Champagne is a branded wine everyone knows, even people without any special interest in wines. It is associated with concepts as celebrations, happy moments, luxury, classy style, and so on. There may be a number of imitations across the world, but real Champagne wines (from the Champagne region) remain unique. It would be way too unrealistic to say that any champagne is better than any sparkling wine made elsewhere, but it is an indisputable fact that the best Champagne wines remain unsurpassed. Their combination of freshness, elegance, complexity and minerality are without parallels. What makes these wines so special?
The Champagne province is located near the northern limits of the wine world. In Europe, only England is up north and wines there bear similar stylistics. The region is beyond the 49th parallel (49.31 - the city of Reims and an administrative centre). The average annual temperature is 14.7 degrees, rainfall is 628 mm/sq.m.
You have probably heard that the vine (Vitis vinifera) cultivation is limited to the areas of the globe between the 30th and the 50th parallel of latitude in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The cool climate helps grapes to keep their high acidity without which sparkling wines would lose charm and freshness, while soft, white, limestone soils retain valuable moisture just like a sponge. They give grapes rich in nitrogen, which is important for good fermentation.
Reims is less than 150 km. from Paris, where the Emperor, aristocracy and citizens are – a huge market for high quality wines ... and price, and so on for centuries. At the same time, it is at a crossroads of ancient trade routes, set by the Romans throughout the empire, in order to thrive economically. Following such logic, the sea is not far away either, with its commercial ports.
The wine history of Champagne began in the time of the Roman Empire when the first vines were planted in the region. The Romans called it Campania, after an area in southern Italy with very similar landscapes. In 987, Hugh Capet was crowned King of France at the Reims' cathedral. At the coronation banquet, local wines of the regions were served. For the next eight centuries, monarchs would follow the tradition and hold their coronations in Reims, thus consolidating the status of the Champagne as "wine of kings". Dom Pierre Pérignon was a Benedictine monk who lived in Champagne in the 17th Century. At that time, the Abbey where Dom Pérignon served owned 100 acres of vineyards planted primarily with Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay, that nowadays is one of the leading varieties in the area, was a rarity in those times. The Champagne wine in the 17th Century was rather different from what we know today. Based mostly on red varieties (Pinot Noir), vinified as white wine (without contact with grain skins) and with a pale pink colour. Due to local cold winters a break in fermentation occurs. Thus wines remained sweet and in spring, with the rise of temperatures, fermenting would start again, making wines slightly sparkling. Back at those times, bubbles were considered to be a failure. Dom Pérignon, in fact, has been trying to "fight off" the unwanted bubbles in the wine! He is credited with developing techniques for making champagne used even nowadays, one of which is the separation of grape must from different press fractions based on their quality. The highest quality has been the so-called "direct pressing": the juice runs from the grapes without applying any pressure, under its weight and due to gravity powers, and it is called "vin de goutte." (free running wine). With the increase of pressing intensity, the quality of the faction decreases; the fourth and fifth fractions called "vin de taille" and "vin de pressoir" were darker in colour and coarser-tasting, therefore not used.
Dom Pérignon was famous for his perfectionism. He championed grape harvesting in early morning when it was cool, and for the transport of grapes he preferred donkeys to horses because of their calm behaviour and the lesser risk of bruising and crushing grape grains. He was a supporter of low yields from vineyards – a small quantity but of high quality. He also improved the technique of making white wine from red varieties, applied so far in the production of "vins clairs".
Not the French, but the English wine merchants, are credited for the first Sparkling Champagne!
In the second half of the 17th Century, wines from Champagne used to gain an ever-growing popularity among gentlemen's circles in London. The wine was transported in oak barrels and bottled on spot, in the English capital. The English had a superior process in the manufacturing of glass bottles – they used coal instead of wood – that made glass stronger and more durable than their French counterparts.
English merchants bottled the wines from Champagne on spot, so they remained sweet because of the cold winters, and they completed their fermentation process inside the bottle and the result was ... champagne, Ladies and Gentlemen!
It was in London, first in the world where sparkling Champagne became an appreciated drink. English gentlemen so much enjoyed the playful bubbles in the wine that they started to study them as a phenomenon. In 1662, the English scholar Christopher Meret proved empirically that adding sugar to wine before bottling results in sparkling wine. He became one of the first researchers of secondary fermentation. And lo and behold, the English developed a taste for the bubbly wine in London, and their example was followed by other royal courts, including the French, i.e. the one, where bubbles in the wines from Champagne had been thought to be a "defect"!
The 18th Century and the birth of the first wine houses (maisons) in Champagne
The oldest wine house in Champagne is Ruinart, founded in 1729. The eighteenth Century was a booming period for champagne, which was gaining popularity in Europe. Then maisons started appearing, such as Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger. In addition to their special wines, wineries in Shampagne have also become famous as sharp-witted merchants capable of taking a chance and creating a win-win situation. In this sense, Charles-Henri Heidsieck's is notorious to have been riding a horse ahead of the Napoleon’s army to Russia, carrying cases of champagne for the winner whoever he may be! Legendary is Madame Clicquot's famous quote when, during the Russian occupation of Champagne, the generals drank her wines: "Today they take them. Tomorrow they will pay to have them." Her words turned prophetic – the Russians passionately fell in Champagne's sparkling wines and for over a Century until the Revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire used to be the second most important market in the world for the Champagne.
EXPECT: The magic called Champagne 2 - Modern History of Champagne
*photo by Phillip Capper