres above sea level. Yet even this elevation is sufficient to orientate some of Champagne’s mightiest vineyards. The vines of the Montagne de Reims follow the slope of a hillside topped with dense forest, in a backward ‘C’ formation from Villers-Allerand on the northern slopes, reaching a crescendo in the thundering grand crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay in the south. These stand alongside Verzenay as the Montagne de Reims’ finest villages. Pinot noir is king of these chalky sites, and nowhere in Champagne produces its equal. There are also substantial plantings of meunier, and chardonnay is on the rise.

The ‘Petite Montagne’ is a north-western extension of the Montagne de Reims, extending north of Reims itself, nurturing Champagne’s most northerly vineyards on soils of sand and clay, well suited to meunier.

Côte des Blancs

Chardonnay is left largely to the Côte des Blancs, 96% of which is planted to the variety, the remainder largely pinot noir in the commune of Vertus in the south.

With dramatic slopes, warmer days and thinner topsoils making chalk more accessible than anywhere in the region, the Côte des Blancs produces Champagne’s most regular fruit, and most reliable, exhilarating and mineral infused wines. This is why many are sold unblended as blanc de blancs. These are among Champagne’s most searingly structured and long-lived wines.

There is perhaps no village in Champagne that stands alone as confidently as Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, though Cramant, Avize, Oger and the premier cru of Vertus command great respect.

Vallée de la Marne

More than half of the Vallée de la Marne is planted to meunier, although pinot noir plantings are on the increase. The south-facing sites of Aÿ and Mareuilsur-Aÿ towards its eastern end rival the great grand crus of the Montagne de Reims. Its cooler western reaches of clay soils are exclusively the territory of meunier, easier to grow and ripen than pinot noir and chardonnay.

Côte de Sézanne

The Côte de Sézanne is a little way south of the Côte des Blancs in the Marne and shares the same southeast orientation and dominance of chardonnay. Its soils are heavier and its wines more rustic.

Côte des Bar

More than 100 kilometres south-east of the Côte desBlancs, the outpost of the Aube (Côte des Bar) is closer to Burgundy than to Reims. Pinot noir is the principal grape here, comprising four-fifths of the region’s plantings, producing vigorous and more rustic wines. Planted largely during the late 1980s, vine maturity is now in step with the rest of the region, and the Aube has enjoyed significant increases in quality in recent years.

Its finest villages are Celles-sur-Ource, Les Riceys and Urville.

This extract from The Champagne Guide 2018-2019 by Tyson Stelzer is reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher and author.

Read more in the press release »

See links below for more information on the guide.

The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer is published by Hardie Grant (Sydney, NSW; Nov 2017; Hb; 368pp, RRP A$49.99). Available at all good bookstores or directly from the author »

It can also be purchased online via »


Our Recommendations

To see our recommendations, ratings and reviews you must be a logged-in subscriber.

To subscribe please enter your email address in the "Subscribe Now - it's Free" box on the right and click the "Join" button, or fill in this form >

December 11th, 2017
Subscribe today - it's free
Subscribe Button

Subscribe now - for news and reviews, our newsletter (optional), to join our forums, and more.

Enter your email address and click the Subscribe button. We respect your privacy.

Log in

Enter your username...

Enter your password...

Log In Button

Forgotten your password?


Kerry's corner - your free benefits