The Champagne region that created the “taste of the stars”
”There is no other province that offers good wine all year round except Champagne. In the spring it gives us Ayers, Avenay and Auvilaire; in other seasons it is Tessy, Verzenay and Sieri ”
In 1674, the French essayist and gourmet Charles de Margatel praised champagne wine in a letter. Charlie de Margate, more than 300 years ago, probably would not have expected that the expensive champagne wine in his mind would export 180 million bottles in 2021. And modern readers may not even know that the “champagne” in the 17th century is actually very different from the champagne we are familiar with today. This kind of wine condenses the local conditions and customs, and also writes a tough and tortuous history.
Origins and challenges of the Champagne region
Wine grape cultivation in Champagne dates back to the end of the 5th century. By the 9th century, winemaking had reached a large scale, and the locals began to clearly distinguish between “river wine” (vins de la rivière) and “mountain wine” (vins de la montagne), which demonstrated a high level of understanding of grape terroir . In that era, it was often the Catholic Church who first planted and brewed grapes, and the earliest master winemakers were usually priests or monks.
Reims, a famous historical and cultural city in France, happens to be located in the province of Champagne. Reims Cathedral is the place where French kings were crowned. The king’s celebration naturally cannot do without wine to add to the fun.
Left: Only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region can be called Champagne. Right: French essayist and gourmand Charles de Margatel.
As an ancient province of France, Champagne got its name from the country of Champagne in the Middle Ages. In medieval times, it was famous for its champagne fair. The earl’s territory is located at the intersection of many commercial routes between Italy, Flanders, Germany and Spain. In addition, the earl has long pursued mercantilism, and the regular fairs (similar to modern business fairs) make the country of Champagne a One of the commercial and cultural centers in Europe has also contributed to the prosperity of the wine industry.
However, Champagne is located in the north of France, with a cold and humid climate, which is prone to mold problems. Compared with Burgundy and Bordeaux in the south, Champagne is somewhat “congenitally deficient” in cultivating grapes (grapes originated in the Middle East). In the face of competition, fortunately, Champagne has won the help of noble people. Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade, was born in Châtillon-sur-Marne, a champagne town. He favored the wine of Champagne Ayer most of his life, and the great influence of the pope also brought reputation to Champagne.
The bigger halo comes from the French royal family. Reims, a famous historical and cultural city in France, happens to be located in the province of Champagne, and Reims Cathedral is the place where French kings were crowned. The king’s celebration naturally cannot do without wine to add to the fun. The tradition in the Middle Ages was to serve Burgundy and Champagne wines to the guests at the coronation. However, the royal family usually ranks Burgundy wine first, and local champagne can only take second place. The wine merchants in the Champagne region can only do their best to improve the brewing technology. They blend grapes from different vineyards for blending, using this similar “cocktail” method to maximize their strengths and avoid weaknesses, and even squeeze red grapes and white grapes together for brewing. After hundreds of years of evolution, the “yellow in red” wine has been produced. It is said that its delicate and soft taste is favored by the royal family and nobles. Finally, at the coronation of Henry III in 1575, Burgundy was excluded from the royal banquet for the first time, and only champagne wine was served, which marked the advent of a new era.
The coronation of Louis XIII continued the promotion of champagne wine. The “Sun King” Louis XIV once only used champagne wine as his daily drink, which caused the French elite to follow suit, and the status of champagne reached its peak. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last long. In 1694, Louis XIV’s health began to decline. The imperial doctor believed that the “culprit” was champagne wine with too high acidity. Under the example of the king, full-bodied and mellow Burgundy wines are becoming more and more popular. For champagne farmers who have enjoyed a century of prosperity, it has come to a crisis of survival. If you don’t try your best to make changes, Champagne will inevitably decline. It was around this time that true sparkling champagne was born.
Uncovering Local Characteristics: The Road to Champagne Sparkling
“Come on, I have tasted the stars!”
Dom Pérignon is said to have said when he made his first sparkling champagne. Although there is no lack of French romance in this story, experts have verified that it is likely to be a well-founded rumor, which originated from the cunning marketing of French wine merchants in the 19th century. In fact, long before Dom Pérignon, there were naturally occurring sparkling wines in the Champagne region-due to the relatively cold climate, if the wine suddenly cools down during fermentation, the yeast tends to go dormant, and when the latter wakes up A “secondary fermentation” occurs, producing large amounts of carbon dioxide. This is the original secret of bubbly. Champagne natives, however, have long dismissed the sparkling wine as an “accident” because it tastes “weird” and is difficult to control, store and unrefined. It wasn’t the Champagne farmers who really brought sparkling wine to the fore, but the French’s northern neighbours, the English.
