I Am Drinking The Stars:"
The History of Champagne
EMG Champagne Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about one of the world’s most truly luxurious indulgences, Champagne. This finest of fine wines has a remarkable history from its humble roots in the monasteries of France, to its present day representation of all that is joyous about eating and drinking. But, not all of the tales you hear about its creation are true.
So come with us and find out the true history of Champagne.
EAT MY GLOBE
“COME QUICKLY! I AM DRINKING THE STARS!:” THE HISTORY OF CHAMPAGNE
How do they launch a champagne factory?
I don’t know, Simon. How?
They throw a boat at it.
I actually like that one.
That’s really good. [Inaudible]
Okay, let’s do this.
Right. Are we ready?
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode, we are going to be talking about a wine. However, this is no ordinary wine. This is a wine that has become part of what I like to dub the “lexicon of luxury.” It is as prestigious an ingredient as the finest truffles, lobster and caviar. It is a wine that has become synonymous with celebrations. A wine that is used to celebrate victory. And a wine that, from my own experience, is suitable to be drunk with just about every type of food. As well as classic fine dining dishes with which it might most be associated, I have served it with Southeast Asian food, Indian food and even with a big old plate of my own favorite meal, British Fish ‘n Chips. Lovely stuff.
It’s also a wine that has a truly fascinating history. Its story includes the ancient Romans, Medieval French clerics, Renaissance British scientists, Napoleon Bonaparte and more than a smattering of royalty.
So, folks, on today’s episode of Eat My Globe, we’re of course going be looking at the history of that bubbly delight: Champagne.
[Glasses cheering sound]
As always, when we begin these episodes of Eat My Globe, I like to start with a definition of what it is that we’re about to discuss.
Our chums at Merriam Webster define the word, “Champagne,” as,
“a white sparkling wine made in the old province of Champagne, France.”
Now, while that might seem like a fairly obvious description of this famous wine, they go on to add that it can also mean,
“a similar wine grown elsewhere.”
This latter definition is one of the major issues people have with the history of Champagne – people have often used the term, “Champagne” to describe all types of sparkling wine. However, as we shall see, while all Champagnes may now be sparkling wines, not all sparkling wines are Champagne.
At its most rigid definition, Champagne must be made from grapes grown and harvested in the Champagne region of France, and then prepared under the very strict regulations of the Champagne AOC to bear its name.
The notation “AOC” stands for “Appellation d’Origine Controlée,” a French system of geographical protection that began with classifying wines. Its regulations are used both as a way of maintaining high standards of production, but also to protect consumers from being misled by inaccurate labelling. None of which is to suggest that other areas of the world can’t make excellent sparkling wines. Of course, they can. And they have had an important role to play in the history of Champagne. But for them to bear this most famous of wine names, they have to be wines from the Champagne region.
Now, to confuse matters even a little more, even though this classification has been enforced in the United States since around 2006, there are, to the French wine makers chagrin, still some sparkling wines made in California that bear the name “California Champagne.” The reasons for this date back to some archaic clauses in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, and are probably a little too complicated to go into here, but we will add a link to the annotated transcript of this episode if you want to read more.
As I mentioned, the AOC regulations for Champagne are extremely strict, and regularly revised and updated. They cover a vast number of topics including the approved varietal of grapes, the planting, pruning, and pressing techniques, the period of secondary fermentation of the wine, which produces the bubbles for which it is so famous, and its maturation period. So, while I really do want to crack on with the history of Champagne, I do think it’s worth just quickly touching on how Champagne is made, again because I think it will help distinguish it from other forms of sparkling wine made around the world. This production process is complicated enough to potentially take up an entire episode on its own, so while we will be brief here we will also add links to the annotated transcripts, for those of you who want to read about it in more detail.
Although any grape may be used to make sparkling wine, the most widely used to make Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are also four grapes that are permissible, but seldom used. These are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane.
The first and gentle pressing of these grapes, again is a highly regulated process, produces a concentrated juice known as “cuvee.” This juice is then made into Champagne using a multi-step method known as “La Methode Champenoise.” This involves first treating the juice with sulphites to prevent mold and bad bacteria forming prior to fermentation.
