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Champagne

History

  • Grapes have been grown in the Champagne region since Roman Times. It was monks in the region who largely made contributions to the development of production methods, with Dom Pierre Pérignon as a leader in the field. Madame Ponsardin Clicquot was also intrinsic to pushing the limits of Champagne production. A love for Champagne has continued to grow worldwide since its inception.

    Vineyards were most likely planted in the Champagne region during Roman times. These vineyards were maintained by the church throughout the many waves of conquerors including the Franks, the Goths, the Burgunders, the Vandals, the Huns and the Germans.

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  • During the Middle Ages, it was monks who improved on winemaking methods. Because of the northerly climate, there was a tendency for wines to stop fermenting in the cold winter months and then restart their fermentation in the spring. This was long considered a serious fault of the Champagne region, and many church winemakers worked hard at trying to solve this problem.

    One such monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon, spent his entire life revolutionizing the methods used to make Champagne. His innovations included lowering yields, harvesting during cooler temperatures, delicate pressing of the grapes, and blending wine from different communes. He also championed the use of heavy glass bottles and cork stoppers, both of which help conserve the bubbles.

    Dom Pérignon and his colleagues at the abbey of Hautvillers sold their wine to customers from royal circles and the aristocracy, even to the king. The oldest commercial company to sell Champagne, however, was established by Nicolas Ruinart in 1729.

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  • Throughout the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI, Champagne was very fashionable amongst the French nobility, although it was a very different wine from what we know today. In fact, the wine of the time was cloudy due to the sediment left behind by spent yeast.

    In 1816, Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot and her cellar man Antoine Müller invented a process called rémuage or riddling, which proved to be an important step in dégorgement, where the spent yeast sediment left from secondary fermentation is ejected from the bottle. Mme. Clicquot cut holes in her kitchen table, creating a rack for the bottles to sit upside down. She then perfected the method of slowly tilting and turning the bottles just a little bit everyday for a long period of time. Thanks to gravity, the spent yeast collected in the neck of the bottle. Once the sediment settled, it could be removed by the freezing of the bottle's neck in salt water, removing the cork and releasing the frozen plug of wine and yeast. Then the bottle could be recorked and the Champagne would be clear. This was a major advance on the old tradition in Champagne of storing wines upside down in sand. Rémuage helped turn Champagne from a curiosity into a huge commercial success.

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  • From these beginnings, Champagne began to grow in popularity. One important early market was Russia, where Mme. Clicquot sent a secret shipment of her Champagne in 1814 in defiance of Napoleon's blockade. She focused on the Russian market because their court was known to be the most prestigious of Europe and the Russians were great lovers of Champagne.

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  • The Champagne region and its wines continued to develop in the 19th century, despite the difficult times of the phylloxera epidemic, two World Wars and the Great Depression.

    The second half of the 20th century saw steady growth in the sales of Champagne. Sales doubled from 25 million bottles to 50 million bottles from 1940-1960. They increased by more than a factor of three between 1960 and 1980 to 176 million bottles. From 1980-2000, sales increased to over 300 million bottles. This figure is close to the absolute ceiling created by the number of available acres multiplied by the maximum production per acre.

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