It was a bloody battle that took place on the hills of Champagne in 451 AD: the Huns under King Attila were fighting the Roman Empire. The Huns invaded the Roman Empire via the Rhine and had devastated Amiens, Reims, Metz and Strasbourg during their battle campaign.
Attila the Hun
In a region known today as Champagne, the Romans and the Huns met: “La Champagne” became one of the bloodiest battlefields in late antiquity.
Attila could not win the battle: The Romans won and Attila the Hun had to withdraw from Gaul.
Champagne: today it’s a worldwide symbol for festive occasions and joyous gatherings. But what is the story behind this glamorous wine? Is it as glamorous as the wine’s reputation?
The first vineyards in Champagne
The Romans established the first vineyards in a place that was later christened “Champagne”. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it not only buried Pompeii.
It also buried some of the most productive Roman vineyards under its lava masses. The Roman emperor Domitian issued an order: to combat the wine shortage, grain fields were to be converted into vineyards. This played into the cards of the future Champagne – at first.
It went well until the wine shortage turned into a bread shortage: fewer grain fields meant less bread.
The next order followed: all the vineyards in Champagne – this time it explicitly concerned the later Champagne – were to be dug up into grain fields. Legionnaires were sent to enforce the order.
So much for the dream of vineyards in Champagne.
Two centuries were to pass before the Champagne region was once again the focus of viticulture. Hope for Champagne arose when Marcus Probus accepted the imperial crown of the Roman Empire.
Emperor Probus: Patron of Champagne
Emperor Probus was considered a great patron of viticulture: he is said to have allowed the inhabitants of Gaul, Hispania and Britain to own vine grapes and produce wine.
The inhabitants of Champagne didn’t have to be told twice: now they not only had permission to grow wine again, Emperor Probus even sent them legionnaires to support the aspiring vintners in their venture.
The wine produced in Champagne at that time was far from what champagne is today: it was still, not sparkling. Besides, it was not possible to transport wine over long distances. When wine was drunk, it was from the local region: wine from Champagne was thus one of many regional wines that the local population drank.
496 AD is the first historical mention of wine from Champagne: Clovis I, the first king of the Frankish Empire, was baptised in Reims Cathedral. The local wine was served: champagne.
From then on, almost every French ruler had himself crowned in Reims Cathedral.
Dom Pérignon and the méthode champenoise
The year 1660 is often listed as the birth year of Champagne: In England, wine was purchased in barrels from Champagne and stored in bottles. Yeast and sugar residues caused a secondary fermentation in the bottles in the warm spring: At that time, people did not know the chemical background, but they admired the sparkling wine that was created by accident. But it didn’t take long to find out the secret: Soon sugar was systematically added to the bottles so that the secondary fermentation could be controlled.
Dom Pérignon, a French monk of the Benedictine order, was a key developer of bottle fermentation, which was later christened the Méthode champenoise. Today, this method is used not only for champagne, but also for other sparkling wines – including German Winzersekt, Crémant and Cava.
The Sun King and his Devil’s Wine
Besides Clovis I, there was another French king who played a major role in the history of champagne: the Sun King, Louis XIV. At his numerous and oversized dinner parties, for which Versailles became famous, one wine was on the menu: champagne. Louis XIV favoured wine from Champagne: his finance minister Colbert came from Reims and brought the wine to the French royal court.
The wine that came from Champagne at that time was mostly still red wine, white wine and to a very small extent sparkling wine: the sparkling wine was not under control. The fermentation pressure pushed the glass bottles of the time to the limit: they exploded. The French dubbed this phenomenon la casse [shards]. Until the 18th century, la casse remained a reason for the winegrowers of Champagne to stay away from sparkling wine. Sparkling champagne was considered the devil’s wine at that time.
Because of the extremely high losses due to la casse, champagne was extremely expensive at the time and remained the preserve of the high nobility.
Champagne – purely French?
The second half of the 18th century was a phase of awakening for champagne: the economic systems of Western Europe were about to change. An entrepreneurial spirit was formed that had previously been unable to flourish due to the state-regulated economy.
This had an impact on Champagne: Many Champagne houses that still dominate the market today were founded. But it was not only the French who were involved in the success of Champagne marketing.
“There is, in fact, not a single wine establishment in all Champagne which is not under the control, more or less, of a native of Germany,“ says the 1867 book “The Champagne Country”. When a champagne house run by a Frenchman went bankrupt, it was said that “they had not had a German in the business”.
German names can still be found on champagne labels today: for example at Bollinger. The traditional house was founded by Paul Renaudin and Joseph Jacob Bollinger. The vineyards were provided by the Count of Villermont, whose family had owned vineyards in Champagne for centuries.
Today, the House of Bollinger has 164 hectares of its own vineyards: it is also one of the few Champagne houses that have remained family-owned – many other Champagne houses have merged into international groups.
In the 19th century, the necessary knowledge was acquired to make champagne what it is today: in 1801, Napoléon appointed the chemist Jean-Antione Chaptal as his Minister of the Interior. Chaptal was concerned with the dry sugaring of wine (named Chaptalisation after him), in which sugar was deliberately added during fermentation.
Previously, sugar had to be imported from the Caribbean: This changed when the Ministry of Agriculture promoted the cultivation of sugar beet in France.
Thanks to the Réduction François invented by Jean-Baptiste François, the sugar dosage in the champagne bottles could be adjusted so that the bottles no longer exploded due to the pressure.
The noble wine called champagne as we know it today was born.
Champagne War: Refined Marketing
Now only one aspect was missing to complete the champagne principle: The marketing.
George Kessler, born in 1863, at the time one of the largest wine importers in America, landed a coup in 1902: Kaiser Wilhelm II had ordered German sparkling wine to be used for the celebrations at a ship christening.
Kessler exchanged the bottle of German sparkling wine intended for the ship’s christening for a bottle of champagne: The Emperor was incensed. It was a scandal that was christened the Champagne War. The name Champagne was on almost every newspaper cover and sales of the sparkling wine from Champagne rose: a successful coup.
The last German emperor Wilhelm II. is said to have had an apathy towards champagne. He is even said to have asked the “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck to drink German sparkling wine instead of champagne.
To this day, one aspect dominates the champagne brand – the marketing: No James Bond film can do without Bond’s request for a bottle of champagne. Even a franchise like Star Trek cannot do without the wine: In the opening sequence of Star Trek – Generations, a bottle of Dom Pérignon, vintage 2265, flies through space and inaugurates the new starship Enterprise.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Pietsch, Reinhard: “Champagner – Eine deutsch-französische Affäre [A German-French affair]“ & Don and Petie Kladstrup: „Champagne“