Then the wines are blended to form the basis of the Champagne. This can be a blend of both the red grapes – such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and the white grapes such as Chardonnay. Or it might be solely made out of the white grapes, or solely the red grapes, in which case it would be called “Blanc de Blanc” or “Blanc de Noir,” respectively. It can also be a blend of all the grapes from a single year’s harvest, in which case it becomes a “Vintage” champagne. Or, it could be a blend of wines from different years to create a “Non-Vintage” Champagne.
Then we begin with one of the key processes of making Champagne, the wine is bottled with the addition of yeast and sugar, and topped with a crown cap. The yeast and the sugar interact to produce carbon dioxide in a secondary fermentation, which unable to escape from the capped bottles, produces the bubbles for which the wine is famous.
The interaction of the yeast and sugar produces a residue known as “lees.” While all Champagne must spend 15 months in the bottle prior to it being released, there is also a time requirement where the wine must be in contact with the lees, which creates the unique flavor of Champagne. For non-vintage wines this is 12 months and for vintage wines this is 3 years. Although in practice, the wines have contact with the lees for much longer.
After this time, the lees are then removed from the bottle through two processes. The first is called “Riddling,” where the wine bottles are placed at an increasing angle on a rack and rotated until the yeast sediment congregates in the neck of the bottle. And the second is called “Disgorgement,” where the yeast sediment is removed by freezing the neck of the bottle, removing the crown cap, and popping out the frozen lees with a minimal loss of wine. This should leave the remaining wine clear.
That small amount of lost wine is then replaced in a penultimate process known as “Dosage,” where sweetness is added to the wine. The amount of sweetness added varies depending on the style of Champagne. So, for example, “Extra Brut” means that about 0 to 6 grams of sugar per liter is added. “Brut” means that less than 12 grams of sugar per liter is added. “Extra Dry” means that around 12 to 17 grams of sugar per liter is added. “Sec” means that around 17 to 32 grams of sugar per liter is added. “Demi-Sec” means that around 32 to 50 grams of sugar per liter is added. And “Doux” – D O U X – means that more than 50 grams of sugar per liter is added. Now, after dosage, the wine is then corked and the famous wire cage called a “muselet” is added to prevent the cork from popping off. Nobody likes that. Nobody likes anything popping off with their Champagne.
And that my friends is a VERY simplified version of how Champagne is made.
So, now we’ve been through all of that, why don’t we get on to the mission in hand, and let’s have a look at the history of Champagne.
The notion that it was the ancient Romans who first brought wine to what is now France has recently come under scrutiny with archeological evidence showing that the Celtic inhabitants had already supplemented their traditional beverages of mead and beer with wines that they had traded with the Etruscan and ancient Greek pre-cursors of ancient Rome. While the ancient Greeks planted vines in Gaul, in what is now France, the Gauls likely learned vineyard planting techniques from the Etruscans. By about 525 B.C.E., they were likely making their own wines in the area now known as Marseille. And by 425 to around 400 B.C.E., they were likely making wines in the area south of what is now Montpellier – the famous Languedoc wine region. I have to say, my favorite wine region of France. The ancient Romans incorporated Gaul into its empire around 125 B.C.E. and likely planted their first vineyards near Toulouse and in the Rhone Valley shortly thereafter.
Although some wine historians – what a great job – and any self-respecting Frenchman might argue that Champagne was the first sparkling wine, most now believe that wine with bubbles caused by secondary fermentation had been in existence for some considerable time before it was developed in Champagne.
The ancient Romans had their own form of sparkling wine, which was used for celebration. In Book Ten of his major work, “Pharsalia,” Roman poet, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus or Lucan, as he is more regularly known, discusses a lavish celebration thrown by Julius Caesar in honor of Cleopatra in which dishes were served on plates of pure gold, and wine was poured into large expensive goblets. The wine served was one of the most prized in Rome from the region of Falernia and had undergone a secondary fermentation by the addition of wilted grapes from Ethiopia. The effect was to produce a “spumante” or sparkling wine that Lucan describes as full of “Bullulae” or bubbles, and it was a wine considered suitable for special occasions.
