Ever wondered why we toast with Champagne for special occasions and to celebrate life? Read on to learn more about this fascinating region and the wines produced there and decide for yourself why you think this tradition is still strong.
Champagne – the Region and Wine – Throughout History
Since the dawn of winemaking, spontaneous second fermentation would occur in wines making them bubble to varying degrees. This was an undesired effect, but seemingly unavoidable and uncontrollable. It isn’t until thousands of years later that winemakers and scientists perfect making still and sparkling wines.
5th century: Romans plant the first vineyards in the Champagne region. Champagne lies at the crossroads of two major trade routes and at the center of northern Europe, making it a hub for commerce and attributed to the region’s wine’s widespread popularity and notoriety. This also made it prime location for being the site of many battles, occupations, and historic events from Medieval times, including being a known path for Atilla the Hun.
987: Hugh Capet is crowned King of France. Coronations were held in the cathedral of Reims, which lies in the heart of the Champagne region. He decided to have the wine of the region on display at the banquet, a tradition that monarchs continued after him. These wines would come from Äy, and eventually, the wine of this region became know as the ‘vin de France,’ the quality representing the country, not just the region.
12th-13th centuries: The Fairs of Champagne begin to be held once or twice per year. This made Champagne the meeting ground for selling and trading goods from all over the world. While the focus of the markets was cloth, the wine economy also thrived.
14th-15th centuries: The Hundred Years War and Thirty Years War. As a crossroads, the Champagne region continued to be the site of battles throughout history. Wine is still produced and traded, but industry growth is slow.
16th century: Once the region begins to see some stability, winemakers are desperate to set their wine apart and above neighboring Burgundy. However, due to the cold, harsh winters, the wines made from red grapes were often underripe producing wine light to dark pink in color and bitter in flavor as opposed to the rich Burgundian red wines. They attempted to focus on white wines, but these also lacked depth of flavor and longevity due to the cold climate. A phenomenon was occurring that many winemakers were trying to stop – they would bottle their wine in the fall and by spring there were bubbles in the wine and often times many bottles would explode, causing the winemakers to lose their yield and made winemaking known as a dangerous trade.
Early 17th century: The French Wars of Religion have just ended and the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers was rebuilt and they replanted their vineyards. By 1661, they have 25 hectares of vines.
1668: Pierre Perignon is appointed cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey to help develop their winemaking operation. Dom Perignon wanted to focus on the red grapes because their wines were less likely to become volatile than the white grapes. He sought to perfect process and techniques that did not produce effervescence in the wine as that was considered a fault. Perignon was very involved in dictating the pruning, harvesting, and pressing methods that resulted in the final wine.
Mid 17th century: England is a wealthy and powerful nation, but lacks in good winemaking. French wines become very popular with the influx of expats and exiles, and Champagne becomes particularly fashionable among some of the most powerful Dukes and Earls of London. At this time, Champagne wine is not meant to be sparkling. It was shipped over in large barrels for safer transport and bottled in England. Bottles in England at this time are much sturdier and more durable than those in France having been fired in coal-fueled ovens rather than wood-fueled. Due to cold temperatures in Champagne, fermentation would stop and the wine would ship still. This still wine would be bottled in England and in a few months, the wine would be bubbly due to the second fermentation that would occur in the bottle when the yeast would warm up. Almost no bottles would explode due to using more durable glass and corks. The English got a taste for this sparkling wine and sought to understand why it would bubble.
1662: A paper by English scientist Christopher Merret is published that details the process of adding sugar to still wine that eventually leads to its being sparkling. That second fermentation had been occurring in wines spontaneously for ages, but this time period is when we start to see winemakers stimulating the second fermentation deliberately with the addition of sugar.
1688: During his time as cellarmaster, Dom Perignon develops the techniques of blending (different grapes varieties as well as the juice of the same grapes from different vineyards) and a clarification process. He also makes the use of the durable English bottles and Spanish cork regular practice to prevent the exploding bottle problem of the inevitable sparkling wines. Although he was trying to produce non-sparkling wines, these techniques helped produce a better sparkling wine at a time when popularity and demand for sparkling was increasing.
