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The history of Champagne

To better understand the history of Champagne, one has to touch on, however briefly, the development of wines and vines.

The Romans were responsible for the proliferation of vineyards and winemaking within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. As Rome spread its influence and power, Roman leaders had visions of long-term occupation of its holdings; that vision was realized by over 750 years of Roman rule. The Romans established transportation systems with well-built roads, waterways, and government, trade routes, the first mail system and etc. A “Roman standard of living” prevailed as the Romans absorbed the cultural aspects of conquered people, improving the prosperity of all Roman citizens.

Rome’s respect and increased knowledge of Etruscan and Greek cultures included agriculture and wine production. Successful crop production was necessary to feed the troops and the people of its expanding empire. Early Romans quenched their thirst at the local fountains, the drink of the day, for Romans, was water. Wine was a beverage of Greek and Etruscan nobles. The Romans looked upon wine, at first, as a medicinal drink with health benefits; wine was used to heal battle wounds and cure assorted ailments. The wine was highly alcoholic, white, and sweet.

The rise of the Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of winemaking, which spread to all parts of the empire. The Romans came to believe that wine was a necessity of life; this led to the desire to spread viticulture and wine production to insure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. In the hands of Romans, wine became “democratic” and available to all, from the lowly slave and simple peasant to the aristocrat.

As an aside the drunken orgies of the Roman aristocracy is legendary, but the Romans used low fire, lead based glazes to make their drinking vessels, which the acid in wine brought into solution. Nero’s madness, some scholars suggest, came from over consumption of wine, resulting in lead poisoning of Roman leaders. It’s interesting to think that wine, inadvertently, was a factor leading to the fall of the Roman Empire.

In the 5th century the Romans were the first inhabitants to plant vineyards in the Champagne region located in NE France near present day Reims and Epernay. The name Champagne comes from the Latin campania and referred to the similarity between the rolling hills of the province and Italian countryside of Campanula located south of Rome.

The early wine of the Champagne region was a pale, pinkish wine made from Pinot Noir. The Champenois were envious of the red wine made by their Burgundian neighbors to the south and sought to produce wines of equal acclaim. The northern climate of the champagne region, however, gave the Champenois a unique set of challenges in making red wines from Pinot Noir. The grapes struggled in this extreme viticulture climate and would not fully ripen and have high acid levels and low sugar content. The wines were lighter bodied and thinner than the Burgundies. Furthermore, the early, cold winters of the Champagne region prematurely halted fermentation in the wine cellars, leaving dormant, but active, yeast cells in the wine, that would awaken and activate in the warmth of spring and start fermenting again.

One of the byproducts of fermentation is the release of carbon dioxide gas, which, in bottled wine is trapped inside the wine causing intense pressure up to and exceeding 110

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P.S.I. This unreleased pressure build up caused the early, weak, French bottles to explode. If one of these unstable, grenade wine bottles survived, the wine was found to contain bubbles. These bubbles were the carbon dioxide trapped in the wine and finally released upon opening the bottle. These released bubbles were something the early Champenois were horrified to see and considered them a fault and flaw in their winemaking skills; three cheers for serendipity.

While the Champenois and their French clients preferred their Champagne wines to be pale and still, the British were developing a taste for the unique bubbly wine. Champenois winemakers, most notably the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon (1638-1715) were still trying to rid their wines of the bubbles.

The next article will deal with Dom Perignons’ attempt to rid his Blanc De Noir from bubbles and how to control the process and make wines deliberately sparkle and describe the dawning of the modern champagne wine industry.

All the Best,

Michael Giudici

John Michael Champagne Cellars

1425 Humbug Creek Road

Applegate, Oregon, 97530

(541) 846-0810 [email protected]

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