The history of Champagne dates to ancient times. The Romans, who were avid wine consumers, were already skilled winemakers. After their conquest of Gaul, many of them settled in what is now Champagne. They quickly started cultivating the vine, knowing how to identify the best slopes with good exposure and well-drained soils, as well as selecting grape varieties best suited to the region’s northern latitudes.
A Monastic Tradition
During the Middle Ages, the Church owned the vineyards, which were shared between important clerics like the Archbishop of Reims and major abbeys such as Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, Saint-Thierry, Saint-Remi de Reims, and Saint-Nicaise. Under the monks’ guidance, the champagne method began to take shape. Champagne wine was already distinguished by its light effervescence, white or very light red color, and lively and dry taste, characteristic of the temperate climate and chalky soils of Champagne.
Dom Pérignon, the inventor of the champagne method
In feudal times, winemakers paid their taxes in the form of grapes, which they provided to the monks. The monks then blended the juices according to the grape varieties and different plots. However, it was not until the end of the 17th century that the blending process was precisely codified by Dom Pérignon. As the cellar monk of the Hautvillers abbey, almost blind but with an exceptional palate, he was able to determine the exact origin of the grapes down to the plot. His work on wine blending makes him the father of the champagne method.
A Tale of Two Terroirs: The Distinctive Charms of Mountain Wines and River Wines
Historically, champagnes were distinguished between “Mountain” wines, produced on the Reims Mountain, and “River” wines, produced along the Marne River. “Mountain” wines were red and blended around the “gouais” grape variety. “River” wines were white and blended around the “fromenteau” grape (a champagne appellation for pinot gris). The white “River” wines were already appreciated and renowned for their effervescence and lively and dry character.
Wines from Aÿ and Pinot Noir…
From the 14th century onwards, tastes evolved in favor of more deeply colored white wines, or even pale reds, called “clairets”. Among them, the wine produced in the village of Aÿ, situated alongside the Marne River, stood out to the point where the wine was no longer referred to as “vin de Rivière” but as “vin d’Aÿ”. Even King Henry IV himself was a great admirer of this wine.
The success of the recipe from Aÿ was such that it was adopted by the entire Champagne region by the mid-16th century. To perfect their blends, the winemakers of Rivière introduced a higher-quality grape variety: Pinot Noir. It was harvested early in the morning, at dawn, and then carefully pressed to obtain a clear wine with a long maturation period.
Chaptal, master of effervescence
Around 1675, a sparkling wine with a strong acidity, known as “tocane” from Aÿ, enjoyed great popularity. But it was only at the end of the 18th century that the “prise de mousse” (second fermentation) was perfectly mastered by the chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, thanks to his method of winemaking by adding sugar.
Previously, champagne wines were generally stored in barrels, which could not withstand the pressure produced by sparkling wines. They are now fermented in bottles with corks firmly held by a wire cage, capable of withstanding the considerable pressure produced by the Chaptalization process.
Wine of kings
Towards the end of the 17th century, champagne appeared on the tables of European monarchs. It was thus nicknamed the “wine of kings”. In the 19th century, Champagne Houses set out to conquer the globe to make their creations known in far-flung lands such as Russia or the United States. At the dawn of the 20th century, the fame of champagne was worldwide. A symbol of excellence, present at all major events.
The scourge of phylloxera and legal recognition
At the turn of the 20th century, the nearly 60,000 hectares of Champagne vineyards were devastated by a vine pest called phylloxera. Following World War I, there were only 12,000 hectares of vineyards remaining. In response to this catastrophe, the Association Viticole Champenoise was created in 1898, first to find treatments against insect pests, and then to assist in the reconstruction of vineyards. Different grape varieties were now grafted onto American roots, and the previously disordered vineyards were now trained in neat rows. The number of vines per hectare was significantly reduced. New pruning and training methods were also adopted.
In 1927, the Champagne vineyard territory was legally defined. Centered on the Marne, it also extends into Seine-et-Marne and Haute-Marne, in the Aube and in the Aisne. It was not until 1936 that champagne received its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation. From the 1970s, a few villages were added to the appellation after careful examination by experts.
Dom Pérignon has given his name to a luxurious blend and the village of Aÿ is still renowned for its great vintages based on Pinot Noir. The rustic Gouais and Fromenteau grape varieties have given way to Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.
In 2021, the Champagne region covers 34,000 hectares. After the dark Covid years, sales are picking up again with 322 million bottles sold, generating a turnover of 5.7 billion Euros. France remains the largest market for Champagne (142 million bottles), although most bottles are sold abroad. The biggest buyers outside France are the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany.
The Champagne market is dominated by large Houses that purchase grapes from growers to make their own blends. However, there are different categories of Champagne growers:
- Kilogram grape sellers who provide their grapes to the Champagne Houses or cooperatives.
- Cooperative harvesting growers supply their grapes to a cooperative and receive a portion of the produced bottles, on which they affix their own labels. Their Champagnes are made from the blending of juices from different producers.
- Manipulating harvesting growers. They also provide their grapes to a cooperative but reserve a portion of the pressing for themselves to carry out the transformation and bottling process. However, it’s still a blend of juices.
- Independent growers. Like Michel Gawron, they produce their own Champagne from vine maintenance to bottling, without involving the Champagne Houses or cooperatives. Today, there are 400 of them grouped under the label of “Vignerons indépendants de Champagne”, representing a minority of the 16,200 Champagne growers. Their Champagnes are made exclusively from their own grapes and unique know-how, resulting in a product with a distinct character and personality.