A Brief History – Champagne

Romans brought the vine for the first time in the area that we call today Champagne, in 57 BC, and they realised that the hillsides close to the towns of Rheims and Epernay were ideal for vines and for wine-making. For centuries the only wine made in Champagne was still wine, mainly red, which enjoyed a good deal of popularity in the Middle- Ages.

In time, several churches and monasteries owned vineyards where monks produced their own wine for the sacrament. The French kings were baptized in Rheims, located in the Champagne region (the first king of France was crowned at Rheims in 987), and at these occasions was drank the monks wine.

From antiquity to the 16th century, the history of the region was intimately associated with the production of still red and rosé wines.
Champagne, the sparkling wine, only appeared in 1676 and in that time, fermentation was not understood. Still white wine was shipped from Champagne to England in barrels as soon as possible after the grape harvest and after the initial fermentation appeared to have ceased, but once people began mastering the natural effervescence of the local wine and pruning the vines and blending crus and grape varieties, as did the monk Dom Perignon.

The first Champagne house was founded in 1729 but the 19th century was the century of technical progress, (mastery of fermentation, techniques for producing sparkling wine and mechanisation). From the late 19th century to 1950, the phylloxera crisis followed by two World Wars bled the Champagne region dry. From 1950 onwards, Champagne resumed its commercial expansion, with production growing from 30 million bottles in 1950 to 300 million in 2000.

Today champagne undergoes two fermentations. After the first traditional fermentation and bottling, yeast and rock sugar is added to the bottle and the champagne, then sealed, is left to age for at least 1.5 years. Once the bottle reaches maturity, a process known as remuage occurs. The bottles are gradually turned until they are almost upside-down, allowing the yeast to settle at the neck of the bottle. After a quick freeze, the cap and frozen residue is removed and the bottle is quickly re-corked to maintain its carbon dioxide.

Did you know?

  • The name Champagne it’s legally protected by the European Union in The Treaty of Madrid (1981), which says only sparking wine produced in Champagne can be called that.

  • The grapes used to make Champagne come exclusively from the Champagne region of France.

  • Champagne gained its fame from its association with French kings. Champagne was King Louis XIV’s drink of choice. This made Burgundy, a province to the south, jealous because their red wine was not preferred by the king. The feud lasted 130 years, almost resulting in civil war on multiple occasions.

  • Three main types of grapes used to make Champagne: are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.

  • During the fermentation process, carbon dioxide is released and in the early days would cause the bottles to explode. The wine that did survive the process had bubbles, which was at first seen as a flaw to the Champenois.

  • Champagne is sold in many sizes but Magnum (1.5 liters) was believed to be the best because there is less oxygen in the bottle. The larger bottles are all named for biblical characters, as Melchior (18 litres), Melchizedek (30 litres) or Solomon (18 litres).

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