Now, while our French winemaker chums might just about admit begrudgingly that the ancient Romans had a hand in the creation of sparkling wine, the fact that there is also a very strong claim from their long term rivals across La Manche or the English Channel might be harder to take. See, the British, too, have a very strong claim to be the creators of the sparkling winemaking style.
Englishman Christopher Merrett – who lived from 1614 to 1695 – was a member of the Royal College of Physicians, librarian for the College, lecturer, and scientist. On the 17th of December 1662, Merrett presented a paper on winemaking before the newly formed Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge or the “Royal Society,” for short, of which he was a founding member. In the paper, he describes a process of making wine as,
“Our Wine-coopers of latter times use vast quantities of Sugar and Melosses [molasses] to all sorts of Wines, to make them brisk [frothy] and sparkling.”
This undoubtedly refers to the practice of secondary fermentation, and is likely the first use of the word “sparkling” as it applied to wine.
Now, in France, too, there were versions of wine with secondary fermentation before development in the region of Champagne. In 1531, in the Limoux region of the South of France, Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Saint Hilaire noted the existence of sparkling wine. The wine, still available as Blanquette de Limoux Methode Ancestrale, is considered to be the oldest sparkling wine in France.
But, what of Champagne itself?
The general consensus is that the planting of vineyards in Champagne did begin with the arrival of the Romans. They began to colonize the region in the 3rd century C.E. They soon discovered that the thick layer of chalk that lay beneath the surface of the land was perfect for making excellent wines. By the time of the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. – if it is to be believed that the Romans planted vineyards on their arrival – the vineyards in Champagne would have been well established.
In a similar fashion to the spread of brewing and distilling – both of which have their own episodes in previous seasons of Eat My Globe – so please go and check them out – the next developments of winemaking in Champagne would have arrived at the hands of the monastic orders. Since the Roman Empire declared Christianity as its official religion in 380 C.E. and Catholicism developed in the western Roman Empire, the primary religion of the area would have been Catholic. Monks from orders within this Christian movement would have needed wine both to use in their Catholic rite of mass and as a staple in their diet because water would have been unsafe to drink. Sales of wine were also a way of raising income for their monastic order.
The monks had the luxury of time not only to examine the land on which they planted vineyards, but also to develop wine making techniques, to improve yield and create consistent quality. Over the next few centuries, those under monastic orders oversaw the development of winemaking across Europe, including all of France, and for our purposes, in Champagne.
As Alfred Tardi puts it in his excellent book, “Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of The World’s Most Celebrated Drink,”
“Most of the monks who orchestrated these advances remained anonymous; some of them did not.”
Which serves as an introduction to one of the most interesting figures in food history, and one who is often romantically, if incorrectly, credited with inventing Champagne itself.
In 1639, Pierre Perignon was born in the small village of Sainte Menehould in the French region of Marne. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Vanne. At the age of 29, Pierre, or now “Dom Perignon” – see – was sent to the Abbey of Hautvillers, which had spent the last several years in a state of decline, in the key position of “Procurer.” To kick start his revitalization project of the Abbey, he got the vineyards in order.
We don’t have any surviving notes from Dom Perignon himself. But his successor and pupil, Frere Pierre, wrote a lengthy treaty called, “Traite de La culture des vignes de Champagne” or “How to Cultivate Vines and Make Wine In Champagne,” which details many of Dom Perignon’s methods that are still – to this day – instantly recognizable to any wine maker.
Immediately, he began to set to work. He instructed the friars on how to prune the vines, when to harvest the grapes, how to select only grapes of the very best quality, and how to press the grapes. He was also known for his extraordinary ability to blend the juice from the grapes, both those from grapes grown at the abbey and those that were given to them in the form of tithes by local landowners.
It is worth noting that the wine to which we are referring was a pale red wine, although one that naturally had a little sparkle or “Petillance,” as it is known in the wine trade. One of its biggest fans was Louis XIV, who drank it on “medical advice.”
