Monday, July 21, 2008


The History of 'le' Champagne

The beginningThis might surprise you, but the English rather than the French were the ones who invented Champagne in the 17th century. And with the word "invented" I mean making sparkling wine deliberately, and through a reproducible process. The first French documents that refer to Champagne date from 1718. These papers report that the first time this happened was around 20 years earlier (bringing the date to circa 1698). In England however, Sir George Etheredge made mention of sparkling wine as early as 1676. We now know that a sparkling wine actually becomes sparkling by way of a second fermentation. The trick in bringing about this second fermentation lies in the addition of sugar. Well then, in 1662 a mister Christopher Merret, tells us, in an article called: "Some observations concerning the ordering of wines" by the Royal Society, how sugar was added on purpose in order to achieve a sparkling wine.The French version of the history is that Dom Perignon, a merry French monk from Hautvillers (1638-1715) was the one who invented Champagne. The cheerful chap however did not start messing about with bottles of the bubbly stuff in Hautvillers until 1668. Although Dom Pérignon fiddled with wine for god knows how long, there are some who assume that he did not quite understand why the stuff turned sparkling. Reproducible wasn’t a term which could very well be applied to his experiments.Another French version of the true origin of Champagne is that the monks of St. Hilaire in the south of France had begun making sparkling wine as early as 1531. The substance was made following the rural method ("excusez mon French"). The second fermentation using this method is done in the vat. In actual fact it is not so much a second fermentation as a prolonging of the first. The stuff that these days is still made in this fashion is called Blanquette de Limoux.Bureaucracy is of all times so as early as in 1600 in France all kinds of rules and regulations were issued, making things rather uncomfortable. One of them was the prohibition of transporting bottles of wine. This now was a bit of a nuisance because of the simple fact that Champagne is made in bottles and therefore cannot be transported in a vat. In 1728, 38 years after the birth of Champagne, this rather absurd ban was sent to kingdom come and as a result Champagne houses start to shoot up left right and centre.Ruinart was the first Champagne house (1729), followed by Chanoine (1730), Taittinger (1734), Moët (1743), Abelé (1757, Clicquot (1772) and Heidsieck (1785. The house of Gosset claims to be the oldest because it was already established in 1584. This is entirely true but till far in the 18th century it delivered still wines only.
The early yearsThe fact that many a person believes Dom Pierre Pérignon to have invented the bubbly stuff is more of a smart PR gimmick than anything else. Yes indeed, even monks "do" PR. In this specific case our jolly fellow was helped by the folks from the house of Moët et Chandon. M&C bought the rights for the name of Dom Pérignon from Mercier. Ever since that day the myth that Dom P. invented Champagne is cleverly exploited by not quite stupid M&C marketing boys (and/or girls). Having said that, it should be remembered that Dom P. did make a mega contribution to the development of Champagne. He has devoted many a decade of his life trying to manage the bubbly stuff. For which, by the way, I would hereby like to thank him from the bottom of my heart.

