What Makes Champagne Special? A Brief History

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Pinot Noir vines in Cumières

The vast appellation of Champagne doesn’t look like the world’s other wine regions. The extensive vineyards—spreading for miles in some places, covering every available slope—are high density plantings, containing from 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare. The vines are also pruned to be much closer to the ground and more compact than most wine grape plantings elsewhere.

These techniques, dictated by the longest rule book of any appellation in the world, are aimed at minimizing the number of grape clusters, for greater fruit concentration, as well as ensuring full ripening by allowing the grapes to benefit from the heat that radiates from the ground in this northerly and otherwise cool winegrowing region.

Things look different in the wineries and cellars too. Because of the unique process involved in making Champagne, specialized presses are used. There is extensive space devoted to cellaring bottles in which wine is undergoing secondary fermentation, or aging on its lees. There are also riddling racks or machines, needed for eliminating the sediment that develops in the bottle as a result of the secondary fermentation. Whether the producer is one of the great houses—producing millions of bottles a year—or a small, grower producer, one can tell at a quick glance that one is in Champagne and not anywhere else in the wine world.

These unique features of one of the world’s great wine regions became truly vivid for me during a press trip to the region at the end of September this year. The trip was organized for several of us American wine, food and travel writers by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). That’s the joint trade organization representing all growers and producers (houses) in Champagne.

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Maison de la Champagne, headquarters of the CIVC in Reims

How did these differences come about? After all, Champagne, like other major wine regions of France, has seen the cultivation of grapes for wine for at least 2,000 years, since the time of the Romans. Indeed, it was the Romans who named the area “Campania” for its resemblance to the rolling hillsides of Southern Italy’s Campania region.

What is now known as the Champagne region starts about 70 miles east of Paris. The first king of France, Clovis I, was baptized in Reims, the largest population center in the Champagne region, and a tradition of holding coronations in Reims continued from the 8th century through to the 18th century. French kings donated generously to monasteries in the region. Monasteries or abbeys were expected to offer fine products to their benefactors and other important people. Wine was considered “the blood of Christ,” so many abbeys specialized in the production of wine.

These early producers found the cool climate did not permit the full ripening of red grapes with rich color as was produced in Bordeaux. Where they excelled was in producing white wine usually from red grapes, typically Gouais and Fromenteau in the Middle Ages, by using the first pressings and limited skin contact, to avoid coloring the juice. A French writer, Watriquet de Couvin, described these wines in 1320 as “clear, quivering, strong, delicate and fresh on a discerning palate.”

Bordeaux itself was, from the 12th century to the mid-1400s, part of England, while Burgundy was a Duchy that rivaled the Kingdom of France from the 14th to late in the 15th century. Champagne was therefore the French court’s favored source for wines during the first half of the last millennium.

When Bordeaux and Burgundy ultimately became part of France, the Champagne region’s fortunes as a provider of wines to the court and nobility greatly declined, although Louis XIV in the late 1600s reportedly drank almost exclusively light red wines from what is now the Champagne grand cru village of Bouzy. By that time, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier had been introduced and proved to ripen better than other red varieties in this region.

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Medieval cellars still very much in use at Taittinger

It took an English innovation and English technology to bring the wines of this region back into royal favor and start them on the road to their now distinctive position in the world of wine.

The technology involved was reinforced glass, for bottles, and the rediscovery of the bottle sealing properties of cork—long used by the Romans but abandoned until the English started employing it again in the 1600s.

English wine merchants generally bottled wine purchased in bulk from France and other wine producing countries. Sometime in the mid-1600s, English merchants started adding sugar and molasses to various kinds of wine to generate a secondary fermentation in bottle. Prior to that time, it was common in cold regions, like Champagne, for wines to halt fermentation when the temperature dropped in winter, resuming again as cellar temperatures rose again in spring. The resulting fizziness was seen as a serious fault, however, or worse, as evidence of “the devil.” So winemakers in this region traditionally went to great lengths to eliminate the effects of this delayed primary fermentation.

The 17th century English fad for fizzy wine spread, however, to the court around Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who became regent of France on Louis XIV’s death in 1715. Champagne region winemakers like Dom Pierre Pérignon at the Abbey of Hautvillers began to use the stronger English glass, known as verre anglais, for bottles and started using cork stoppers, permitting them to experiment with secondary fermentations.

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tomb of Dom Pierre Pérignon, Abbey of Hautvillers

It took official action by Louis XV, in honor of his uncle, the former regent, to legalize the selling of wine in bottles in France, thereby permitting the ultimate development of the Champagne industry. This action, a royal decree issued May 25, 1728, overcame years of resistance on the part of the taxing authorities, who feared individual bottles would be much easier for producers to hide from their deputies than barrels.

Nicolas Ruinart was the first merchant to act on the royal decree by establishing what became the first Champagne house in 1729. Ruinart shipped its first bottled wines in early 1730.

Other innovations were necessary to turn Champagne into the refined and reliable product we know today. In 1818, Veuve Clicquot’s cellar master, Antoine Müller, found an effective way to remove the yeast deposits that form in the bottle as a result of the secondary fermentation. A table with angular holes in it allowed the bottles to be turned and tilted on a daily basis until the sediment settled on the cork. At that point, the deposit could be expelled from the bottle with little loss of wine.

