Champagne was a region long before it was a sparkling wine. The region lies at a crossroads of northern Europe — the river valleys leading south to the Mediterranean and north to Paris, the English Channel and Western Germany — and thus has been the setting of many dramatic events in the history of the French nation. Before the mid-1600's there was no Champagne as we think of it. For centuries the wines were still wines and were held in high regard by the nobility of Europe. But the cool climate of the region and its effect on the wine making process played an important part in changing that. We owe a lot to Dom Pérignon, but he is not the inventor of champagne as is often thought. Pierre Pérignon was a Benedictine monk who, in 1688, was appointed treasurer at the Abby of Hautvillers. The Abby is located near Epernay. Included in Dom Pérignon's duties was the management of the cellars and wine making. The bubbles in the wine are a natural process arising from Champagne's cold climate and short growing season. Of necessity, the grapes are picked late in the year. This doesn't leave enough time for the yeasts present on the grape skins to convert the sugar in the pressed grape juice into alcohol before the cold winter temperatures put a temporary stop to the fermentation process. With the coming of Spring's warmth, the fermentation is again underway, but this time in the bottle. The re-fermentation creates carbon-dioxide which now becomes trapped in the bottle, thereby creating the sparkle.
What determines how much you pay for a Champagne is the style of wine inside it. A non-vintage (often abbreviated to NV) wine is a blend of wine from several different years. They are blended so as to maintain a house style, and this is the entry level for Champagne. Vintage wines are produced from a single year, and most houses will only release a vintage wine if they deem that the grapes harvested that year are of sufficient quality. Accordingly, they are more expensive than the NV wines. They are identifiable simply by the presence of a vintage year on the label. Prestige cuvées are released by some of the top houses, and here quality can be excellent.