So beloved for the joy it induces, a bottle of champagne may be as prized as the place from which it hails is protected. What is so regarded often reflects the care and detail in its making; a bottle of champagne – the wine – is no exception and the history of Champagne – the region – sheds light on how it has become one of the most respected sparkling wines in the world . The veneration that champagne enjoys today has long been fought for and it may come with great surprise that its creation was merely accidental, its effervescence deemed a flaw, tirelessly aimed to be correct until it was embraced. We’re so glad it was.
An Overview of the Champagne Region
Champagne is a cool climate viticultural zone making it susceptible to harsh conditions throughout the growing season. Three varieties of grapes that do well in such conditions make up nearly all of the plantings in the region: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. Pinot Noir was the chief variety of the region through the mid 1800s, but now each of the varieties represents one third of the land under vine.
The combination of the environmental challenges of growing grapes in Champagne, the deftness required in the cellar to craft the wine and tight production codes lay the groundwork for champagne’s intrinsic value. But its merit is not solely contained within these measurable factors. Champagne’s history and rise to recognition is one of collective dedication and perseverance; out of mishap, turmoil and revolution emerged precision, grace and glamor — all that we, also, praise champagne for today.
From Romans to Royals
Vines have existed in what is modern-day Champagne for thousands of years. The earliest record of a bounded vineyard was in the fifth century, but it’s believed that grapes may have been cultivated as early as the first century BCE. The grapes of ancient Champagne, established by the accomplished viti- and viniculturing Romans, were not destined for sparkling wine. This fruit, largely Pinot Noir, would produce pink to very pale red table wines — likely not possessing much drinkability by today’s standards — that were consumed locally and also used as a basis for barter and trade elsewhere in the empire.
In some sense, the wine of champagne has always catered to royalty— even when it wasn’t the fashionable, effervescent stuff. By the early middle ages, the city of Reims had become the coronation center for the kings of France. These ceremonies brought to Champagne not just the monarchy, but also those patrons of the aristocracy who carried clout and influence, and to whom the regional wine was served. This exposure did much in the way of building Champagne’s reputation as a wine-producing region.
Rivalry with Burgundy & Accidental Bubbles
But the Champenois were striving for more than just the attention of the court. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Champagne’s southerly neighbor Burgundy was sustaining international attention for its red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes. Centuries-deep, already, in meticulous study, cultivation and technical development of vineyards and cellars by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, Burgundy garnered the envy of Champagne.
The cool-weathered Champagne we know today was even cooler then, and ripening red wine grapes to the degree of being able to produce Burgundian-esque wine proved to be impossible — ultimately a defeat. With Pinot Noir so widely planted and long-handled, the idea of pivoting styles seemed less a question of changing the grape, but rather how to alter the process to better represent Champagne for Champagne, not a Burgundy lookalike. And so, producers transitioned to making white wine from the red grape. (There were efforts to make white with white grapes but the wine was inferior in flavor and quick to spoil.) Thus, too, began the tradition known today as blanc de noirs.
The infamous Dom Perignon was a prominent figure in the honing of this style, as well as cellar and vineyard practices at large. He was scrupulous and a perfectionist, and his prescribed methods of the seventeenth century contributed much in the way of champagne’s long evolution. Perignon did not, however, invent bubbly champagne. In fact, he held to the mainstream idea that the effervescence that would spontaneously appear and overcome some bottles in the spring was a major flaw — one to try to be stifled and hopefully, eventually, eradicated.
These bubbles were not forming by exactly the same process the Champenois use today, but one that is a bit more rustic. It’s now referred to as the ancestral method but there was no name for it (except perhaps satanic) when it first began haunting the cellars of Champagne. This fermentation occurs when a newly pressed and bottled wine overwinters with some sugar content remaining. When spring arrives the warm temperatures spur the naturally-existing yeasts in the bottle to consume the remainder of sugar. As a result of this re-fermentation, carbon dioxide is created and the wine becomes lightly fizzy. Because this was an unintended process and the bottling materials were not designed or equipped to withstand the pressure, the issue of explosions was a serious one.
