A brief history of Champagne

Champagne is both a region and a wine. Only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called Champagne. Other sparkling wine produced elsewhere in France or around the world cannot legally be called Champagne.

Champagne is perhaps the best known, most protected and least understood of wines. It is associated with why we drink it, the occasions, rather than the elements of the drink itself. Champagne is a drink of celebration, of happiness and sometimes simply of extravagance. The UK is the biggest export market for Champagne and we drink around 38 million bottles a year.

The land of Champagne, the area starting around 90 miles to the south east of Paris, has a history marked by conflict and disaster rather than of celebration and happiness. Over the centuries the land has been disturbed many times by religious wars, political strife, two world wars and vine specific disasters like Phylloxera. In between times, the wine suffered from a roller coaster of other international events such as the Russian revolution and The Great depression. Champagne was one of the spoils of war. In both world wars, Champagne houses were forced to provide huge quantities of wine for their new masters in Germany as well as suffering from stocks simply being commandeered by soldiers. Inflicting misery on Champagne was seen as weakening the resolve and morale of France. Champagne was very much a symbol of victory and of defeat.

But let's go back to the beginning and focus on the wine. The Romans planted vines in Champagne in 57BC but this was not initially an important wine area. The economy was predominantly related to the selling of wool and local wine was often offered free as an incentive to buy the wool. The wine itself was red (still) and compared with Burgundy, its main rival, it was lighter coloured and cheaper. The rivalry between the Champagne area and Burgundy lasted for around 130 years and many times came close to civil war. The arguments focussed on which wine was better for health. Proponents from both sides sought celebrity endorsements in addition to sponsoring and disseminating learned treatises. Popes and Kings came down on one side or the other. -

Champagne, of course, had the edge in terms of Kings. The first king of France was crowned at Rheims in 987 and he was the first of 37 kings to be crowned there. The festivities included huge consumption of the local wine. However, it was perhaps inevitable that the more suitable growing conditions in Burgundy would eventually lead to its wine being preferred in broader national and international markets. Eventually, wine producers in Champagne sought to be different rather than better. Champagne gave up trying to produce better red wine than Burgundy when sparkling Champagne became important.

Champagne, the sparkling wine, was first mentioned in England in 1676. It became a curiosity, a fashion and a big demand. London society loved it ... much to the despair of the producers who saw the fizz as a wine fault, not a benefit. At the time, fermentation was not understood. Still white wine was shipped from Champagne to England in barrels as soon as possible after the grape harvest and after the initial fermentation appeared to have ceased. Since wine in the barrels did not keep, there was always a pressure to bring in the new season's wine as quickly as possible. This meant that it would be shipped during the winter months when the cold weather would slow down or prevent further fermentation. Once in the warm taverns, however, the wine would re-ferment and produce the carbon dioxide or fizz. The tavern keepers would bottle this sparkling wine often together with a little sugar that would add further fizz. This new white and sparkling wine was born.

Two further, practical factors aided its popularity here ... the bottle and the cork. England's navy and its survival and prosperity depended upon plentiful supplies of English oak for ship building. James 1 was persuaded that in order to protect this supply, non essential uses for wood such as glass manufacture would in future only use coal. The result was that the higher temperatures reached through using coal produced much tougher glass bottles that could withstand the pressures of a sparkling wine. England's special relationship with Portugal also enabled a ready supply of cork for sealing the bottles. France neither had the concerns about oak supply nor easy access to cork. Indeed, in common with most other countries, wine was shipped and stored in barrels rather than in bottles. Bottles were a rarity at the end of the seventeenth century. In fact until 1728 all wine in France had to be shipped in barrels since this was the basis of its taxation.... the barrels were taxed at source, during shipment and at arrival. The change in French law which allowed Champagne to be sold in bottles was a major boost for Champagne.

For many years, despite the increasing demand in England, wine producers in Champagne were reluctant to produce and bottle a sparkling wine and many refused to do so. It was called the "Devil's Wine". Up to 90% of bottles exploded in the Champagne cellars and the percentage would increase as the weather warmed causing loss of wine, injury and death.

What of Dom Perignon, the legendary French "inventor" of Champagne? He was a monk at the Abbey of Hautvillers on the southern slopes of the Montagne de Rheims in Champagne. The abbey was once a major and prosperous religious site but by 1660 it had been sacked so many times that it was in ruins. Dom Perignon was appointed the abbey's business manager charged with rebuilding the abbey's fortunes. He realised that wine production would be central to this objective and, importantly, that only the very best wine, from the very best grapes would suffice. He therefore launched a programme of replanting and a growing regime designed to produce superior wine. This was at the time that sparkling wine from Champagne was fast becoming popular in England. Like all wine producers at the time he saw the bubbles as a wine fault and then spent 15 years of his life trying unsuccessfully to cure "the problem". By the time he reluctantly gave up the challenge, his grapes and his wines (still, not sparkling) were far superior to others. When he bowed to the inevitable and produced a sparkling wine, he was able to do so with the finest blend of wines. If anyone "invented" sparkling Champagne it was therefore the English, not Dom Perignon, or the French.... but the French were responsible for raising standards and consistency.