Our dear Dom had a rather jolly career, to get back to the subject. He once started with the production of quality wine and got extremely frustrated by the fact that his wine kept on containing CO2 (carbon dioxide). He never got a lucky streak in his efforts to diminish the CO2. Quite the opposite, every effort he made only led to bigger quantities of CO2 in his wines. Heedful of the motto: "if you can’t beat them, join them" he went on to pursue his experiments, but now on wine containing CO2. The dear soul has come up with quite a few clever inventions. The harvesting of the grapes was done in the first day of summer. Dom P. came up with the idea that harvesting at a later time would lead to fresher and more elegant wine. This is how it came to be that even to this date harvesting is done in September. These days every year, a date is fixed at which the harvest may begin at its earliest. A number of houses begin that very day. Several other houses, like for instance M&C deliberately wait a few more days before starting to collect the grapes. Dom P. has invented the horizontal Champagne press. He had decided that the grapes should be pressed as close to the vineyards as possible. Before then the grapes were first transported to a central place. The greater part of the grapes however turned out to be so badly crushed by the time they got there, that making quality wine from what was left was out of the question. Another thing that DP found out was that the grapes should be pressed very gently to achieve the best quality. The pressure in a wine press should be no more than that which can be applied between a persons thumb and forefinger. To this date the grapes are pressed immediately next to the vineyards with the exactly the pressure that can be exerted between thumb and forefinger.As you may know, the grapes were pressed in three stages. Dom P. was probably the first to press the grapes three times. Today the third pressing is banned. Last but not least our jolly monk found out that in order to make real quality Champagne, different types of grapes should be mixed. To this very day most of the Champagnes are made of a combination of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. He also had to tackle the problem of exploding bottles. D.P. eventually came to the conclusion that English made bottles were needed, the so called "verre anglais". The first bottles of Champagne “as we know them" were produced by D.P. in 1690.Now Dom Oudard was another merry monk who was fiddling with the bubblies. He arrived at more or less the same conclusions as Dom Pérignon but had the disantvantage of having to work with mainly Chardonnay grapes that at that time were not as highly appreciated as the Pinot Noir grapes that were our friend Pérignon’s favourite hobby material.During the first years of Champagne making there was another problem to be dealt with. The quantities of yeast and sugar that had to be added to the bottle to make the fermentation process take a proper course were not exactly known. Overdoses of yeast were regularly administered, which had the funny side effect of startling sounds of explosions emerging from the cellars. As for my personal experiences with yeast. Let’s say I am not too keen on the stuff. I used to drink a bottle "Duvel" (Belgian beer) every now and then, but the blasted yeast at the bottom of the bottle brings on splitting headache and easily gets you plastered. (The first being even worse than the latter).

Anyhow, Mr. Clicquot’s widow, the famous Veuve Barbe Qlicquot had taken over the business from her late husband, and for want of better ways to spend her time, tinkered with bottles and made the brilliant discovery that if a bottle was put upside down and twisted a little, the yeast and other clutter sank to the neck of the bottle.However cleverly this was noticed, it was a little too much to sit around all day with a bottle upside down in one’s hand (especially when not permitted to open it). So, Madame Clicquot came up with a solution by having holes drilled in her splendid oak table, and subsequently putting the bottles in them with the cork facing down. All you needed to do now was to shake the bottles every now and then in order to loosen the yeast from the inside of the bottle. The result was a bottle with the sediment nicely settled the neck, which still had to be taken out before clear Champagne was obtained. Remuage is the term for the technique of shaking the bottles. Although Mme. Clicquot started it, the other producers wasted no time imitating the trick.M. Francois is the inventor of the "densimetre" (or "sucre oenometre"). This device is capable of measuring exactly how much residual sugar is left in the wine after the first fermentation. Having done that it was easy to determine how much yeast and sugar had to be added for the second fermentation in the bottle. The invention of this tool finally gave the Champagne makers more grip on the quality of the final product and helped circumvent the problem of bottles exploding due to a slightly over-enthusiastic fermentation process.

Napoleon was another interesting chap, who put away a bottle or two in his time. One cannot help to wonder if his daily intake had something to do with the queer way he wore his hat. Historians and scientists alike have not decided on the matter, but what is known for a fact is that on his way to work our belligerent fellow often dropped by at Epernay to restock his supplies before he got cracking. He and the mayor of Epernay at the time, Jean Remy Moët were close pals. As you can see Moet was into PR even at that time. It must be said that it wasn’t exactly a smart move to go against the wishes of the Emperor, so why not merrily join him in drinking a glass or two. And since Napoleon had his own unique style of travelling, several bottles were exported inadvertently. According to legend, Napoleon only fought one battle without replenishing his Champagne supplies. Does the battle of Waterloo ring a bell? Well now, here is as good a reason as any for me to always fit in a quick stop at Reims on my way to my favourite ski-resorts. One never knows….