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recreation of the original riddling table at Veuve Clicquot

The process of twisting the bottles over a period of time is known as “remuage,” or riddling in English. A more efficient and space saving version of this table, the pupitre, in the shape of an inverted “V” with holes on either side, is still in wide use in the region today, although the same process can now be more efficiently accomplished through the use of riddling machines.

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Bruno Paillard and a pupitre used for riddling magnums

The invention in 1836 of the sucre-oenomètre by pharmacist Jean-Baptiste François permitted producers to more accurately add the necessary amount of sugar to trigger the fermentation that would reliably yield sparkling wine without producing more pressure than the bottle could withstand. Louis Pasteur’s subsequent discovery of the role of yeast in the fermentation process also enabled Champagne makers to refine the process.

Sparkling wine production took off in the region in the 1840s. The following decade, thanks in part to well publicized U.S. visits from Charles “Champagne Charlie” Heidsieck, saw the U.S. and England becoming major markets for the stuff.

Champagne at that time was a very sweet product, since a large dosage—a syrup of sugar and alcohol–was added after removal of the yeast deposit to make the otherwise highly acidic wine drinkable within a short time after purchase. In 1846 Perrier-Jouët introduced a bottling with no added sugar that struck some critics as too severe, or “brute-like.” A few more producers made wines in a “dry” or “brut” style in the 1860s to cater to English tastes, but a breakthrough 1874 bottling produced by Madame Pommery helped lead to this ultimately becoming the primary style of modern Champagne.

The increasing success of the region’s new product led to many Champagne houses and merchants in other areas using grapes and wine from outside the Champagne area to produce what was bottled and sold as Champagne. During the 1880s, however, an organized group of Champagne houses successfully took legal action against producers in other regions who were using the name Champagne, or Champagne village names, on their product.

The effort to officially define the area entitled to call its wines Champagne began at the turn of the century and ultimately involved multiple actions by the French legislature and even rioting and violence in 1910 and 1911, after the southern area called the Aube, geographically separated from the rest of Champagne located in the Marne Valley but which also has a long tradition of making similarly styled wines, was included in the first official demarcation of the Champagne region. Ultimately the final boundaries of the region, including the Aube, were set by law in 1927. These boundaries, which comprise 34,000 hectares, remain the official boundaries today. The same legislation authorized only five grapes for Champagne: the traditional Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and the historic but by then minimally planted Arbanne and Petit Meslier.

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hillside Pinot Noir vines in the Aube

Another development following the riots of 1910 and 1911 was a pricing system that led to the peculiar way in which the terms “grand cru” and “premier cru” are used in Champagne to refer to the produce of an entire village—one of the 320 wine producing villages of the appellation—rather than to particular vineyards or sites within the village, as in the case of Burgundy.

The Échelle des Crus, or ladder of growths, was established as a pricing structure by a joint committee of houses and growers, who produce over 90% of the grapes needed by the Champagne houses. They set the price for grapes for each year, and growers would receive a percentage of that maximum price based on the quality of the village in which their vines were located. Much like the 100 point wine rating system we’re used to in America today, this system really started at about 80 points for the lowest rated villages in the region. The village classifications were finalized in 1919, during a restructuring of the Champagne business at the end of World War I. Premier cru villages were those whose growers would receive between 90 and 99% of the maximum price. Growers in the grand cru villages–of which there were originally 12 until that number was expanded to 17 in 1985–would receive 100% of the price.

This pricing system was ultimately abolished as a result of European Union laws, but the designation of villages adopted for this system are still very much in place, although many have argued for more refined identification of particular vineyards for this status, rather than whole villages, along the lines of Burgundy.

Meanwhile, many of the great vineyards of Champagne were the site of World War I battles and bombardments, some of which destroyed virtually all of the vineyards, as in the village of Merfy. The city of Reims itself was also virtually destroyed. Prohibition in the U.S. and Canada, and the Great Depression that followed, led to further contraction of the market for Champagne.

Since the 1950s, however, the adoption of increasingly stringent grape growing and winemaking requirements have helped ensure steady improvement in the quality of Champagne. The Champagne houses have also done a remarkable job of selling their region’s specialty as a quality and luxury product. By 1995, as Michel Jacob of Serge Mathieu told me, smaller growers with only several hectares of vines were able to make a decent living growing grapes. With sales of Champagne having quadrupled since 1950, every portion of the region that can be planted to grapes has been. The steadily increasing world demand for the product now requires that additional growing regions be identified for inclusion in the appellation or that prices continue to rise indefinitely.

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Jacques Perrier designed headquarters of Piper Heidsieck in Reims

The drive for quality and constant improvement in this region became palpable for me on my September visit to the region. Not only are the producers here actively engaged in refining their methods, supported by constant research and studies financed by the well resourced CIVC, they have witnessed the success that results from continuous improvement and an emphasis on quality. There is, of course, a strong drive for higher quality and improvements in viticulture and winemaking throughout the world. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of any wine region where this has been more of a constant drive since 1950 and where the financial benefits of such a laser focus on quality have been better demonstrated than in Champagne.

In my tastings in the last several years, I have personally witnessed the evidence of these steady, incremental improvements—increasingly high quality that has been aided by largely favorable weather conditions over the past decade. My next report will be my annual Champagne Buying Guide, which will include ratings and recommendations based on over 400 Champagnes sampled in the past year.

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