For as wonderful as the many examples of Italian wine are, there are perhaps no other wines that are held in such high regard as champagne. Even though the wine has lost its position as the most popular sparkling white wine in the world to prosecco, it’s still revered internationally.
This is no surprise. A good champagne is as good a wine as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s the perfect choice for celebrations and extravagant living.
When people think about champagne, they generally don’t think beyond the fact that it’s the most famous French wine. However, if you explore the history a little deeper, you’ll find that the wine’s evolution took it through several territories over the year before we arrived at what we now know as modern champagne.
The Roman Years
Contrary to popular belief, there’s actually a much more Italian influence in champagne than you may realise. In fact, it was the Romans who were the first to plant vineyards in the legendary Champagne industry, thus planting the seeds, quite literally, for what would follow centuries later.
Even the name Champagne is Latin in origin, deriving from the word Campania. The Romans so named the Champagne region because of its similarity to the Campania region in what we now know as Italy.
The first recorded vineyards in Champagne were owned by St. Remi, who planted them in the 5th century. However, the Champagne name didn’t come during this era. Instead, the wines St. Remi produced were either named vins de Reims or vins de la rivère, the latter referencing a nearby river.
Over time, the region became more associated with military battles than these early explorations into viticulture. However, the coronation of Hugh Capet as the King of France brought with it a regal association that carried through to these early wines from Champagne. By the 16th century, the region was widely respected for the quality of its wines, not least because of this tinge of royalty.
The wines of this era weren’t the sparkling whites we know today. In fact, they varied between pink and reds. Winemakers of the time tried to come up with a great white wine to represent the region, but they failed. It would not be until the mid-17th century, following the destruction of the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers, that Champagne began bearing more of a resemblance to what we know today.
Enter Dom Pérignon
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of wine knows the Dom Pérignon brand. It’s one of the most prestigious Champagne brands in the world, not least because it was the first to actually create champagnes similar to those we drink now.
The story starts with the previously mentioned devastation at the Benedictine Abbey. One Dom Pierre Pérignon took it upon himself to replant the abbey’s vineyards, eventually amassing 25 acres. He also built a wine cellar, allowing for a higher scale of wine production in the region.
Pérignon was a staunch advocate of the pinot noir grape, as he believed they weren’t as volatile as their white cousins. Ironically, he wanted to avoid the bubbling that sometimes occurred with white wines, seeing this as a fault that needed to be rectified. Of course, those bubbles are now the most famous feature of Champagne.
Nevertheless, it was Dom Pérignon who came up with the technique for producing white wines from the red pinot noir grape. Though he battled against the bubbles, he also laid the groundwork for what Champagne would come to be.
The English Factor
During this period, the English were one of the biggest importers of French wines. They’d noticed the tendency of white wines to bubble. However, unlike Pérignon, that actually saw this as a good thing, and researched the factors behind the bubbling. A scientist named Christopher Merret found that the sugars in the wine were the culprit, which led to the English developing a technique for creating sparkling wines.
None of this wines met the standards of Champagne, but it was another important stepping stone. Over the next couple of decades, more European courts began enjoying the bubbles, including the French. More techniques were invented and the French winemakers of the region began creating drinks that bubbled deliberately.
Nevertheless, Champagne was still known for its still pink wines, right up until the dawn of the 19th century. In fact, 90% of the wines that came from the region during this period didn’t bubble. Still, a precedent had been set, and Champagne would evolve massively in the 1800s.
The Industrial Revolution
With the industrial revolution came a greater understanding of the techniques that were used to create sparkling wines. This allowed for production on an even wider scale. Improved bottles and corking mechanisms also meant that the bubbles didn’t cause issue with the bottle’s structure, and didn’t fizz out due to air getting in the bottles.
Finally, techniques arose to get rid of the sediment that often sat at the bottom of Champagnes of this era. This made the wine more affordable, especially in courts where servers no longer had to open a new bottle to pour a fresh glass.
Sparkling champagne’s popularity grew, and the region became more closely associated with its production into the 20th century. Unfortunately, World War II slowed things down.
The Wars and the Revival
Much like it had been centuries ago, the Champagne region was a key tactical location during both World Wars. In fact, it became a part of “No Man’s Land” during World War 1. Both wars took their toll on Champagne’s vineyards, though they did bring with them the introduction of the Appellation d’origine controlee, which are the governing standards of the modern wine industry.
Following World War II, Champagne’s popularity exploded. The vineyards were replanted and demand grew to the point where sales quadrupled. It was during this modern period when Champagne truly earned the reputation that it has today. However, the many centuries that preceded the 20th laid the groundwork for what must surely be considered one of the most important wines in the world.