Sparkling Champagne wines were an instant success at Versailles and in the great European courts in the first half of the 18th Century when the first Champagne Houses were established. The Houses proved themselves commercially skilled too, making Champagne known around the world among an aristocratic elite. Their travels in the 19th Century were real adventures, some fraught with danger, taking them from Russia to the United States ...
Champagne represented French culture, liberal thinking and the French spirit. The trade became organised and prosperous. In the period 1811-1870, 21 Houses were established in Rheims, Epernay, Châlons-sur-Marne, Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Ludes and Vertus. From annual sales of several hundreds of thousands of bottles in 1785, the figure had already risen to 6.5 million by 1845. Export was established and new markets were conquered, the United States and Russia in particular. Two thirds of production was exported. The Great Champagne Houses overcame all obstacles, and even at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, under the Empire, broke through the blockade and forced a passage into Russia while it was at war with France. The American War of Independence may well have drained France’s coffers, but it did not prevent sales of Champagne rising from 11 million bottles in 1861 to 17 million in 1870. By the end of the century, the figure was close to 30 million.
The success of Champagne wines was the fruit of considerable investment by the Houses as much in the area of quality as in commerce. But with it came a surge in imitation and piracy — which the Houses were quick to tackle having well understood the necessity to restrict the use of the name "Champagne" to wines exclusively produced in the Champagne region. All other usage amounted to a misappropriation of reputation by third parties who had not contributed to what would become the "Champagne" appellation.
1843: A group of Champagne Houses successfully prosecutes producers in Tours for passing off their wines as Champagne after stamping the corks with the names of Ay and Verzy.
1882: The Champagne Houses form the Syndicat du Commerce des Vins de Champagne (which would become the UMC).
1885: The Syndicat brings charges against a Saumur wine merchant for misusing the names of Aÿ, Sillery and Champagne.
1887: The Angers court of appeal finds in favour of Champagne producers, decreeing that the name Champagne "refers simultaneously to the place and methods of production of certain wines specifically denoted by that name and by no other". Several months later, the court confirms its judgement in more specific terms. "No one may understand by Champagne or Champagne wine anything other than a wine both harvested and produced in Champagne, a former geographically determined province of France."
1889: This judgement is further confirmed by the Cour de Cassation.
Without these very early actions by the Houses, the word "Champagne" would have become generic signifying sparkling wines in general, as is the case with Savon de Marseille or Eau de Cologne. Furthermore these legal successes were obtained well before the creation of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in 1935, at a time when they had no solid basis in law.
The Syndicat du Commerce also reached out to protect the Champagne name throughout the world, networking with French embassies and consulates in major Champagne importing countries to keep abreast of any diplomatic or litigious incidents and move swiftly into action if necessary.
The early 20th Century then saw Champagne Houses and Growers begin to organise themselves into unions, meanwhile drafting regulations aimed at countering the fraudulent production of wine. This coincided with the first legal delimitation of Champagne as a specific geographical area. The following decades would strengthen collaboration between Champagne Houses and Growers, culminating in the recognition of the Champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1936. With the creation of the CIVC in 1941, Champagne Houses and Growers had an effective tool for the protection of their shared heritage. Thenceforth these two "families" would join together to manage the Champagne appellation and protect it against misuse, which remains rampant today.
Terre de Champagne