By 1730 sparkling Champagne had conquered the courts of Europe. It was now different from Burgundy. The bubbles were regarded as good for health and particularly as a cure for malaria at a time when many cities had stagnant moats. Champagne became associated with royalty, with excess and often debauchery. It was the viagra of the day. Catherine the Great of Russia used Champagne to fortify her officers. Peter the Great took four bottles of Champagne to bed each night. The association of Champagne with privilege and excess inevitably caused popular resentment and was ultimately a factor in the French Revolution. The church and monasteries in Champagne became major power sources strengthened by increased landholdings, tithe taxes and profitable sales of wine. A further source of popular unrest was the monasteries exemption from taxes on wine and their right to sell all their grapes before commoners could begin selling theirs.

The Revolution resulted in the ecclesiastical lands being broken up into many small holdings which still characterise Champagne today. Champagne, however, prospered under Napoleon. Napoleon's father owned a vineyard and Napoleon himself was a friend of Moet (of the Champagne house) and a big believer in the morale boosting qualities of Champagne.

Before every campaign (mostly in the east), Napoleon would pass through Epernay to pick up big quantities of Champagne for his officers. The one exception was before Waterloo .. he did not have the time or direction.

The mid nineteenth century was a period of great prosperity for France and Champagne sales rocketed. In 1800300,000 bottles were produced: in 1850 the figure was 20 million. Things were not to last. France was frequently at war and exports became difficult. Phylloxera struck in 1890 wiping out most of the vines. It was a time for reflection and regulation. The huge rise in the popularity of Champagne had led to the wine being made in many different ways and often of poor quality. Its image and sales suffered. Prior to 1907, the requirement was that a minimum of 51% of the grapes had to be grown in Champagne but the remainder could be pear, apple, or even rhubarb juice. Successive regulations have defined the Champagne area, methods of production and quality standards.

I n the pre- Depression days, Champagne reached new heights of glamour through Hollywood and its association with personal success. Champagne was the only drink to have when times were good or to be envied

James Bond, a more recent film hero, is a Champagne devotee. In the 21 James Bond films Champagne is drunk 35 times as compared with Vodka Martini a mere 22 times.

Champagne today is markedly different. Up to the early years of the twentieth century, Champagne was always sweet and served as a dessert wine. Russia, once a major market for Champagne liked its wine particularly sweet. The residual sugar level (the measure of sweetness) was often over 200 grammes per litre (Sauternes is typically 90-108). Today, most Champagne is simply "Brut" with a residual sugar level of between 0 and 15 grammes.

Worldwide sales of Champagne continue to grow significantly. Major markets are the UK and the US. In recent years, Japan, Russia and China have also become important markets particularly for more expensive Champagne. The current annual reduction of nearly 350 million bottles is near the limit of production. Controversially, the situation has been eased by allowing an increase in the grape yield per acre (now above that for vin de pays) and by plans to create an additional 15% acreage within the overall Champagne area. This latter move would add an estimated 12 billion Euros to the value of land in Champagne. The cast of approved vineyard land in Champagne is currently over 300,000 Euros per acre.

Champagne prices have reduced or stayed steady in real terms. The duty on Champagne is still higher than for still wine reflecting the fact that chancellors still regard Champagne (and any sparkling wine) as something of a luxury. For many, choosing Champagne is a matter of price - a price that befits the occasion - but also a matter of branding. A brand that is well known and higher priced may be preferred for these reasons. Imagery is important. "Vintage" Champagne will sell for significantly more than "non vintage".

Today, there are over 12,000 brands of Champagne and with variants there are around 50,000 different Champagnes produced each year. Many of the producers produce fewer than 5,000 cases a year. Most grape growers do not make Champagne and most Champagne producers buy at least a proportion of their grapes from growers only. Grape growing villages may be classified as Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages and this classification means that their grapes sell at a premium to non classified villages. The Champagne producers, however, are not classified and quality can vary considerably.

Many countries drink now more Cava than Champagne as well as increasing quantities of sparkling wine from Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Most of this other sparkling wine is made by the Champagne method and often from the same grape varieties but it cannot use the word Champagne.

As demand for Champagne continues to increase (although economic uncertainties remain a question) and capacity becomes stretched, many Champagne houses and others are investing in overseas facilities. The ideal growing conditions for sparkling wine that once helped separate Champagne from Burgundy may be changing. Global warming is increasing temperatures in Champagne and some forecasts suggest that the area may become too warm to achieve the levels of acidity required for the best sparkling wine. Shrewd investors are looking at areas like southern England that have soil conditions near identical to Champagne. The award winning Nyetimber estate in West Sussex has recently been purchased by a Dutch entrepreneur who plans a fourfold expansion of production to around 70,000 cases a year.

Whatever happens, the image of Champagne is so strong that it is difficult to ever sec it losing its unique imagery. Champagne is Champagne.


Arthur Till has been interested in the fruits of the vine for many years and shares his enthusiasm for wine with others through wine appreciation courses, a wine group and the tours he organizes.