The Romans first planted vines in the area around the 5th century AD, naming it Champagne after the Italian the Italian region south of Rome called Campania, which resembled Champagne with similarly hilly territory. In 987, Hugh Capet tied Champagne’s relationship with the royal family, being crowned King of France in Reims cathedral and celebrating the event with local wines. This tradition was continued for all subsequent crownings for the following eight centuries.
The first significant milestone in Champagne’s history came in the 17th century. Before then, Champagne was a very different product compared to the product we drink today, competing against Burgundy but never quite matching the region’s quality.
It was then a monk based in Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon, introduced several viticulture and winemaking techniques, including, but not limited to, limitations of the vine’s height, improvements of picking techniques to preserve the soil and press quality to increase efficiency, avoiding skin contact to achieve the whiter hue that we know today.
Champagne’s popularity soon grew in London society. At this point in Champagne’s history, the wine was transported in barrels and bottled locally. It was the English who added Champagne’s sparkle, the result of a second fermentation process inside the bottle.
In the 18th century, Champagne makers from single estate growers and monasteries were joined by private houses and merchants as producers, who simply bought the grapes instead of growing them. Important houses, such as Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidseck and Taittinger were founded during this era.
The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars posed a threat to the Champagne trade and in turn, raised their popularity, with producers designing creative schemes to to reach the noble clients that fled the guillotine, circumnavigating the port blockades across Europe.
Finally, Champagne itself was occupied by the Russian army after Napoleon’s defeat, which turned out to be a lucrative business opportunity, with Champagne being used as requisition and tribute and ultimately becoming a favourite of Russian Empire. This eventually led to Russia becoming second largest consumer in the world up until the October Revolution in 1917.
The 19th century saw the foundation of the modern Champagne industry, one which we might recognise today. Winemaking and viticulture has benefitted from technology and innovation brought by the Industrial Revolution, while science helped carry out deeper research on how to sparkle the wine, not to mention the effects of sugar in the second fermentation, which were outlined precisely for the first time. Improvement of rail infrastructure, which connected Champagne with the rest of France, including costal ports in the 1850s, meant production reached 20m bottles a year.
The public’s palate’s started shifting to dryer notes, appreciating a higher overall quality instead of sweet wine. The first attempt of a Champagne with no added sugar was initially received coldly: but “brut”, called after its severe taste, is the modern style of the vast majority of Champagne produced today.
The early 20th century was a time of challenges. The Phylloxera epidemic, Russian and American prohibition and cheap grapes easily available via railway were all factors that hit the industry severely. To invert a dangerous trend, in 1911 measures were taken to promote a series of rules to protect the origin of grapes, beginning a process of wider regulation that contributed to strengthening Champagne as a brand, protecting its quality and denomination.
These changes were first introduced at the beginning of the century, but had to be halted due to the outbreak of the First World War. Land in the region soon became devastated, not to mention the population halved.
The Second World War also had a major effect on the Champagne, but not quite as profound as those that were felt during the first global conflict. Reims, the capital of the region, is where actually Germany surrendered in 1947. As the signing was celebrated with 6 cases of 1934 Pommery, a famous quote of unknown origin stated “The last explosions of the war were the popping of Champagne corks”.