Sounds like excellent medical advice to me. I wonder if my doctor could be persuaded to prescribe that.
Anyway, when he drank the red wine from Champagne, the rest of the aristocracy followed suit.
The wine, however, was still some way from being the Champagne we know today.
Again, as Tardi explains in his excellent book, “Champagne Uncorked,” although Dom Perignon is often credited as being the father of Champagne, he was very far from pleased with the bubbles that began to appear in wines from the region and he did everything he could to try and prevent them.
So, how did he gain this illustrious title if the very cause of it was some thing he spent his whole winemaking life fighting against? For that, we can look to two instances.
The first instance was in 1821, some 106 years after Dom Perignon had passed away, when one of his successors at the Abbey shared a story attributing the creation of sparkling wine to Dom Perignon. Apparently, Dom Perignon figured out,
“how to get it clear without having to decant the bottles. . . as before him our monks only knew how to make straw or grey wines; and it is also to Dom Perignon that we owe the cork as now used.”
It’s a lovely story, but of course, utter food balderdash, and created by Dom Goussard as a way to give the Abbey increased historical importance.
The second instance of Dom Perignon getting the attribution for inventing sparkling wine was in the late 1800s, when winemakers Moët & Chandon launched a brand of Champagne under the name of the famous “Dom Perignon” and used the story as part of a widespread marketing campaign. In the ad, they created a picture of a blind monk who, upon discovering sparkling wine, exclaimed,
“Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”
The reality of Champagne’s move from a still pinkish wine to a sparkling white wine is far less romantic and far more gradual. In part, it had to do with technological developments. These were things such as the production of stronger glass bottles – a technique which they learned from the British who made glass with coal fires which produced a stronger finished product than from wood fires – and the widespread use of cork stoppers. These came to France around 1700, which was around the same point in history as sparkling wine began to be intentionally produced in Champagne for the first time.
A French royal decree in 1728 helped the growth of sparkling wine production. The decree allowed wine to be shipped in bottles rather than in casks, as had been the case before. This was a result of major lobbying on behalf of the mayor of the city of Reims who argued that they were not able to ship their “vin mousseux” or sparkling wine in casks as it would lose its innate quality.
Liberated by improved technology and freed from ancient legislation, the sparkling wine of Champagne began to be commercialized and distributed more widely.
Ruinart, the very first house or “Maison de Champagne,” was founded in 1729. Such was its success, that many other houses began to open throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Champagne became popular in France around 1715 when Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, became regent and drank the wine, which inevitably made it popular with the rest of the aristocracy. Louis XV took to it with particular fervor, and his purported mistress, the infamous Madame de Pompadour, was known to particularly adore it.
So enamored was Madame P of Champagne that a myth even began to evolve that the classic flat shaped glass or “Coupe,” now so associated with Champagne drinking, had been modelled after the shape of her breasts. The same myth is also given to the breasts of the ill-fated Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Now, I doubt that either story is true but I think they do serve a purpose in showing that even from its earliest history, the wines from Champagne developed a sensual and a sexy imagery that has stayed with them ever since.
And, just in case you are wondering, while we are talking about Champagne glasses, the thin Champagne flute that most people will know if they have ever attended a wedding, replaced the coupe during World War II because Champagne aficionados believed that the flute allowed the bubbles to rise slower thereby preserving its effervescence. And, today, for the same reason, there is a move away from Champagne flute glasses to serving Champagne in a more tulip shaped white wine glass – my preference, for the record.
Now, back to our story, across the Channel in England, there was already a passion for the wines from Champagne. The period of the Restoration – which spanned from 1660 to 1702 – saw Charles II return or be restored – hence the name of the period – to the English throne after his own period of exile in France. He brought over his love for Champagne and made it very much en vogue in his court.
A displaced French Aristocrat, Charles de Marguetel de Saint Denis, who joined Charles II’s court after fleeing French King Louis XIV’s court, also retained his love of Champagne while in his new homeland. He was not terribly fond of his place of exile, however, and he expressed it in terms of his love for the bubbly wine.
