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No matter what special occasion presents itself, Champagne is never a far distance away. Maybe it can be blamed on the tiny little bubbles that seem to add effervescence to any personality and that makes the whole world more giddy, at least temporarily. Champagne has a rich history and it first got it’s start quite accidentally, when the Champagne region had shifts in temperatures causing an excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the wine, causing bubbles.

The History of Champagne

The Romans were the first known inhabitants to plant vineyards in the Champagne region. The name Champagne comes from the Latin “campania” and referred to the similarities between the rolling hills of the province and the Italian countryside of Campania located south of Rome. The area was divided into the Champagne pouilleuse-the chalky, barren plains east of Reims-and Champagne viticole, the forested hillside region known as the Montagne de Reims between Reims and the Marne river where the vines were planted. While vineyards were undoubtedly planted earlier, the first recorded vineyard belonged to St. Remi in the 5th century. For most of the region’s early history, the wines from Champagne were not known as “Champagne” or even vin de Champagne. Rather they were known as vins de Reims and vins de la rivère in reference to the Marne river, which provided a vital trade route via the Seine with Paris. Champagne’s location at the crossroads of two major trading routes, one east-west between Paris and the Rhineland and the other north-south between Flanders and Switzerland, would bring the region and its wines much prosperity and notoriety, but would also play a pivotal role in Champagne being the site of countless battles and occupations. When Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in 987, at the cathedral of Reims, located in the heart of the region, he started a tradition that brought successive monarchs to the region—with the local wine being on prominent display at the coronation banquets. During the Middle Ages, the wines of the Champagne region were various shades of light red to pale pink as a bitter rivalry developed between the Champenois and their Burgundian neighbors to the south. The trade route that Flemish merchants used to get to the Burgundy went right through Reims and the Champenois were eager to entice their business with a “cheaper” alternative. Unfortunately, the climate of the region made it difficult to produce red wines with the richness and color of the Burgundian wines, even though the Champenois tried to “improve” their wines by blending in elderberries. Throughout the 16th and early 17th century, Champenois winemakers tried to produce the best “white” wine they could from red wines grapes though the results were often not white at all but ranged from greyish color to a shade of pink known as oeil de perdrix or partridge eye. It wasn’t until a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon, from the Abbey of Hautvillers, who perfected his techniques, would the Champenois be able to truly make white wine from red grapes. However, what wasn’t expected were the cold winter temperatures that prematurely halted fermentation in the cellars, leaving dormant yeast cells that would awaken in the warmth of spring and start fermenting again. One of the by-products of fermentation is the release of carbon dioxide gas, which, if the wine is bottled, is trapped inside the wine, causing intense pressure. The pressure inside the weak, early French wine bottles often caused the bottles to explode, creating havoc in the cellars. If the bottle survived, the wine was found to contain bubbles, something that the early Champenois were horrified to see, considering it a fault. While the Champenois and their French clients preferred their Champagne to be pale and still, the British were developing a taste for the unique bubbly wine. The sparkling version of Champagne continued to grow in popularity, especially among the wealthy and royal. Following the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans made the sparkling version of Champagne a favorite among the French nobility. More Champenois wine makers attempted to make their wines sparkle deliberately, but didn’t know enough about how to control the process or how to make wine bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure. In the 19th century, these obstacles were overcome, and the modern Champagne wine industry took form. This period, saw the founding of many of today’s famous Champagne houses, including Krug (1843), Pommery (1858) and Bollinger (1829). The fortunes of the Champenois and the popularity of Champagne grew until a series of setbacks in the early 20th century. Phylloxera appeared, vineyard growers rioted in 1910-11, the Russian and American markets were lost because of the Russian Revolution and Prohibition, and two World Wars made the vineyards of Champagne a battlefield.

The Development of Modern Champagne

The roots of the modern Champagne industry were laid during the Industrial Revolution which saw vast leaps in understanding the method of making sparkling wine and improvements in the technology needed to make production more financially feasible. The French scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal popularized the understanding that Champagne sparkled because it was sealed in a bottle before fermentation was complete. He further noted that it was the sugar in the wine that facilitated this fermentation process resulting in bubbles. The British method of coal fired glassmaking contributed to stronger wine bottles being available that could withstand the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas better. In the 1830s, a pharmacist from Châlons-sur-Marne named André François outlined formulas with precise measurements of how much sugar is needed to make a wine sparkle without producing more pressure than the wine bottle could withstand. Corking machines and improved corks made sealing the wine easier with less opportunity for the precious gas to seep out of the bottle. An important advance made in the early 19th century was developing a technique to remove the sediment caused by dead yeast after the secondary fermentation. Early Champagne producers choose not to remove the sediment, which left the wine cloudyand prone to off flavors if the sediment was shaken up or poured into the glass. With the aid of her cellar master, Madame Clicquot of the Champagne house Veuve Cliquot developed the process of riddling in the early 19th century to solve the problem of sediments without losing much gas. This technique, which involves collecting the sediment in the neck of the bottle and using the pressure of the wine to eject just the sediment, led to the popularity of adding sugar-sweet dosage to replace the wine lost during riddling. In 1854, the French national railroad system linked Reims with the rest of the country, including its coastal ports. From that point on, Champagne was connected to its worldwide market and sales grew by leaps and bounds. During the 1850s production was averaging 20 million bottles a year. Throughout most of the 19th century, Champagne was made sweet. The taste was pleasing to most wine drinkers and the added sugar helped winemakers to cover up flaws in the wine or poor quality from less desirable grapes. Champagne houses would use the dosage to tailor the sweetness to whatever style was in fashion in a particular market. Gradually, tastes developed to favor less sweetness and higher overall quality in the Champagne. The first slightly dry Champagne to emerged was labeled demi-sec or “half dry”. The success of those wines prompted the introduction of sec or dry wines. Other producers made wines with even less sugar and began to call these wines extra dry. In 1846, the Champagne house of Perrier Jouët introduced a wine that was made without any added sugar. This style was initially ill received with critics calling this wine too severe, or brute-like. But over the next generation, this “brut” style with significantly less sugar than wines labeled extra dry became the fashion for Champagne and today is the modern style that the majority of Champagne is made in.

The Classification of Champagne

Over time, Champagne has become not only a reflection of the terroir of the Champagne region but also a brand in itself, defined and delimited in 1927 by INA O (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, National Institute for Appellations of Origin). Champagne is classified according to a system - called Echelle des Crus (scale of cru) - and known as vineyard classification. This classification was defined in 1911 according to the quality of every single cru as well as by its distance from the commercial heart of Champagne, Reims and Epernay. The system basically classifies the many communes of Champagne according to the commercial value of the grapes cultivated in its area which is expressed with a percentage value. Communes are classified in three categories: Grand Cru (100%), Premier Cru (90-99%) and Cru (80-89%).

Perrier Jouet Deutz Palmes d'Or Bollinger Nicolas Feuillatte Louis Roederer GH Mumm
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