Apart from being a Champagne producer, Eugene Mercier was an extremely shrewd businessman. He understood even then, that marketing a product is at least as important as the quality of the product. Judging from their conservative and arrogant approach of the market and its customers, this is a fact to which many a modern producer in the region still has trouble to adhere to.During the period of the Belle Époque (around 1890) Eugene thought up a couple of good stunts. For the occasion of the World Exhibition, his buddy Gustav Eiffel had built a cute little tower in Paris. In order to celebrate this marvel Eugene had a wooden barrel built, which could contain 200.000 bottles of Champagne. He then had the barrel with the contents, hauled from Epernay to Paris by 24 white oxen. In trying to do so, he found a slight obstacle on his way; or rather he found there was no such thing as a way. The Champagne riots had broken out only just before, and a few apparently rather upset winegrowers had seen fit to do a little wrecking of roads and towns in the region. Bearing in mind the motto: "you win some, you lose some" Eugene had the roads rebuilt, demolished a few extra houses that were in the way, and went on his way with his little barrel and his 24 oxen, so that three weeks later he could enjoy a glass or two under that tower of his buddy. Good stunt: the biggest tower with the biggest barrel, big fun and lots of exposure.To this day the locals go up the Eiffel tower with a bottle in hand to celebrate birthdays or whatever other satisfactory excuse for a celebration. I myself have done it too, and I can recommend anyone with an ounce of romance in his or her body to give it a go too.Eugene also realised that the Multimedia phenomenon might very well suit his purposes. It is obvious that this marketing visionary was well ahead of his time. The impressive way in which Eugene conducted business still reflects on the Mercier firm today. This is most obvious when you visit the cellars of Mercier. The Mercier fellows made a wonderful multimedia spectacle of an in itself boring phenomenon: the caves at the Avenue de Champagne at Epernay. Customer friendliness is still held in high esteem at Mercier’s. Cellars are open 7 days a week the year round. The house conducts multi-lingual tours, great tasting sessions and has a liberal supply of gadgets on offer in the shop. Chapeau Gentlemen! Regrettably Mercier does not rank amongst the quality Champagnes. It nonetheless is the best sold Champagne in France. Another clever marketing trick dreamt up by later generations is the Demi-Sec Rosé Champagne by Mercier. It is the only Rosé which comes in the Demi-sec type. It is something you have to like though.Maurice Pol-Roger was mayor of Epernay during the Second World War. He was also the owner of the well known brand Pol Roger. Maurice was a big fan of his own Champagne and could always be found carrying with him one of his own bottles whenever he went on his way (another one of those life-lessons for me). One way or another the French There was certainly no love lost between the German occupiers and the French. Herr Hitler was of opinion that Champagne production should be continued so that bottles of bubbles could be sent to the frontline. Being a true patriot Maurice decided to sabotage the production. The quality of Champagne was deliberately brought down (why on earth pamper the occupying forces) and with a lot of glee transports were sent the wrong way. The Law and order loving Germans were not amused by this demonstration Gallic humour. Many a time, particularly towards the end of the war, they threatened to burn Epernay, its prestigious cathedral, the cellars and the vineyards to cinders. Not that Herr Hitler and his buddy Himmler were prone to pyromania. More important was the fact that the Germans had the promotion of their own Sekt in mind. The latter is of course a lot easier when competition is eliminated. This seems like rather drastic marketing techniques which I don’t think were ever applied anymore. The resourceful French however had hidden a substantial stock of Champagne in their cellars behind blind walls. Yet Germans were not entirely debilitated and succeeded in finding a number of cellars and while at it smashed them to smithereens.Winston Churchill however, was a man who thought the world of Maurice Pol-Roger’s sense of humour. It is known that as a result he consumed a bottle of Pol-Roger on a daily basis. As a matter of fact Churchill cherished the thought that drinking the stuff was always appropriate in defeat as well as in Victory. The dapper man was also a lover of a good cigar and decided that Champagne and quality cigars was a "marriage made in heaven". So here is another lesson that I learnt. According to some of his bolder statements concerning Rhodesia, Churchill’s son in law Christopher Soames took over some habits of his father in law. In analogy with Napoleon’s time honoured strategy he armed himself with 30 bottles of Pol-Roger and decided that within 30 days he had to bring the war in Rhodesia to a settlement.Robert Jean de Vogue is another man who left his imprint on the Champagne. During the Second World War he was boss of Moët et Chandon and made the unsavoury proposition to drastically raise the price of grapes in the Champagne area. Till this very day the price of grapes are not determined conform the market and supply and demand but are centrally fixed. As consumer and (stingy Dutchman) I am against this measure of course but on the other side I must admit it has its merits. Thanks to the artificial high margin on the grapes some more time and money can be invested in obtaining high quality. This of course leads to the superb quality of “LE” Champagne from “LA” Champagne that we enjoy so much, preferably on a daily basis.For his participation of the sabotage of the production and transportation of Champagne to the Wehrmacht, Robert Jean was sentenced to death by the Führer of La Champagne,Kleibisch. Probably a little angel was perched on his shoulder for the sentence was never executed.
Rules and regulationsThe trade-mark of Champagne is surely one of the best protected in the world. The gentlemen of the "Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC)” are doing their utmost to prevent any form of improper use of the name. Within Europe they were quite successful. Within the Common Market their guidelines have now been registered as law. Folks “across the waters” however tend to be less conscientious. Since many years already rules and regulations concerning Champagne are strict but clear.In December 1908 the ruling government decided that Champagne could only be called Champagne if the grapes originated from a neatly defined area in the Marne and Aisne area. This immediately antagonized the winegrowers outside of the area who had never the less for a long time delivered their grapes to the Champagne makers. The farmers from the Aube area for instance were not really happy.In February 1911 guidelines were further accentuated by penalizing manufacturers who used grapes from Aube for their Champagnes. This triggered the infamous Champagne riots. These riots got terribly out of hand. On the 11th of April 5000 angry Champagne farmers from the region of Aube formed a mob and went through the official Champagne region, rampaging and demolishing everything within their reach. Rumour has it that streets were awash with wine and Champagne. 40.000 "peacekeepers" were called in and ruthlessly restored law and order. Both infrastructure and Champagne houses were severely damaged by these raging battles. In 1927 the law was adapted and a second Champagne zone was added to the official Champagne region, which enabled farmers from the Aube and Seine-et-Marne region to once again deliver grapes for Champagne.In June 1036 the Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) for Champagne was established. At that time it was necessary to include that distinction on the label. As of now this acronym has lost its purpose as Champagne may only be called Champagne if produced from grapes originating from an area that has been approved by the AOC.

