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The History of Champagne

by Staff Writer - C. Barnett | July 09, 2011

Many believe the only true Champagne comes from the Champagne district of France because the name is geographical and applies to that particular region some ninety miles north east of Paris. But the champagne name is widely borrowed and is applied to most of the sparkling white wines produced in California.

Champagne, from where the wine gets its name, was a region long before it was a sparkling wine. The region lies at a crossroads of northern Europe, where the river valleys lead south to the Mediterranean and north to Paris, the English Channel and Western Germany. Before the mid-1600's there was no Champagne as we think of it today. For centuries the wines were still wines and were held in high regard by the nobility of Europe. But the cool climate of the region and its effect on the wine making process played an important part in changing all of that. We owe a lot to Dom Perignon, even though Champagne was not invented by him as it is often thought.

Pierre Pérignon was a Benedictine monk in 1688 and he was appointed treasurer at the Abby of Hautvillers. The Abby is located near Epernay. Included in Dom Pérignon's duties was the management of the cellars and wine making. The bubbles in the wine are a natural process arising from Champagne's cold climate and short growing season. Out of necessity, the grapes were picked late in the year. That didn’t leave enough time for the yeasts present on the grape skins to convert the sugar in the pressed grape juice into alcohol before the cold winter temperatures put a temporary stop to the fermentation process. With the coming of Spring’s warmer temperatures, the fermentation was again underway, but this time in the bottle. The fermentation created carbon-dioxide which became trapped in the bottle which created the sparkle.

For Dom Pérignon and his associates, sparkling wine was not the desired end product. He believed it was a sign of poor wine making and spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the bubbles. He was not able to prevent the bubbles, but he did develop the art of blending. He not only blended different grapes, but the juice from the same grape grown in different vineyards. Not only did he develop a method to press the black grapes to yield a white juice, but he also improved clarification techniques to produce a livelier wine than any that had been produced before. To help prevent the exploding bottle problem, he began to use the stronger bottles developed by the English and closing them with Spanish cork instead of the wood and oil-soaked hemp stoppers which were then in use. Dom Pérignon died in 1715, but in his 47 years as the cellar master at the Abby of Hautvillers, he laid down the basic principles still used in making Champagne. Today we have a brand named after him called Don Pérignon Champagne.

The face of the industry really began to change when Louis XV allowed the transport of wine in bottles in 1728. A year later, Ruinart became the first recorded Champagne house. By 1735, a royal ordinance was instituted to dictate the size, shape, and weight of champagne bottles, the size of the cork they should use and that they be secured with strong packing thread to the neck of the bottle. In 1743, Claude Moet founded what was to become the largest champagne house today, the House of Moet.

The 1820's and 30's saw the use of corking machines and wine muzzles. In 1836, a pharmacist in Chalons-sur-Marne, M. François, invented an instrument, called a sucere-oenomètre, to measure the amount of sugar in wine. With this invention, the amount of sugar needed to stimulate the second fermentation could be reliably determined, and the bottle burst-rate dropped to 5%.

The years after the Great War were difficult. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Prohibition in the United States, and then the Great Depression saw the champagne market dry up. The champagne houses stopped buying grapes, so grape growers formed the first Champagne cooperatives at this time. With the ending of Prohibition in 1934, the industry began to turn around. Since World War II Champagne sales have climbed upwards, nearly quadrupling between 1945 and 1966.

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