Alignement de bouteilles de Champagne

Champagne
and its history

An era spanning more than three centuries, closely interwoven with the History of France

Vitrail
Vitrail

Chapter 1

The beginnings

Turn back to the very beginning of the story of Champagne wines, from the Gallo-Roman era to the Middle Ages

Gallo-Roman era – The first vines in Champagne

A land with historical ties to wine

Let’s go back several centuries in time. To the time of the Gauls. Most of present-day Champagne was home to the Remi, a tribe which notably allied itself with Julius Caesar well before Gaul was invaded.

They were a wine-loving people accustomed to buying lots of it, especially from the Romans. A profitable trade for the latter who, following the invasion of the whole of the territory, forbid vine plantations among the Gauls to protect themselves against any competition. This ban would be lifted in the late 3rd century AD.

Recent discoveries have shown that there were domestic vines in Champagne as early as the 1st century.

Cathédrale de Reims

The wine of Kings and the King of wines

The city of Reims shot into the royal limelight following Clovis’ baptism at its Notre-Dame Cathedral in 496. The choice of the King of the Franks became a symbol and almost all the Kings of France would thenceforth be crowned at this site. Wine was said to flow freely at the coronation banquets hosted during these lavish ceremonies which would be attended by the most prominent names in the Kingdom. This is how the region’s wine, initially still but which then became sparkling, came to be known as the wine of coronation and the "the wine of Kings and the King of wines". Indelibly shaping its prestigious reputation and image as a legendary wine.

Did you know?

The first evidence of significant wine-making activity in the Champagne region is connected with the Church.

In the Testament de saint Remi, written in the 6th century by Saint Remigius, Bishop of Reims, who christened Clovis, various vines are mentioned, including one in the suburb of Reims. The Church would play an instrumental role in the development of vines across Champagne. For, following in the footsteps of St Remigius, the archbishop of Reims and several abbeys in the region were prominent grapevine owners. The cultivation methods and wine-making know-how were forged in their estates.

Marchands de vin
Marchands de vin (extrait)

Middle Ages – The appearance of Champagne wines

For more than a thousand years,
the Champagne wine region grew and expanded

The first domestic vines in the Champagne region can be traced back to the 1st century. It would not take long for the area under vine to develop and spread. It was fortunate in itsstrategic location along major trading routes. Firstly thanks to the growing popularity of Champagne agricultural shows, which were the beating heart of Europe’s economy in the Middle Ages. But also thanks to the northern location of the wine-growing area.

Beyond Champagne, the climate was too cold for vines to be grown. So Champagne became the supply region for the whole of northern Europe. The Hundred Years’ War ravaged the region, severely disrupting its viticulture. But from the late 15th century, vineyards resumed growth across Champagne.

In the 16th century, the Parliament of Paris passed an edict banning Parisian cabaret owners from sourcing their supply from anywhere within a 90-kilometre radius round the capital to counter a drop in quality among Parisian growers. This was a godsend for Champagne, which was just on the border of this area! 

Bouteilles sur lattes
Bouteilles sur lattes

Chapter 2

The birth of Champagne wines

From 1600 to 1800: the making-of Champagne wines as we know them today

1668 – The importance of Dom Pierre Pérignon

The emergence of the Méthode Champenoise

Some monks were also major protagonists in the development of Champagne as we know it today. They include Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk at Hautvillers Abbey, and Frère Oudart, from Saint-Pierre-aux-Monts Abbey in Pierry. Back in their day, wine blending was a fairly random process. Dom Pierre Pérignon was one of the first to see that different wines and different crus could complement each other to exquisite effect. So he began to blend wines in a much more carefully considered manner. This resulted in wines that were more balanced, accomplished and of superior quality. In the latter half of the 17th century, Champagne invented a new, gentler pressing technique where the juice was separated into fractions: this was a game-changer, which henceforth enabled white wines to be made using black grapes.

Dom Pierre Pérignon
Pressurage
Bulles de Champagne

A wine associated with a terroir

The years from 1670 to 1720 marked a turning point in the history of Champagne wine-making, since this was when the production of sparkling wines became a deliberate choice in the region. Until then, effervescence (i.e. bubbles) depended very much on external conditions. But this period was also a watershed moment in the history of sparkling wines generally, for two reasons.