La belle EpoqueWhile the Champagne was busy repairing the damage of the riots Paris was having a ball. The interbellum was a period that is widely known as "the roaring twenties". Champagne was flowing liberally. Clubs like Maxim’s and the four restaurants on the Eiffel tower greedily exploited the apparent prosperity Fine combinations of exquisite food, excellent Champagne saw the day and at extravagant parties the "jet-set” was charlestonning like mad. At that time however, Champagne was limited only to the rich and famous. Now that is something I don’t agree with. Therefore I decided to call my business "Champagne un-limited. I wish I had lived during that period I think I would have fitted in effortlessly. It was not to be alas, for my parents weren’t around at that time.
After the warThe years after the war brought more and more democracy in Europe As a result all of a sudden Champagne was "not done". Even today some Marxist moralists see fit to condemn my rather liberal Champagne consumption. A few economical crises as well as some meagre harvests contributed to a further decline in Champagne consumption.The image of Champagne was suffering. Champagne was associated with houses of ill (if merry) repute. In the eyes of many Dutch Calvinists, people who drank Champagne were often to be found in these despicable places. You had better steer clear of the bubbles and drink other beverages preferably free of alcohol if you did not want to be seen as a lecher.
Champagne todayAt the moment the economy is the main spoilsport. Yet I am not terribly worried about the situation. I observe more and more people enjoying a glass of bubblies during the year. They don’t necessarily wait till 00.02 on the first of January. The image of Champagne is on the rise. Drinking Champagne is no longer "not done". Especially the younger more affluent generation regularly sips a glass of Champagne without embarrassment. Once again Champagne is fun.Of course I hear the weirdest things. I was told that at some House parties combining XTC with Champagne is the latest fad. As a genuine Champagne lover I am not taking part in this nonsense of course, but such behaviour seems to be "cool". Also rumour has in that in Belgium there is a house of pleasant virtue where Viagra Champagne is poured. A bit greenish but with appropriate side-effects (The nature of which I will not describe here). Further developments are the sprouting of dedicated Champagne shops. Also the variety in choice at off-licences increases day by day. Roads to The Champagne stand for pleasant driving and lots of people cross the border to go and have a look, which is something I can highly recommend.

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