The Understated Role of England
Exploding wine bottles may have been the bane of Perignon and his contemporaries (and no doubt they were extremely dangerous), but what of this sparkling wine produced did make it out of the region became somewhat of a reveled novelty — especially in England.
In a lot of ways, the English were simultaneously studying and taming the tendency of champagne wine to become bubbly, but with less grim and more enthusiasm than the French. With all we know now, it may even be said that they were simultaneously developing it. For the sake of economy, champagne was exported in barrels to England where it was bottled by purveyors upon arrival. And because the fashionable styles of wine during this era drank more like dessert wine, extra sugar was often added. Once settled and seasonally warmed, these bottles re-fermented — right under the eyes of those who relished in selling the unique libation to their patrons.
In 1662 Christopher Merret, an English scientist, published a paper detailing the chemistry behind the bubble-producing fermentation. This understanding paired with access to quality Portuguese cork and strong glass (through coal-firing), allowed the English to optimize the process of producing sparkling wine… intentionally.
From Conquering Courts to Waging War
The eighteenth century marked a huge upswing in notoriety and sales for Champagne wines which, by then, were largely hallmarked by the bubbly version. Champagne was the wine of the distinguished and continued servicing the needs of courts across the globe; it was prosthelytized as fashionable and fun, an elixir and cure-all, and it was consumed by nobles in great excess. It became a symbol for wealth and as such, also a symbol for greed.
Luxury commodities such as champagne, and their industries, were tangible trigger points for social unrest and the economically disenfranchised (i.e. most of the society) leading up to the French Revolution. And though Napoleon himself honored the beverage and saw to its regular consumption by himself and his troops, the champagne industry was fragmented during the Napoleonic campaigns.
It rebounded with tenacity in the nineteenth century, however, due in part to mechanization processes brought forth by the Industrial Revolution that streamlined champagne making. There were also new techniques implemented in certain stages of the production that refined the process and solidified champagne’s sparkling wine identity.
In certain aspects industrialization may have aided in consistent high quality, but in other ways it promoted outsourcing and, well, rage. The rise of big champagne houses in the nineteenth century established a strong division between those growing the grapes and those entities sourcing them to make and store the champagne. This gave the one’s doing the making all of the economic power, and when they chose to start bringing in grapes from outside of the region, this naturally did not sit well with growers who were increasingly feeling at the whims of the powerful houses.
The Champagne Riots & a Tastemaking Future
Growers were angry, and rightfully so, at the lack of regional loyalty their production counterparts showed. And this was at a time in Champagne’s history — the early twentieth century — when there was little to no regulation of any aspect of the region’s wine production. This all compounded with decades of environmental factors that made for supremely challenging harvests left the growers vulnerable and rebellious.
The Champagne Riots took place in early 1911. The series of interference and attacks by agriculturists on the big players in production led to federal intervention. Laws were established that set parameters for how the ‘what’ of champagne was to be defined— and this included from where the grapes could be sourced. These initial regulations set much needed protections in place, and though there were many gaps in the legislation to be filled and then ironed out throughout the twentieth century, their recognition marked an important turning point in what would eventually become champagne’s protected place and name.
Tighter regulation can gamble with a product’s quality; for champagne, it officially established and reinforced excellence. The ways in which champagne making is dictated on paper have not only helped it sustain high-ranking international status, but have uniquely positioned it in a place of consumer trust. Champagne has drastically changed throughout its ages — from red to white, still to sparkling, hyper-sweet to bone-dry — and we’ve never abandoned our dedication to it. When quality is embraced by a producer and executed by the cellar master as fervently as the market is expecting it, a trust arises in consumers that brings power to the creativity of the maker. In other words, what we’ve come to know about champagne is this: we’ve loved it in the past, we love it now, and we will certainly love it in the future.