I could not live without Champagne, in victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it.
Winston Churchill, 1931, New York
Champagne, A name synonymous with celebration… success… glory. It is drunk in large quantities worldwide, as an aperitif at your favourite restaurant, or perhaps among friends toasting in the new year, or just maybe upon winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix! The journey to Sparkling wine prestige has been a rollercoaster ride for the region to say the least. Many ups and downs with the various social, economic and historical factors that both damaged and enhanced the reputation of the region and its produce. Here we will be going on a near 2000 year journey from the Roman invasion of Reims, to the Evolution of Champagne wines, the effects that both World Wars had on the region, to the UNESCO listed region of today, where over 300 million bottles are sold worldwide every year, as well as the prestigious reputation of being producers of the world’s most premium sparkling wine.
Champagne: The Early Years
Wine growing in Champagne can date as far back as the early Gaelic period, when the Celts living in the region planted grapes for the purpose of small-scale consumption among their own people! This was deemed a profitable enterprise by the invading Roman forces, who eventually occupied the Gauls, thus banning the growing and production of Champagne wines as we knew it then, so as not to compete with Roman vineyards.This early form of ‘Prohibition’ was eventually lifted in the 3rd Century AD!
The middle ages then sparked the next growth of Viticulture in Champagne. As with much of the alcohol production of the time, the Church played a huge role in its production and sale of the wine with particular influence coming from Saint Remi, the bishop of Reims and his monks and clergymen who owned many of the vineyards. The sixteenth century also saw Reims Cathedral being the home of the coronation of French Monarchs. This brought vast numbers of nobility and people of influence to the city to celebrate and sample the local wine selection!
The Northern location of the region allowed easy access to trade fairs in various towns where the wine could be sold, as well as being the first port of call for Northern Countries visiting France to buy wine. These were the earliest foundations of Champagne gaining worldwide recognition.
The Evolution of Champagne Production: Mastering the Effervescence
The 17th-19th century saw the beginning of the standardisation of Champagne as the wine we know and love today. At the time wines were stored in barrels as opposed to bottles, and later harvests coupled with the unpredictable nature of Champagne climates meant that fermentation would often be interrupted and reawaken, causing the wine to sparkle slightly…The earliest signs of secondary fermentation?
Advances in the resistance and quality of glass from local furnaces meant that producers began to store wines in the bottle as opposed to barrels, so when fermentation began again in the air tight conditions this created a greater effervescence or ‘sparkle.’ This change caught the attention of the French nobility and people of influence. Who were keen to set themselves apart from the crowd, allowing Champagne to increase its social status becoming ‘the rich man’s drink’ and becoming associated with power, influence, luxury and being merry.
Effervescence – ‘The escape of gas from a liquid solution and the foaming or fizzing that results from that release’
Despite the production of Champagne wines beginning to take shape, its methods were still unrefined, with the pressure caused by secondary fermentation often caused bottles to explode, this was until the 19th century when Parisian Chemist Edme-Jules Maumené developed a device called the aphrometer allowing producers to accurately measure the pressure of bottles, meaning the explosions were drastically decreased. Other methods were also used to harness this, one of the most notable methods was the blending of different grape varieties grown in the region, a tradition that is still adopted to this day. This was introduced by a French Benedectine monk who was famed for advancing many of the winemaking techniques used in the region. His name… Dom Pierre Perignon.
During the late 19th century, Champagne was riding high on the reputation of being France’s premier drink, this all came crashing down in 1890 with the arrival of phylloxera, a small vampire-like insect originating from North America. Arriving in Europe in 1863, they attacked vines by the roots, sucking out all of the sap, and destroying the vine from within. Producing offspring at a rate of 1 million per year per insect, they spread like wildfire, and destroyed vine growth and wine production over a large area. Something needed to be done, they needed a new rootstock tough enough to protect the region’s vines, whilst also not compromising the identity of the region’s wines. This led to the production of Berlianderi B, a rootstock derived from the Berlianderi found in Texas. An area that shares the limestone rich soil. This rootstock is still used to this day!
Champagne at War
Champagne like much of Northern France was absolutely decimated by the atrocities of the first and second world war. Due to the region’s location along the Western Front much of the trench warfare that occurred during World War One was fought along the Montagne de Reims. Many of the Champagne houses were abandoned and 40% of vineyards were destroyed alongside the beautiful and historic Reims Cathedral (although it was since rebuilt) Many of the locals fled the war torn region, however those that stayed found refuge in the famous ‘Creyeres’ or Limestone Caverns used to store bottles. By 1917 Champagne had lost over half its population and the winemaking industry was all but destroyed with the terroir now dominated by artillery, shells and bomb craters.
Despite Champagne not directly being involved in the field of battle during World War 2, The German occupation of France led to the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) seizing control of the region. Champagne houses were forced to sell wines to German officers for next to nothing and the region’s wine industry as a whole faced major financial trouble, which took them the best part of a decade to recover from.
‘It is said that Marylin Monroe once bought 350 bottles of Champagne to have a bath in it’
It’s fair to say that the road to French wine stardom has been a rollercoaster ride for the region with many ups and downs. In the present day Champagne wines are responsible for ⅓ of all wine sales in the country with the average income being in the sum of five billion euros a year.
To further add to the illustrious history of the land the hillsides, houses and cellars were awarded a prestigious listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to the region’s unique terroir and expertise and technical ability of the region’s key leaders. No matter what the future may hold for this pioneering land, we can guarantee they will continue to provide the world with hope, with glory, with success, and perhaps most importantly… with gorgeous wine!
‘Champagne is the only wine, that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it’
Madame de Pompadour