Champagne has launched thousands of ships, toasted billions of weddings and special occasions, flutes attended countless parties, and shared untold special moments between two people. Champagne is the wine of celebration. No other wine is so associated with joy and festivity. Its meaning and appeal are universal. Champagne makes the young sages and the old young again.
Champagne has exported its techniques around the world. Sparkling wines are made the world over, but here we will explore the sparkling wines from the north of France called Champagne.
Méthod Champenois [meh-toh'd shahm-PEH-n'wahz]
Côte des Blancs [coat deh blahn]
Montagne de Reims [mohn-tahn-yuh duh rem]
Vallée de la Marne [val-ay duh lah marn]
The History of Champagne
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. As a convenient access point, it has been for hundreds of years, the chosen path of many invaders including Attila the Hun. The Hundred Years' War and the Thirty Years' War brought repeated destruction to the region as armies marched back and forth across its landscape. By the 17th century, the city of Reims has seen destruction seven times and Epernay no less than twenty-five times.
But crossroads also bring trade. Champagne gained importance in its own right, during the middle ages as a center of European trade. The medieval counts of Champagne were wise enough to encourage commerce and strong enough to protect the traveling merchants. They created the then famous, Fairs of Champagne. Though these fairs were mainly about cloth, they were of obvious benefit for the wines of Champagne as it gave them easy exposure and access to important wine markets.
Champagne also benefited when the cathedral at Reims was chosen in 987 AD, as the coronation site for the French king Hugh Capet and establishing Reims as the spiritual capital of medieval France. In fact, thirty-seven kings of France were crowned there between 816 and 1825. The monasteries in Champagne with the economic assistance of the crown, were to make wine production a serious venture until the French Revolution in 1789.
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 was to play an important part in changing all of that.
We owe a lot to Dom Pérignon as any inventor owes those who have come before him. He is not however 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 warmer temperatures, the fermentation is again underway, but this time in the bottle. The refermentation creates carbon-dioxide which now becomes trapped in the bottle, thereby creating the sparkle.
For Dom Pérignon and his contemporaries, sparkling wine was not the desired end product. It was a sign of poor wine making. He spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the bubbles, the unstableness of this "mad wine," and the creation of a decidedly white wine the court would prefer to red burgundy. He was not able to prevent the bubbles, but he did develop the art of blending. He not only blended different grapes, but the juice from the same grape grown in different vineyards. Not only did he develop a method to press the black grapes to yield a white juice, he improved clarification techniques to produce a brighter wine than any that had been produced before. To help prevent the exploding bottle problem, he began to use the stronger bottles developed by the English and closing them with Spanish cork instead of the wood and oil-soaked hemp stoppers then in use. Dom Pérignon died in 1715, but in his 47 years as the cellar master at the Abby of Hautvillers, he laid down the basic principles still used in making Champagne today.
Although sparkling Champagne was only about 10% of the region's output in the 18th century, it was enjoyed increasingly as the wine of English and French royalty and the lubricant of preference at aristocratic gatherings. Its popularity continued to grow until, in the 1800's, the sparkling wine industry was well established.
The face of the industry really began to change when Louis XV allowed the transport of wine in bottles in 1728. A year later, Ruinart became the first recorded Champagne house. By 1735, a royal ordinance was instituted to dictate the size, shape, and weight of champagne bottles, the size of the cork they should use and that they be secured with strong pack thread to the collar of the bottle. Claude Moët founded, in 1743, what was to become the largest champagne house today, the House of Moët.
The complexity and capital intensity of making champagne ultimately lead to the replacement of the monastic and aristocratic growers with the champagne merchants. With their capital, the merchant's or maisons, had to ability to perfect the otherwise still unpredictable fermentation process, age, distribute, market and export the wine.
Dégorgement was first practiced in 1813. It was perfected in 1818 by the Widow Clicquot's cellar master Antoine Muller. He developed a process of "riddling" the wine in order to get the sediment of dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle so it could be removed without the time consuming task of decanting each bottle. This process also saved most of the gas.
The 1820's and 30's saw the use of corking machines and wine muzzles. Finally in 1836, a pharmacist in Châlons-sur-Marne, M. François, invented an instrument, called a sucere-oenomètre, to measure the amount of sugar in wine. With this invention, the amount of sugar needed to stimulate the second fermentation could be reliably determined, and the bottle burst-rate dropped to 5%. It was now a little more safe to take a spring walk through a champagne cellar.
In the 1920's four well known houses were established – Bollinger, Irroy, Mumm, and Joseph Perrier. By 1853 total sales of sparkling champagne reached 20 million bottles up from just 300,000 bottles at the turn of the century.
Remember gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne! – Winston S Churchill, 1918
World War I again brought devastation to the region. The early months of the war saw a rapid German advance into northern France and during the fall of 1914, they were camped south of the river Marne. By 1915 they were driven back just north of the city of Reims. The enormous caves – Roman chalk quarries – beneath Reims that were used for the storage and production of champagne, now became shelters from the 1000 days of bombardment the city endured from 1914 to 1918. After the war, the city had to be completely rebuilt.
The years after the Great War were difficult. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Prohibition in the United States, and then the Great Depression saw the champagne market dry up. The champagne houses stopped buying grapes, so the growers formed the first champagne cooperatives at this time. With the ending of Prohibition in 1934, the industry began to turn around. The influential head of Moët & Chandon, Robert-Jean de Vougë, was most instrumental in securing its future. He proposed that the purchase price of champagne grapes be set at a level that ensured a decent living for the growers, and in 1941, during the German occupation of France, became the driving force in persuading the Germans to establish the very successful Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne – C.I.C.C.
Since World War II champagne sales have climbed upwards, nearly quadrupling between 1945 and 1966. Champagne has trickled down the social scale and is no longer considered just a luxury. Today, more champagne is being drunk, by more people, than at any previous time in history. The new millennium looks good for champagne.