In 1662, Dr. Christopher Merrett wrote in a paper titled “Some Observations on the Making of Wine” that English winemakers intentionally added honey to their wines “to make them more refreshing and to have a Foam”. This is the earliest record of artificially brewing sparkling wine so far. The advantage of the British is not because it has better grapes, but because it has a higher level of industry – the glass bottles blown by the British with coal fires are far stronger than similar products fired with firewood in France, which is an important factor for storage. Sparkling wine provides the technical premise.
The British provided the technology, and the “betrayal” of Louis XIV in 1694 provided the impetus. Winegrowers in the Champagne region have had to find new ways to bypass Burgundian competition and seek local idiosyncrasies. In 1728, a decree of Louis XV saved the Champagne region to some extent, and gave birth to the sparkling champagne we are familiar with. Following a petition from the mayor of Reims, the French government has finally allowed the transport of wine in glass bottles. Louis XV himself was a hedonist, and while some old-schoolers complained that sparkling wine was “a decadent taste,” he defied the odds and succeeded in bringing sparkling champagne to his court. Champagne wine is indeed not comparable to Burgundy in terms of mellowness, but the combination of light body and bubbles produces a wonderful refreshing and chilly feeling. The favor of Ertai and other celebrities. By the end of the 18th century, Champagne had become famous abroad: Official U.S. records show that in 1789, George Washington ordered 24 bottles of French champagne imported from New York.
Despite the growing popularity of sparkling champagne, at the end of the 18th century it was estimated that sparkling wine accounted for only 6% of the wine produced in the Champagne region. An important reason is the complexity of the brewing process. At that time, it was difficult to grasp the proportion of the secondary fermentation, and a little carelessness may lead to insufficient foaming or cause the bottle to explode. When champagne growers entered the wine cellar to inspect the fermentation status, they even had to wear metal helmets for safety.
It was the two Napoleons who really brought champagne to the world. During the period of Napoleon I, the French middle class increased, and the emerging champagne was very suitable for the romantic taste of the middle class. Following Nahuang’s campaigns in the north and south, champagne followed wherever the French army went. This novel flavor quickly won many foreign users. Even Nahuang’s defeat played a role in promoting Champagne – the Russians and Prussians ordered to occupy the Champagne region emptied the cellars they could find. Although referring to Napoleon III, we often think of the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sedan, but during the Second Empire, the total length of French railways expanded from 3,500 kilometers to 20,000 kilometers, and the rapid improvement of transportation greatly stimulated the export of champagne. In 1785, only 300,000 bottles of sparkling champagne were sold; by 1853, it had soared to 10 million bottles, and began to surpass the non-sparkling type. By 1909, the annual sales volume of champagne (sparkling type) had reached an astounding 39 million bottles, while the total population of France in 1911 was only 39 million. Since then, champagne wine has irreversibly moved towards the road of sparkling, and champagne officially has the flavor of a star.
Terroir, the soul of Champagne
Today, the county of Champagne or the province of Champagne no longer exists as an administrative division. In 2016, the Champagne-Ardenne region merged with Lorraine and Alsace to form the Grand East region. However, Champagne as a wine region remains distinct, comprising 320 specific villages in 5 different departments (Aisne, Aube, Haut-Marne, Marne, Seine and Marne). Champagne must come from the Champagne region. In the EU and countries that have reached an agreement with the EU, the word “champagne” is strictly prohibited from being used for any other product (including our country, which has also signed the agreement), and can only be called “sparkling wine”. The French cherish the origin of champagne even to the point of obsession. In 1911, thousands of wine growers in the Marne province suspected that certain wineries used foreign grapes to make wine, looted and smashed the wine cellars in Damoury, Cumière and Ay villages along the way, and dumped barrels of champagne. On the street, and set fire to the house of the legendary profiteer. The riots forced the French government to introduce laws to protect the champagne region, and also highlighted the unique terroir of this land.