He reportedly said,
“To exchange the flavour of oysters and champagne, /For the faint glow of a feeble sun, /And the damp beauty of a green countryside, /Seems far from good fortune to me.”
I dunno. I kind of like my feeble sun and damp countryside. . . .
Anyway, there you go.
He brought with him his love for Champagne and he spread it through the English court to whom he became associated.
With Charles II in power, England loved all things French.
On the 25th of March 1664, we see a notation in the accounting books of stately home, Woburn Abbey, the residence of the Duke of Bedford, that says,
“for wine of Champagne, accompanied by two dozen glass bottles and corks.”
This still being a time when the wine was shipped only in casks and would have been bottled by the recipient. And, we also begin to see the appearance of references to Champagne in literature and song in England, such as in the play from 1699, “Love and a Bottle,” by Irish Restoration dramatist, George Farquhar, who is perhaps better known for writing plays such as “The Beau’s Stratagem” and “The Recruiting Officer.” In “Love and a Bottle,” one of the characters by the name of Mockmode, a young squire enquires of his landlady, Bullfinch . . .
April? Come up.
You’re going to have to help me with this one.
Okay. Come on. You’ve got to do some acting.
Are you sure?
Yep. Okay. So you could read Bulfinch. And I’ll read Mockmode.
Let’s Quote. So off you go, April. Over to you. And action!
[Wood clapping sound]
APRIL (as Bullfinch):
“Bull[finch]. Well, Sir, I hope you'll give us the Beverage of your fine Cloaths. I'll assure you, Sir, they fit you very well, and I like your Fancy mightily.
SIMON (as Mockmode):
Mock[mode]. Ay, ay, Madam. But what's most modish for Beverage? for, I suppose, the Fashion of that alters always with the Cloaths.
APRIL (as Bullfinch):
Bull[finch]. The Taylors are the best Judges of that―But Champaigne, I suppose.
SIMON (as Mockmode):
Mock[mode]. Is Champaigne a Taylor? Now, methinks, that were a fitter Name for a Wig-maker – I think they call my Wig a Champaigne.
APRIL (as Bullfinch):
Bull[finch]. You're clear out, Sir, clear out. Champaigne is a fine Liquor, which all your great Beaux drink to make 'em witty.
SIMON (as Mockmode):
Mock[mode]. Witty! Oh by the Universe, I must be witty. I'll drink nothing else; I never was witty in all my Life. I love Jokes dearly – Here, Club, bring us a Bottle of what dy'e call it; the witty liquor.”
Huh? End quote. And scene.
So please send all your votes for nominations for the Tony Awards and maybe the Razzies to the Eat My Globe podcast. Thank you, April.
Anyway, there are lots more examples, but I don’t think any of you need to hear more of our wooden acting. But I think this does go to show that Champagne was already established as a beverage for the higher echelons in England by the turn of the 17th century.
By the 1700s, a British governor in what were then the colonies of the New World, and what was to become the nascent country of the United States of America, had been known to store bottles of Champagne and likely introduced the bubbly wine to George Washington. At the time, wines from France were even more expensive in the colonies than in England, not only because they had to be imported across the Atlantic, but also because the wines were often in limited supply because of ongoing military struggles between Britain and France. However, it was still available to those who had the income to afford it. In 1793, there are records of the then President George Washington ordering 485 bottles of Champagne and Burgundy, at the cost of $355.67 in total. The Champagne itself costing around $1 a bottle.
Back in France, the political situation had changed by the beginning of the 19th century, with the bloody end of the monarchy, the dark nightmare of the revolutionary period and the arrival of one Napoleon Bonaparte as its new leader. Napoleon too was very fond of his Champagne. It was a passion that was rooted during his time at the Military Academy in Brienne where he met Jean-Rémy Moët, the grandson of Claude Moët, the founder of the famous Champagne house. They formed a strong friendship.
Before every major battle, Napoleon would visit the Moët & Chandon house to collect cases of wine to take with him. All apparently, except the famous Battle of Waterloo. And we all know what happened there, don’t we? Spoiler alert: he lost and the British won. Hurrah!