Early 18th century: Sparkling wine contributed only about 10% of Champagne’s wine output, but it was becoming ubiquitous among French and English royalty from Barons and Dukes to Kings and Queens.
1715: Drinking sparkling wine from Champagne became extremely popular among people of Paris who sought to emulate the nobility and was in demand by restaurants and high society. Champagne producers increase or switch to purposeful production of sparkling wines to meet higher demand. Its price is still out of reach for the general people – production was still tricky, dangerous, and expensive and the cost was reflected to the consumer.
1728: Louis XV allowed transport of wine in glass bottles. Transport and exportation of Champagne on small to large scale becomes easier.
1729: Ruinart is the first recorded Champagne house
1735: A ruling is enacted to dictate size, shape, and weight of Champagne bottles as well as the size of the cork and that the cork should be held to the neck of the bottle with strong pack thread
1743: Claude Moet founds what is today the largest Champagne house, House of Moet
Mid 18th century: Champagne production becomes a merchant’s game, not for the single estate grower or monastery. Large houses have the capital to iterate and perfect the still unpredictable fermentation process and age, bottle, market, and distribute their wines. Houses that open during this time: Louis-Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck, and Taittinger.
1789-1815: A time of turmoil and revolution in France had its impact on the wine industry, and greatly impacted sparkling wine production in Champagne. The French Revolution (1789-1799) and subsequent Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) were cause for political upheaval and the aristocracy that craved sparkling were exiled, dethroned, and beheaded. Many Champagne merchants even changed the titles of clients on their ledgers to read “Citizen” to protect them from persecution. When these nobles fled France, Champagne houses made sure cases of sparkling wine would follow. However, during the Napoleonic wars, ports were continually blockaded and counter-blockaded, and merchants had to get crafty in smuggling wines to buyers to keep their businesses afloat. It was during this time that Champagne merchants attempted to turn both victory and defeat into a sales opportunity.
1760-1830: The Industrial Revolution saw advancements in technology in many industries, including wine. Science, technology, economy, and society all advanced at this time, which attributed to the boom in the wine industry. The understanding of how to make sparkling wine and the advancement of the tools to make it made it more feasible to produce. Now, they actually wanted to produce sparkling wine with every bottle, but not every bottle would turn out that way or they exploded, so they needed to figure out how to control it.
Corking machines make bottling easier and cheaper and ensure that less gas escapes from the bottle.
French scientists are studying how and why second fermentation occurs at the same time as their English contemporaries. The chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was well known for consulting on the manufacturing of gunpowder, presented the procedure of adding sugar to wine to increase the final alcohol content of a wine after fermentation (any wine, not just sparkling). This procedure is called “chaptalization.” He also popularized the notion that bottling the wine before the fermentation is complete is what made the wine sparkle in addition to the fact that it was the sugar that facilitated the in-bottle fermentation. The amount of sugar that is able to be added to wines is now highly regulated by region due to many poorly produced wines covering up bad quality with sugar and flooding the market.
1813-1818: Perhaps the most important advancement during this time was the concept of riddling and disgorgement. Madame Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot) and her cellar master, Antoine Muller, developed the concept of riddling, or rotating the bottles to collect sediment in the neck, and disgorgement, the process of removing the sediment that has gathered in the neck. (Before this, sparkling Champagne was always cloudy with sediment, which can make the wine taste off, and was sometimes decanted, although that would weaken the bead.) Often times, after disgorgement, a sweet wine (dosage) was added into the wine to replace the wine lost. Clicquot tried to keep this method a secret, but by the end of the 1820’s, most Champagne houses were building production lines for riddling. Houses were able to tailor sweetness levels to their buyers’ preferences with the dosage. Russians preferred a very sweet Champagne (the majority of the buying market at this time) and British preferred very dry.
1830: French pharmacist, Andre Francois, invents an instrument called the sucere-oenomètre, with which the amount of sugar in the wine can be measured. Formulas are then outlined for precisely how much sugar needs to be added to a wine to make it sparkle without producing more pressure than the bottles can withstand. Bottle breakage drops to 5% and working in a Champagne wine cellar becomes much less terrifying.