Terroir in the French population is a concept that can only be understood but not expressed in words. Peter Lin, a Chinese-American wine expert, wrote in the book “Looking for Champagne” that he once visited two vineyards less than 500 meters apart, and the flavors of the champagne they brewed were quite different. This is undoubtedly due to different “terroir” gifted. The terroir is also related to the year. For the same vineyard, the quality of the wine in a good year or a short year can be very different. From the roughest point of view, the terroir of the Champagne region can be roughly divided into two categories: “mountain” and “river” according to its landmarks – the Marne River, Reims Mountain, and White Côte, with distinct styles. The diversity of Champagne terroirs is rooted in geological history. Its main characteristic soils are pure chalk that formed in the late Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, along with Kimmerian limestone and marl – even older rock formations, formed during the Jurassic period about 160 million years ago , At that time, this place was covered by a vast ocean. Above the Kimmerian is a more compact type of limestone known as “Portland Stone”, which is also featured in vineyards. Champagne is located on a prehistoric ocean, and most of its soil is rich in marine fossils, which brings a unique salty and bitter taste to Champagne, just like “the taste of the sea”.
In 1863, Phylloxera from North America landed in France, causing the Champagne region to experience a catastrophe.
Pinot Noir grape, one of the three most common grapes in the Champagne region today, is a hybrid improved variety.
The Champagne region traditionally divides production areas by villages. According to the degree of pros and cons, there are 17 Grand Cru chateaux, 42 First Class chateaux and a large number of ordinary chateaux. Below the village are specific vineyards, which can even be subdivided into the smallest “plots”. The traditional winemaking process in the Champagne region is to organically blend grapes of different terroirs to produce new flavors. Since the 20th century, more and more wine merchants and wine growers have begun to highlight the terroir of a single origin, so various “single village” and “single garden” champagnes have appeared. The first world-renowned single-village Champagne was the Salon founded in 1905, which used grapes from the Côtes de Blancs village of Le Mesnil-sur-Auger. Sharon is almost picky about the quality of the grapes. He only chooses good years to brew, and has only produced 38 vintages so far. Salon champagne is also the exclusive champagne of the dream version of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris.
Insects shake up Champagne
In the second half of the 19th century, when the champagne industry was booming, it unfortunately encountered unexpected disasters. This catastrophe was actually brought about by a tiny insect. In 1863, Phylloxera originated in North America landed in France. This aphid parasitizes the roots and leaves of the grapes, causing the roots of the grapes to rot and eventually die. The native wine grapes in Europe had no resistance to this alien species, and a large number of plants withered and the vineyards were abandoned. The Champagne region in the north was not spared either. By 1901, phylloxera had also begun to spread in the Marne department, which severely damaged the local grape varieties. Out of insistence on the terroir, many French wine growers are unwilling to use a large amount of chemical pesticides, which makes the winery almost desperate. Fortunately, French scientists discovered the origin of phylloxera. They persuaded wine growers to introduce American winter grapes, riparian grapes, and sandy grapes, and graft and hybridize them with European native grapes. Finally, the grapes in the Champagne region obtained a certain degree of immunity. This is nothing less than a major reshuffle of grape varieties. Today, the three most common grapes in the Champagne region: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier, are all hybrid varieties. And some traditional varieties, they are called “ancestral grapes”, almost disappeared after the outbreak of phylloxera, and there are only very few plantings left today. Château Petit Aubry in the Marne department is committed to restoring the taste of ancient varieties. Its “Le Nombre d’Or” and “Sablé Blanc des Blancs” (Sablé Blanc des Blancs) are the most popular wines on the market. A rare vintage champagne made from “ancestral grapes”.
After the phylloxera crisis, Champagne ushered in a full-scale revival after World War II. The older generation of winegrowers explored a return to tradition, for example, insisting on using horses instead of modern machinery to till the fields in the vineyards. At the same time, the younger generation who grew up after the 1990s are also trying the champagne road in the new century. In 1999, the practice of using “urban waste” as fertilizer for grape gardens, which had been practiced for hundreds of years, was finally abolished. Organic planting (organic viticulture) has been more and more widely used, and biodynamic farming methods have also gained more fans-this cultivation concept not only emphasizes the use of organic planting methods, but also advocates the use of homeopathy and herbs to improve the quality of grape gardens. Planting and winemaking work is arranged according to the special lunar calendar and cosmic calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. This new theory is indeed not without criticism, after all, it contains many occult elements. But many well-known wine merchants began to take the initiative to accept the new champagne philosophy. The brewing of champagne is more and more flourishing, and a hundred schools of thought are contending.