He was famously once quoted as saying in reference to Champagne,
“In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.”
The patronage of Napoleon for Champagne not only had direct benefits for Moët in his own purchases, but with the success of his military campaigns, the agents were able to move into new territories for the sales of their wines, which began to soar. And, even after the final defeat of Napoleon at that battle of Waterloo in 1815, sales of Champagne were not affected as its popularity grew and grew. By the late 1800s, over 20 million bottles of Champagne were being produced annually.
Indeed, from France, the popularity of Champagne began to spread across Europe. Peter the Great, Tzar of Russia, reputedly went to bed with at least four bottles of Champagne each evening, while Tzar Alexander II loved Champagne so much that Roederer, the Champagne House, designed a crystal bottle for him.
Now, fun fact. And my wife, who loves rap, tells me this because I know nothing about the rap world. Remember when the Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls to his friends, rapped about spending a week in Venice Beach sipping “Cristal” with some of his friends from ‘Frisco – as in San Francisco – as he went back to Cali – as in California? Well, he and the other 1990s and early aughts era hip hop artists who loved waxing lyrical about “Cristal” in their musical hits have Tzar Alexander II to thank due to this crystal bottle that Roederer designed for him. So there you go.
[Glass clinking sound]
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before Tzar Alexander II started enjoying the original Cristal in Russia, let’s talk about the vital role of women in the Champagne story. There are so many important women whose influence at the great houses was incalculable. However, in an episode of this length, it’s impossible to talk about them all. I shall put another link in the annotated transcript, it you want to find out more.
For now, I want to discuss one of the truly great heroines of the spread of Champagne and talk about the remarkable Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, or as you might now know her, “The Widow” – or in French, “Veuve” – Cliquot.From a wealthy family herself, her parents had her married into the Cliquot family, who owned many businesses including a wine business, so their families could join their fortunes. However, when she was only twenty-seven years old, her husband Francois Cliquot passed away and the family patriarch decided that he was going to close down the unprofitable wine company. The widow Cliquot convinced him not to and he acquiesced allowing her to change the name of the company to Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin.
She turned her attention to one of the biggest complaints about the Champagne of the time –that it was cloudy because of the sediment. She began experimenting on how the bottles were stored with her cellar master, Antoine de Muller, and they soon began to develop the system we mentioned earlier, known as “Riddling,” where the bottles are racked at increasing angles over a period of time so that the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle. Although they were able to keep their new technique secret for some period of time, the word got out and this is now a standard part of the Champagne making process.
As well as adding this new technique to Champagne making, Veuve Cliquot was also determined to see her Champagne find its way into one of the biggest early markets, that of Russia, who she thought would be particularly fond of her rather sweet Champagne. In 1812, Napoleon had invaded Russia and as part of the conflict, Tzar Alexander I had slapped a ban on importing all French wines in bottles – a deliberate attack on Napoleon, who as we now know loved to travel with his Champagne courtesy of his chum, Jean-Rémy Moët.
To circumvent this, Veuve Cliquot’s agent, Louis Bohne, registered the company as a coffee merchant. He then began to smuggle Champagne into the country hidden in barrels of coffee beans. This would not be enough however to conquer that market, and widow Clicquot realized that she needed to have a more visionary approach.
The war had not gone well for Napoleon, and Russian troops had moved into France and occupied much of the country, including all the areas around Reims. So many of the Champagne houses were situated here, and the Russians had put a blockade on the movement of Champagne. Wanting to get one up on her rivals, Veuve Cliquot managed to smuggle a vast shipment of Champagne from her warehouse and held it in a port in Amsterdam awaiting the end of the war. Once it was over, she was weeks ahead of her competition in delivering her champagne into influential Russian hands. When Tzar Alexander I declared it the only Champagne he would drink, the future of the company was secure.
Quite a woman.
Success stories, like those of Veuve Clicquot, does not mean that everything in the Champagne industry was always completely rosy – or should that be Rosé? – sorry about that. And, over the next 100 years, Champagne faced many challenges.
