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"Come brothers, hurry, I am drinking the stars!" Dom Pierre Perignon, monk and winemaker, (1658-1715) on his first sip of Champagne.




For most of history, the champagne we drink did not exist.


Grapes had been grown and wine made in Champagne since the time of the Romans, at the least. Centuries of war and fortune followed, until by the 1600s Champagne and Burgundy were involved in a serious trade battle for supremacy in the market and in the hearts of wine drinkers. The winemakers of Champagne surged to the fore, creating wines of unusual vision: they had discovered how to bring forth white wine from the Pinot Noir grape. Soon the new wines, the "vin gris", were the rage and fashion in Paris and in the export market.


Just at this time, fortune favored us all. The use of corks to seal bottles was spreading from Spain and Portugal to the rest of Europe. It was already common in England with ale as a result of the sea trade there. A French noble named Saint-Evremond, fallen from the good grace of King Louis XIV, had fled France for exile in London. He managed to get small consignments of the wines of Champagne shipped to him, where they found great favor among his new friends. Some soul long forgotten did the natural thing as he filled bottles from the shipping cask: he stoppered the bottles with corks.


Most wine was drunk young in those days, particularly the "vin gris" of Champagne. Shipped abroad in casks, they often developed a second fermentation and became fizzy. Enough of that bubbly essence survived in the corked bottles to be noted and enjoyed.


Word came to Champagne, probably from travelers wondering why the wine they drank there was not like the Champagne wine they drank in London. Winemakers, academics, and scholars became involved. Financiers and businessmen scented money. A search began for a method to create deliberately what had only come about accidentally.


As in many other areas of Europe, long centuries of inheritance and gifts to the church had left much of the vineyard land in the hands of the monasteries and the Church. At two abbeys barely two miles apart, Father Jean Oudart and Dom Pierre Pirignon brought the winemaker's art to the task.


In the last decades of the seventeenth century, these men worked out the principles of Champagne as we know it: the art of blending, the techniques for removing sediment, the replacement of the wooden stoppers with cork. Through experimentation and insight, they brought us the gift of sparkling wine.


From that point on, the demand for Champagne was always there, and the winemakers of the province strove to meet it. But the making of this wine was fraught with peril. No one could be sure of the result of the process, and capricious accidents were routine. A wine might with the sought-after bubbles or not, with too many or too few, and not even the wisest of winemakers seemed to be able to master it always. Mistakes could also be ruinously expensive: 20% breakage to exploding bottles was routine, reaching 40% and more in many cases. Champagne was naturally expensive and rare as a result. Wonderful the new wine was, but no one would depend on it for their entire livelihood.


In 1836, a pharmacist named Jean Baptiste Francois developed a method of determining the residual sugar level before the second fermentation of the Champagne. Forever after known as the "Reduction Francois", this revolutionized the production of the wine. Winemakers had known that sweeter grapes produced higher levels of alcohol and carbon dioxide, but they had no means of measuring the level and thus controlling the results. Now they did. Virtually overnight, the wineries of Champagne switched completely to the production of sparkling wine.


From there the legend grew and fortune favored the wine. When the phylloxera plague swept through Europe, the cooler climate of Champagne slowed the progress and they were able to benefit from the efforts of those to their south. When the Franco-Prussian War swept through in 1870, it was brief and the Germans soon withdrew. The province prospered.


The First World War was different. Four long years of war scarred the land and slew her sons. The good times of the 1920s were soon followed by worldwide Depression and another World War. In the decades since, Champagne has rebuilt itself and reclaimed her position as the wine of celebration.


We are the beneficiaries. The accidents and luck of time have brought us to this age, where champagne can be enjoyed widely and easily. Nature and luck and the labors of old monk winemakers and a pharmacist have brought us the gift of Champagne. Enjoy!


 Last modified: August 07, 2007