Although wine was made around Rheims in Roman and medieval times, champagne really got going in the 17th century with the famous Dom Perignon whose ability to blend and make wine at the monastery in Hautvillers was legendary. Help came from the English who produced the bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure of fermenting wine. The marketing muscle was provided by the Duke of Sillery who threw lavish parties in Paris with barely-dressed women serving champagne (what changes?).
The oddity of champagne lies in its production. As it is so far north, the grapes have a natural high acidity which can be softened when it has some fizz or CO2 along with some sweetness (residual sugar). The wine is fermented conventionally (and usually in stainless steel) until the natural sugars are used up to make 10-11% alcohol. It is then bottled around February with some yeast and added sugar. The yeast ferments the sugar again and produces CO2 which is absorbed into the wine. The bottles are left on the spent yeasts (the lees) for a minimum of 18 months which further rounds out the acidity. At bottling, the necks of the bottles are frozen along with the lees and the pressure inside the bottles forces out the small plugs of ice.
Most champagne houses carefully blend wines from the different areas of Champagne to create a house style, often including older (reserve) wines. The Grand Cru and 1ere Cru villages are those that get the highest prices for their grapes and often produce the best wines.
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