Champagne: France, History of Champagne, Dom Perignon

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.

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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.

Pronunciation Guide
Aube [oh'b]
Aÿ [ah-yee]
Champagne [sham-PAYN]
Méthod Champenois [meh-toh'd shahm-PEH-n'wahz]

Côte des Blancs [coat deh blahn]
Dosage [doh-SAHJ]
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 C100 Years Warhampagne 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.

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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.