La Champagne is a region of timeless natural beauty. The name derives from the Latin ‘campus’, ‘campania’ or field. In Old French this became ‘Champaign’; today, Champagne.
Pliny documented viticulture in the Marne as early as 79 A.D., but fossil evidence exists showing that wild vines flourished naturally in the area round Epernay over a million years ago. As well as developing the vineyards and the art of winemaking, the Romans also quarried the chalky hillsides up to three hundred feet deep, in search of chalk blocks for building. These chalk pits are called crayeres and have since become cellars for millions of bottles of Champagne.
In 92 A.D. the Emperor Domitian decreed that most of the vineyards of France should be uprooted to eliminate competition with the wines of the Italian peninsula. The vines of Champagne were no exception. For two centuries the vineyards were cultivated secretly, until the Emperor Probus rescinded the decree and ordered the vineyards to be replanted. From the very outset, the wines of Champagne were prized above all the vineyards of Europe.
As Christianity and the influence of the church spread, considerable vineyards were bequeathed to the monastic orders. In the eleventh century, when Crusaders who had entrusted their property to the church did not return, these monastic holdings were increased significantly.
Many of the most coveted vineyards of Champagne, whose wines were the only ones considered worthy of offering to God or King, were virtually nationalised in clerical hands. For centuries they were the wines used for the sacrament, for coronations, for the royal table and for the consecration of treaties.
Champagne and Burgundy
Until the latter half of the seventeenth century, the still wines of Champagne were rivalled only by those of Burgundy, the other proponent of the Pinot Noir grape. The Champenois had begun to encroach on the export markets of the Low Countries, an area in which Burgundy had been formerly unchallenged. Perceiving opportunities to widen both their domestic and export markets, they spared no expense improving the quality of their wines. Throughout the 1600’s, a paper-and-ink war, in Latin prose and verse, ensued between Champagne and Burgundy. The battles, whose champions were doctors and poets, centred on the respective taste and natural wholesomeness of the wines.
Rather than imitating the wines of Burgundy, the Champenois sought to create a new style of wines. Voltaire remarked that these new wines, made with the most painstaking care, were not only unusual but also delicious. This novelty value helped them enjoy a great advantage not only in the wealthy, fashionable circles of Paris but in the export market as well. Reference is made from the middle of the century onwards to Champagne wines of various colours; ‘oeil de perdrix’ (partridge eye); ‘couleur de miel’ (honey-coloured); ‘cerise’ (cherry pink); ‘fauve’ (tawny); or ‘gris’ (grey). The Champenois had discovered how to vinify light-coloured wines from the Pinot Noir grape.
‘Vin Gris’ and England
Although the red wines of Champagne had been known in England for some time, the new ‘vin gris’ was only introduced there in the early 1660’s. A M. de Saint-Evremond, courtier to Louis XIV but fallen from the king’s favour, fled to London, quickly establishing himself as an English society arbiter of fashion. Saint-Evremond loved the wines of Champagne above all others, and procured modest shipments of the wines, which became instantly popular. It is from this period that the first accounts of sparkling Champagne wines are found.
Frère Jean Oudart and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639 – 1742)
These early sparkling wines were the result of an accident. Most ‘vin gris’ in France was drunk young; but when shipped abroad in cask, the warm spring weather frequently set off a secondary fermentation, still underway when the wines arrived. Through trade with Spain and Portugal, the cork stopper was already in common use in England for ales, an advantage the landlocked provinces of France did not yet enjoy. These delicate new wines were bottled immediately upon their arrival, and retained, in more or less haphazard fashion a lively sparkle. The phenomenon aroused considerable academic and commercial interest on the part of the Champenois.
The first successful, deliberate methods of capturing the ‘mousse’ in the bottle were due to the combined efforts of the monastic orders of Pierry and Epernay. Under the inspired direction of their respective cellarmasters, Frère Jean Oudart (1654 – 1742) and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639 – 1715), the abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons and Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers became the birthplace of naturally sparkling wine in its purest and most perfect form. The two abbeys were barely two miles apart and it is likely that these two contemporaries consulted each other.
The principles they established during the last quarter of the seventeenth century remain amongst the most important in the production of Champagne: the technique of blending from various vineyards to obtain a finished wine superior to any of its parts, the process of clarifying sediment from the wine, and the introduction of the cork in Champagne bottles to replace hemp-wrapped wooden stoppers.