1846: Perriet-Jouet introduces a Champagne with no added sugar. It was not widely popular in the 19th century, but by the following generation, less sweet sparkling wines became more in fashion (“brut”).
1854: The French national railroad system connects Reims to the rest of France, including major seaside port cities. This was a game changer as it opened up the Champagne market to the worldwide market. During the 1850’s, production grew to over 20 million bottles per year, up from 300,000 at the beginning of the century.
Early 20th century: Champagne as we know the wines today grew to embed itself in mainstream culture. Despite growing popularity, the turn of the century saw many challenges. Champagne houses began to look outside of the region to source cheaper grapes and with the advent of the French railway, they could receive huge orders of grapes from the Loire and Languedoc. They could buy grapes for nearly half of what grapes from within Champagne cost. At this time, there were hardly any laws in place regarding wine production, so Champagne houses were able to produce and profit off of these “faux” Champagnes while the vine growers suffered. Growers also suffered from low crop yields from frost and rains at the turn of the century and the phylloxera epidemic of France that was now making its way to Champagne. Hard times for the growers are compounded by mold and mildew in 1902 and 1909 and hailstorms and flooding in 1910.
1911: It was common practice between many Champagne houses to collude to drive down the prices of grapes and to continue to source from other regions when prices were better elsewhere. Vineyard owners were selling fewer grapes for less money and poverty soon became widespread. Riots erupted and trucks with grapes from outside of Champagne were pushed into the Marne river by locals. They also raided Houses known to produce the faux Champagne and dumped barrels into the river. This was when the French Government stepped in to help regulate where grapes for the wines could come from. There was disagreement on where the lines should be drawn and the region was on the verge of a Civil War when the first great World War broke out.
1914-1917: World War I brought about more devastation for Champagne. The region’s location near the Western Front caused much of the region’s Champagne houses and vineyards abandoned and the land was the site of many battles. For those who stayed, they used the wine caves as shelter from German bombardment and some continued making wine there. German advance teetered back and forth across the city of Reims. By the end of the war, most of the region – it’s cathedrals, buildings, Champagne houses, and vineyards were destroyed.
1917-1918: The Russian Revolution means the lucrative Russian market it cut off from Champagne. Champagne starts to produce less of the sweet sparkling Russians prefer and more dry.
1919: From devastation grew the need for laws around winemaking. The government set out a series of laws that lay the groundwork for the AOC, which would define winemaking regulations across regional boundaries. Vine growers would also need to replant their vineyards post-war, but saw the silver lining in the opportunity to plant with phylloxera resistant rootstock in more ideal locations.
1920: American Prohibition; it is not illegal to drink alcohol, just to sell it, so the rich and high society are still smuggling in and drinking Champagne, but widely, sales to the US are down. Styles are driven even more dry to accommodate the British tastes.
1929: The Great Depression means even further decrease in sales for Champagne worldwide.
1939-1945: World War II saw more troops trampling the land, but much less destruction than the previous war. Production continued, but sales are still down during this time. On May 7, 1945, it is in Reims that the official announcement of unconditional surrender by Germany is announced. It is said that the signing was celebrated with 6 cases of 1934 Pommery.
1941: The trade organization, Comité Interprofessional de Vin de Champagne (CIVC), is established to protect the common interests of Growers and Houses.
Late 20th century: Champagne production surged after WWII and today sells over 350 million bottles per year. The dynamic between vineyard owners and Champagne houses remains in tact with over 15,000 vine growers selling grapes to around 300 Champagne houses.
Today: Champagne houses account for more than two thirds of all Champagne shipments and 90% of all exports. In 2001, an organization specifically to unify and promote Grower Champagne was founded called Les Champagnes des Vignerons. 5,000 of the 15,000 vine growers are members of this organization. The group is dedicated to upholding traditional vineyard techniques and expressing their unique terroir. These Vignerons account for 30% of worldwide Champagne sales and 45% of sales in France. Popularity of Grower Champagne continues to increase in all markets.
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http://www.intowine.com/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Champagne, http://foxschoolofwine.com/, http://www.champagnegallery.com.au/, http://www.champagne.us/, http://www.jancisrobinson.com/learn/wine-regions/france/champagne, The Wine Bible