The continued fashion for Champagne meant that the houses struggled to keep up with demand and there were often very poor wines being made that bore the name of Champagne, and often including grapes from outside the region or even using juice from other fruits, such as beet juice, apple juice and rhubarb juice. These challenges began to be repelled with a series of strict regulations at the beginning of the 20th century.
At the same time, wine in France, indeed in much of Europe, began to suffer from the arrival of an aphid pest that was from the Mississippi Valley in the eastern United States. “Phylloxera Vastatrix” destroyed practically all European vineyards once it had left the United States. It hit France hard and the response to its attacks totally redefined the future of viticulture in France forever. It hit the Champagne region last of all in 1888, and by the time the region had reestablished its vineyards, they were faced with more commercial challenges with sparkling wines from other countries.
At the beginning of the 20th century, just as the land in Champagne was getting back on its feet, they were also faced with one of its greatest challenges, the advent of World War I, or “The Great War,” as the French refer to it.
In their book, “Champagne: How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times,” the authors, Don and Petie Kladstrup, say,
“Of all the terrible moments in Champagne’s long history, none was more catastrophic than World War I. It was Champagne’s darkest hour.”
Soon after the declaration of war, the region of Champagne found itself to be at the center of the battle zone between the Germans and the Allies. It suffered devastation to its people, to its economy – with its currency devalued – and to its vineyards – with almost 40% of them being destroyed by the time Armistice was declared on November the 11th 1918.
This situation was not helped by the fact that within two years of the end of World War I, all wine sales, including those of Champagne, were given another potential body blow by the declaration of the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation and most importantly sales of intoxicating liquors. Despite this prohibition, the United States still managed to import about 70 million bottles of Champagne before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. These were brought in by illegal and more circuitous routes such as from the small French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, islands that acted as unofficial liquor warehouses for the United States during the period.
And, as if all of that was not enough, by 1939, the world was at it again as war was declared on Germany by Britain on September the 3rd of that year. The impact on the region of Champagne was less obvious than during World War I, as it was not on the battle zones themselves. However, as the country of France was occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1944, the sales of Champagne to two of their biggest markets were inevitably curtailed for that period. Winston Churchill, who was very fond of Pol Roger Champagne – as well as plenty of other alcoholic beverages – reminded everyone about the lack of supply when he purportedly said,
“Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne.”
Many of the men and women who worked in the Champagne industry were also involved in clandestine operations against the Germans, and many consequently suffered imprisonment, deportation to concentration camps and even execution. When the region was liberated on the 28th of August 1944, bottles of Champagne that had been hidden away in wells and cellars were opened in celebration and shared with the liberating armies. Now that is a party that I would loved to have been present at.
Given all of these challenges, it would be easy if Champagne had ceased to be the most famous of not just sparkling wine, but I would argue, of any wine at all. In fact, looking at the current numbers available, Champagne is even more successful than ever and is projected to sell almost 200 million liters in 2021 to its top 10 largest markets. Almost inevitably and according to Euromonitor International, the French drink almost half of that amount themselves, with the UK, the United States and Australia coming in behind them.
And who could imagine any celebration, be it a wedding, a christening, the launching of a ship, or any business success not being marked by the opening of a great bottle of Champagne? It’s a tradition that dates back to the days following the French Revolution where the secular “holy water” of Champagne was used to replace the blessed holy water of priests who would have formerly carried out such duties.
And, by way of a short story to end this episode, in 1966, at the end of the iconic Le Mans 24 Hour motor race, the winning driver Jo Siffert accidentally showered onlookers with his celebration Champagne while on the winner’s platform. The next year, American Dan Gurney deliberately followed suit, and a famous tradition was born.
Which seems like a good a point as any for me to wrap up this episode and go and open a bottle of something rather lovely that I have been saving in the fridge for just such a special occasion.
And as I pop a bottle, I am reminded of a quote from another pioneering “veuve” or widow – Lily Bollinger of Champagne Bollinger – who famously said,
“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
See you next week, folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 13, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.