The Nineteenth Century
For nearly a century and a half after that virtually no technical progress was made in production methods. The Champenois growers responded to the considerable demand for the sparkling, usually sweet, wines, but none dared depend exclusively on it for his livelihood. The presence or absence of bubbles in wine was erratic. In 1834, André Julien wrote in his ‘Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus’:
The phenomena which cause or destroy the quality ‘mousseuse’ are so surprising, that they cannot be explained. The same wine drawn the same day … put down in the same cellar, and placed in the same heap, mousses to such a height … whilst it mousses much less or not at all in another position, near such a door, or under such an air hole … all these accidents …are so varied and extraordinary that the most experienced vintners cannot foresee nor prevent them always.
The ‘other accidents’ to which Julien refers were exploding bottles. A loss of fifteen or twenty per cent was normal, and forty per cent not unusual.
The next two innovations did little to solve the problems of the wine now commonly called ‘saute-bouchon’. The quality however, was greatly improved. Due to the Northerly position of Champagne the vines often lacked enough sunshine. This caused the wines to be sharp and ‘green’ from unripened grapes. It was the practice to add sugar to the finished wine to smooth the edge, as well as to suit the public taste for sweet wines. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the distinguished chemist, advocated adding sugar at fermentation, rather than to the finished wine, to increase alcohol content. This proved to be most beneficial. Chaptalisation=addition of sugar.
Soon thereafter, Parmentier discovered the vastly superior results obtained by adding sugar made from concentrated grape juice, rather than cane sugar, to the must. These developments, however beneficial to quality, only worsened the problem of exploding bottles. Uncontrolled quantities of fermenting sugar raised the ratio of bursting bottles to as high as eighty percent!
The next landmark discovery was made in 1836. A pharmacist from Châlons-sur-Marne, published a treatise on bottle fermentation in which he described a method for measuring the residual sugar in wine, which became known as ‘réduction François’ after its inventor. It was already known that riper, sweeter grapes produced higher levels of alcohol and carbon dioxide in wine; but François’ method made it possible to determine exactly how much additional sugar was needed to produce a specific volume of carbon dioxide in the wine and the corresponding atmospheric pressure within the bottle. For the first time, the hazardous practice of making Champagne could be accomplished with a degree of reliability and, after the 1840’s, still wine production in Champagne virtually disappeared in favour of sparkling wines.
A great period of prosperity ensued for Champagne which was to last until the early 1900’s. Connoisseurs’ tastes gradually changed toward drier Champagnes, which coincided with the introduction of the first vintage dated Champagnes from the exceptional years of 1842, 1846, and 1857, the quality of which was so excellent that they needed only a light dosage of sugar syrup.
When phylloxera struck, Champagne was more fortunate than elsewhere, for its colder climate impeded the progress of the vine louse. This enabled the Champenois to benefit from remedies tried earlier in the South. Although nearly half the vineyards of the Marne were destroyed, Champagne was produced throughout the last decade of the 1800’s, and much of it was excellent.
Delimitation, riots and decrees
On December 17, 1908, the delimitation (setting out the geographic area) of the ‘Champagne Viticole’ became official. It took three years of political struggle and civil unrest, culminating in the Revolt of the Vignerons in late 1911, to bring about a measure of compliance satisfactory to the Champenois. The issue centred on the importing of cheap wines, from the sunny South, into the Champagne area by disreputable shippers, who fraudulently blended them with Champagne. (Shades of Burgundy in 2000!)
The growers and reputable shippers demanded that these wines be kept in separate cellars from Champagne wines, and after the contents of several railcars and numerous suspect cellars were destroyed by riotous mobs the practice was made illegal. Only grapes from Champagne could be used in Champagne
The problems were not over yet. The growers in the districts outlying the Marne, outside “la Champagne”, whose vineyards lay in cantons not included within the delimitation of 1908, complained that because they were both unable to compete with the cheaper Southern wines which were flooding the Paris market, and because they were no longer entitled to call their wines ‘Champagne’, their markets were destroyed. They demanded the repeal of the 1908 decree, but when this was rescinded on April 10, 1911 a new wave of rioting by the growers within “Champagne” took place! They feared the market would be flooded with wine. Finally, a new decree reaffirming the original delimitation was drafted. Still unsatisfactory to most, the law was debated for two years. It was finally passed on July 22nd, 1927 and remains in effect to this day.
The First World War and Prohibition were disastrous times for Champagne. Vineyards became battlefields, cellars were emptied, export markets evaporated and economic depression left few buyers for luxury goods. A major market for Champagne had been Imperial Russia, and of course, that market disappeared following the revolution in 1917.
Again, in World War II, the vineyards once again became battlefields and France was occupied by the Nazis. It is only since the end of World War II that Champagne has so spectacularly rebuilt itself. In 1941, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne was legally established, and has since contributed not only to administering production regulations in Champagne, but to promoting the wines throughout the world. The CIVC also has a team of lawyers protecting the name of Champagne. Woe betide anyone who tries to call their new brand of washing powder “Champagne Suds”!