Champagne History and a Mild Rant

Dom Pérignon statue in Épernay in the Moët et Chandon courtyard.

Dom Pérignon statue in Épernay

In part one of this sparkling wine series, we explored the many ways wines can become bubbly. In this post, we focus just on Champagne. The Champagne region of France is considered to be the home of the world’s finest sparkling wines. Champagne is so famous, in fact, that it’s common for folks to refer to any bubbly wine as Champagne, however true Champagne is produced only within the boundaries of the designated province. European Union law forbids the use of the word Champagne on wines made anywhere else, as do the laws of many countries (including the United States).

Champagne is a very cold area of far northern France, a difficult place to make wine as it’s tough to fully ripen grapes before frost sets in.  Sparkling wines first came about here naturally when the cold winters stopped fermentation of the bottled wine and, as the weather warmed up in the spring, fermentation would start again creating trapped carbon dioxide gas in the bottles. (This process when used on purpose to create bubbles is known today as méthode ancestrale.) This was not considered a desirable result of the winemaking process. Even the famous Dom Pérignon was originally instructed to find a way to get rid of the bubbles! As late as the early 19th century, only a small amount of sparkling wine was purposely made, and many of those bottles broke every year. Cellar workers sometimes wore heavy iron masks to prevent injuries from exploding bottles!

During the 1800s, as sparkling Champagne became more popular, many advances were made in production, including thicker bottles and improved corking methods. Riddling racks were designed by an employee of Madame Clicquot so the yeast sediment could be removed from each bottle, creating a less cloudy Champagne. Around the year 1800, scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal discovered that secondary fermentation of the wine was being caused by the residual sugar in the bottles. In the 1830s, pharmacist André François created a formula to determine how much of that sugar was needed to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle without causing it to explode. Very useful! These advances paved the way for the growth of the first big wine industry of internationally famous brands. As Champagne’s popularity rapidly increased, production rose from 300,000 bottles a year in 1800, to 20 million bottles in 1850.

Today, the majority of Champagne production is undertaken by over 100 Champagne houses, or négociant-manipulantsThese houses do not grow most of their grapes themselves, but instead buy grapes from various growers in Champagne (farmers who grow their own grapes and make Champagne from their own grapes are referred to as récoltant-manipulants). This arrangement allows négociant-manipulants to focus their energy on transforming the grapes they have bought, grapes that may represent a range of quality, into Champagnes that have a consistent profile each year. This is an essential component of their branding and marketing so that their customers can supposedly expect the same experience each time they purchase a bottle.

An unusual feature of Champagne production is the region’s celebration of blending as a vintner’s art, and a superior method of winemaking. This is a distinctly different point of view from every other wine making part of France (and in the world, really), where specificity of place gives distinction to a wine. In Burgundy, for example, the more specific the site (appellation, town, vineyard) the more prized a wine is. A wine made from grapes grown in just the village of Gevrey-Chambertin is more pricey and sought-after than a wine labeled simply “Bourgogne,” meaning the grapes could have been grown anywhere in the entire Bourgogne appellation. The idea of a winemaker mixing wines from different distinct villages together to make his own blend would not go over well in Burgundy, or most likely in any part of France other than Champagne.

However, for the négociants this specificity of origin does not lend itself to large-scale production or necessarily to a consistent product each year. Many négociant-manipulants make a single origin Champagne as their top cuvée, and blend grapes from different areas to make their larger production “everyday” wines.

While there are many grape-growers in Champagne, only a small amount of them (equivalent to approximately 3% of Champagne produced annually) are designated récoltant-manipulant. A major reason for the abundance of négociant-manipulants, and relative minuscule presence of récoltant-manipulants, is that labor-intensive practices like hand-riddling and hand-disgorgement make Champagne production difficult and expensive for any producer.  The time and cost involved make it especially difficult for small farmers who grow their own grapes and make their own Champagne. Likewise, purchasing machines to do these jobs is also prohibitively expensive for a small winery.

Jean-Antoine Chaptal

Jean-Antoine Chaptal

At Formaggio Kitchen, we prefer to focus on the récoltant-manipulant, or “grower” Champagnes. We believe that the care and attention given to these wines from vine, to cellar, to bottle make for better quality Champagne. We like the idea that Champagnes coming from grapes grown in specific towns and villages have a distinct “flavor of a place” and that each offers unique flavors that change with each vintage. We also feel that grower Champagnes are better values, as the smaller producers aren’t spending their hard-earned money on advertising and marketing.

Today, many of the most famous Champagne houses have been bought up by huge conglomerates. For example, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) owns houses Krug, Pommery, Lanson, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mercier, Canard-Duchêne, Ruinart and Henriot (in addition to Hennessy, Vuitton leather goods and Christian Dior perfume). Pernod Ricard owns Perrier-Jouët, Mumm (as well as Absolut Vodka and Seagrams Gin). Today, the seven biggest merchants account for 70% of Champagne sales, LVMH alone accounting for two-fifths of all Champagne exports.

The question I ask is this: who puts more thought, care and heart into their wine production? A merchant like LVMH, producing millions of cases of Champagne each year (not to mention all of the other luxury products), or a grower like Alexandre Chartogne, who plows his own vineyards with a horse and in a year produces just under 7,000 cases of truly handmade Champagne?

When you’re shopping for Champagne, look for the small letters RM on the label designating the wine as a grower. The letters NM will appear on wines made by négociants. And, of course, we invite you to come into the shop and explore some of the smaller producers whose bubblies we are thrilled to be able to share with you!

Stay tuned: part three of this sparkling wine series will focus on Champagne-maker Alexandre Chartogne and his lovely Cuvée Sainte-Anne.

Julie Cappellano is the General Manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.