"Champagne Wines" first mentioned in 1690

Firstly, because this was the first time that specific techniques for making sparkling wines were developed. And secondly because it was also the first time that a wine had been produced within a specific region, Champagne, and identified as such. Until the Middle Ages, all wines coming from France were referred to generically as "French wines". But from the 1690s, specific reference was made to "Champagne Wines".

Maturation sur lies dans une cave de Champagne

Did you know?

The bottle and the cork, key tools for making Champagne

Cork stoppers were introduced in Champagne in 1685. Through the 17th century, the glass industry steadily grew, making significant strides forward. This set the stage for a new Champagne bottle in 1770, made of much thicker glass which was therefore much more resistant. Bottles had hitherto only been used to serve wine, but could now be used to store it too.

The gas given off while in storage, which caused the wines to bubble (effervescence), tended to escape from the casks used previously, but could now be preserved in the bottles. The wine’s delicate fizz won over certain aristocratic circles keen to set themselves above the rest. High society’s subsequent penchant for drinking Champagne wine would help shape its image as a deluxe wine.

Bouteilles de Champagne alignées
Bouchon de Champagne
Maison de Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon : cuverie
Maison de Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon : cuverie

Chapter 3

Champagne wines
on their way to perfection

From the 1800s, Champagne producers were able to greatly enhance the way they made their wines thanks to all sorts of technical innovations.

This continued drive for quality is still going to this day!

Barbe Nicole, veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin

The Champagne Houses

The first Champagne merchants set up shop in Reims, Épernay and Aÿ. The best-known were Bertin du Rocheret, Chertemps, Drouin de la Vieville, Geoffroy, Gosset and De Partelaine. Champagne Houses first emerged in the 18th century, specialising in the production of the precious sparkling wine which required genuine know-how and substantial means. This is when now-iconic names made their appearance: Ruinart, Chanoine, Fourneaux, Moët, Vander-Veken, Delamotte, Dubois, Veuve Clicquot, Heidsieck, Jacquesson, … the list is impressively long.
Dépôt de lies
Remuage

Did you know?

Controlling just the right amount of sugar
for optimal effervescence

 

Thanks to a series of innovations over time, it became possible to control the process by which Champagne becomes sparkling (effervescence). For a long time, this depended on the bottling date. And results were therefore pretty inconsistent. Bottles were often known to explode, leading to considerable losses. Either that, or all the gas escaped and the wine stayed non-sparkling... At the end of the 18th century, Champagne makers began adding sugar to bottled wine to make up for any losses. Or, alternatively, using old wines with a tiny amount of sugar to mix them with wines which contained too much sugar. Then, at the turn of the 19th century, "riddling racks", called pupitres today, were invented to drive the sediment down into the bottle neck. This would then be removed by disgorgement.

The innovation drive was still in full swing

In 1837, a Châlons-based pharmacist named Jean-Baptiste François developed a reliable method for accurately measuring the amount of sugar to be added to wine for optimal effervescence.

Considerably fewer bottles broke as a result!

 

Innovation in Champagne

All sorts of innovations
are still in use today

A few years later, the metal plate on the Champagne cork (known as the plaque de muselet or capsule) was invented, along with the wire cage holding it in place.

It wasn't until 1860 that Pasteur discovered the yeast that converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The process had previously been a mystery!

Finally, in 1884, Armand Walfard, owner of a Champagne House, invented the cold disgorging method. This entails plunging the bottle into a refrigerating solution at around -27°C, which forms a frozen plug of sediment in the bottle neck. When the bottle is opened, internal pressure ejects the frozen plug with minimum wine and pressure loss. This method is still practised to this day.

Capsules et muselets
Louis Pasteur

1890 – The phylloxera crisis

A devastating crisis which led to Champagne Houses and Growers coming together in unity.

Up to the end of the 19th century, the Champagne wine-growing area was vast, extending over more than 60,000 hectares. But in 1863, grape phylloxera reached Europe’s shores. This sap-sucking insect feeds on the roots of grapevines, drying them out and destroying them. Virtually the whole of the area under vine was decimated. To begin with, Champagne growers tackled the crisis by systematically pulling up affected vines, but they would soon have to rally together and break new ground to find a solution.

In 1898, Growers along with the main Houses, which also had vines of their own, realised that they would have to work together to protect their common heritage. So they founded the Champagne Viticultural Association (AVC). This set about replanting vineyards by grafting the Champagne vine shoot onto an American rootstock, which was resistant to the insect. This grafting technique preserved the former qualities of Champagne wines while resisting the chalky soils of the region and disease.

Cep de vigne
Phylloxera
Cave de Champagne
Cave de Champagne

Chapter 4

A designation
with better protection

 

Dès le XXème siècle, les Champenois mettent en place de nombreuses actions pour s'assurer de la préservation de leur patrimoine exceptionnel et de son exclusivité

1900 – From the first regulations to the creation of AOC

Rules to protect the Champagne region and production process

Towards the end of the 19th century, Champagne producers set about defining rules to prevent misuse and imitation of their heritage, for they were well aware of its value. In 1887, they obtained a ruling from the Angers Court of Appeal whereby the term Champagne shall refer exclusively to wine produced in and sourced from the Champagne region. In 1905 they lobbied the French Ministry of Agriculture for delimitation of the official Champagne vineyard area, with the name Champagne strictly reserved for wines "exclusively sourced from and produced in the Champagne vineyard area". In 1935, the concept of controlled designation of origin (AOC) was introduced and the Champagne designation recognised the following year, officially enshrining all of the rules that Champagne producers had laid down.

Bouteille de Champagne
Bouchon de Champagne
Les années folles en Champagne

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties, as its name suggests, was a decade of decadence. The mood across the whole of Europe, ravaged and in shock in the wake of World War I, gave way to insouciance and frivolity. This was a golden age for Champagne, symbolising as it did social pleasures, and it was poured liberally at every table.

1935 – The origins of the future Comité Champagne

A body acting for the protection of Champagne

The Châlons Commission was set up in 1935. This brought together representatives of Houses and Growers alike, to jointly define the rules governing the production of Champagne wines in their common interests. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) trade association was founded in 1941, following on from the Châlons Commission. This was invested with more powers to defend and protect the region’s wines.

Did you know?

A coveted and protected name!

The name "Champagne", which we immediately associate with partying, luxury, socialising and pleasure, has long been a source of envy for competitors. In 1960, a sparkling wine went on sale in Great Britain under the name "Spanish Champagne". The British High Court of Justice ruled against it, ushering in protection of the designation in countries under British law and setting a precedent for other countries. This ongoing fight against all manner of imitation attempts not only protects the Champagne designation but also consumers by guaranteeing them transparency in terms of the wines they buy and drink.

In 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union further strengthened the protection of designations of origin, the Champagne designation in particular, when it issued its ruling against tapas bars going by the name of "Champanillo". In its ruling, it considers that "the protection of appellations d’origine should be extended to services to guarantee a high level of protection".

The Champagne designation

Le comité Champagne
vigne et cheval
vigne et cheval

Chapter 5

A wine region championing
sustainability

 

À partir de 1982, la Champagne commence à instaurer des principes de développement durable à l'échelle du vignoble. Une démarche qui se poursuit et s'intensifie depuis

1982 to today – Reducing our impact on the environment

Jointly committed to a more sustainable future

At the beginning of the 1980s, amid growing awareness of the importance of looking after their terroir, the Champagne producers began taking steps to improve their practices in a more environmentally-friendly mindset. Reducing the impact on soil, recycling waste, protecting the grapevines... These measures concern the whole of the Champagne production process right across the board.

In 2003, Champagne was the first wine-growing region in the world to assess its carbon footprint. An action plan was then launched, with five main strands: viticulture and oenology, transport, buildings, responsible purchasing of goods and services and cross-cutting action. Thanks to these efforts, the region’s carbon footprint has fallen by 15%.

Paysage de Champagne
Coccinelle sur un cep de vigne

Did you know?

The Champagne wine region is a recognised UNESCO world heritage

In 2015, the 21 representatives of the States Parties to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention unanimously voted to add the "Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars" to the World Heritage List, in the "Organically evolved living cultural landscapes" category. What this thus recognises is the outstanding universal value of the Champagne wine-making cultural landscape – this unique terroir and, more broadly, all of the work accomplished by Champagne producers.

Confusion sexuelle en Champagne

Sustainability at the centre of our practices

Sustainable development initiatives are continuing at all levels throughout Champagne. The target, by 2050, is to reduce the region’s carbon footprint by 75 to 80%. At the same time, there are various programmes aimed at improving vineyard practices, in ecological, economic and social terms alike. This truly is a collective momentum in motion to achieve continued progress.

Continue the experience

Find out how Champagne is made