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Definition and law

The Champagne appellation is founded on the region’s pre-existing reputation for wine. Since the time of the Romans, wine had been produced on the slopes that border the Valley of the Marne. These were still wines, and they owed their existence to the good fortune of history and geography.

Two major historical factors were the great trade fairs of the Middle Ages and of course the crowning of the kings of France in Rheims. The Champagne vineyard was moreover the closest to the capital by water, allowing casks to reach Paris easily by boat at a time when roads were unsure. But it was the mastering of the wine’s natural tendency to sparkle, between the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th, that started the technological revolution: sparkling Champagne. It was in the 18th Century that Champagne linked its name to celebrations. The wine merchants of Rheims and Epernay proved incredibly dynamic, conquering the hearts of the kings and princes who ruled in Europe. London, Moscow and Vienna were dazzled by Champagne.

In the space of a few years, anyone with a modicum of power fell in love with Champagne and made it a part of their lives. At a time when the French language was the mark of a cultivated personality, Champagne stood as the symbol of joyful art de vivre.

By the time of the First World War, Champagne was established in two key respects:

  • ​it was embraced by national elites,
  • ​it was recognised as entirely French, but nonetheless transcended national boundaries. As Germany’s great unifier Bismarck remarked: "my nationalism ends with Champagne."
    Reputation brought with it two kinds of problem:
  • ​increasing production provoked variations in quality that had to be brought under control. As a result, local and long-established practices (usages locaux, loyaux et constants) were formalised in written rules, at the insistence of the industry itself;
  • ​success attracted imitations, which would have to be fought in the courts.
  • The unique character of the AOC system

    It is worth remembering here the basis of the French Appellation d’Origine Controlée system.
    Under its provisions, each of the main winegrowing regions is granted a specific status, which will necessarily share characteristics with others while bearing all of the distinctions owed to inherent geographical diversity.

Each of these status is based on two kinds of provision:

  • ​first the definition of a terroir, stating the terroir’s precise geographical boundary;
  • next a set of rules governing grape growing and winemaking, with quality as the overall objective.
    This regime exists for the benefit of producer and consumer alike.
    For the producers, the name of the appellation represents a kind of collective heritage — a name that only they have the legal right to use. The image of quality attached to the name gives their product considerable and well-deserved added value.
    Consumers meanwhile enjoy a two-fold guarantee: a guarantee of quality and a guarantee of authenticity, both benefits arising from the self-imposed discipline within the industry itself.
    In fact, one of the highly original features of the appellation system (formally created in 1935) is that it rests entirely on the willingness and discipline of the professionals concerned. At every level, it is the Champagne stakeholders who manage the appellation structure that they themselves have constructed. It works as a self-managed system because the rules of the appellation are directly defined by those involved. First the industry reaches agreement under the auspices of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, and only then does it turn to the public authorities to formalise its decisions in a text with legal force.

Historical development of the Champagne industry

Sparkling Champagne wine underwent considerable development in the course of the 19th Century. However the producers of the time were soon aware that theirs was an original product with a personality that had to be defined and indeed defended.
In 1843, a group of merchants came together to take legal action against sparkling wine producers from other French regions who were trying to use the name Champagne.
In 1884, after officially joining forces in 1821, the merchants formed a union. Several decades later, the grape producers followed suit and the Syndicat Général des Vignerons was born in 1904. This was the starting point for the painstaking construction of the monumental status now enjoyed by Champagne wine — what the French call "le statut du vin de Champagne".

The delimitation of the vineyard area was the most urgent task: fixing the boundaries that established a precise line of demarcation between Champagne wine territory on one side and "not Champagne wine" territory on the other . The development of the quality rules came later, or at least once the first stage was well under way.

The delimitation process took nearly a quarter of a century, from 1905 to 1930 — with many twists and turns along the way including several incidents of social unrest. It was a difficult matter to resolve and vested interests weighed heavily in the balance.
From 1927 to 1930, committees identified all of the areas that were set aside for Champagne vines. When the work was finally concluded, it defined not just the communes and the lieux-dits (named places) within those communes but within those lieux-dits every relevant plot of land complete with its cadastral plan reference.
In conducting this highly detailed delimitation process, Champagne went far beyond the norm and was certainly ahead of its time. The rules of production were meanwhile put in place from 1919 onwards, bit by bit as the industry realised that origin on its own was not enough. It was equally necessary to establish a two-pronged regulatory strategy — regulating Champagne as both a traditional product and a high-quality wine.

Here is a brief chronology of the key measures that were taken in this respect:
1919 first reference to usages locaux, loyaux et constants (local, loyal and constant practices);
1927 definition of the only grape varieties approved for production;
1935 introduction of a maximum yield per hectare and a maximum permitted press yield, a minimum degree of potential alcohol at the point of harvest, and a minimum period of aging in the bottle.

Four keys to securing product authenticity

Lavish precautions were taken to protect authenticity, instigated by the producers themselves to reinforce the image of Champagne wine but also to ward off any temptations to do otherwise.

  1. Grapes grown in Champagne could only be used to make Champagne wine. Under no circumstances whatsoever could grapes grown outside the Champagne area be granted Champagne appellation status. Within the defined zones, it was likewise forbidden to plant grape varieties other than those legally specified, to make for example table wines or any other kind of wine.
  2. Production centres could only accept wines accompanied by a bond note: that’s to say, a transport certificate from the tax authorities guaranteeing that these were wines produced in the Champagne AOC area and entitled to the Champagne appellation.
    No other wine could be allowed into the production centre in question. In other words, the storerooms and cellars of producers, whether independent producers (récoltants) or ’Merchant’ Houses (négociants), were exclusively reserved for the making of Champagne wine.
  3. ​Producers were only entitled to use the Champagne appellation on condition that their wines had remained in their region of origin until all stages in the winemaking process were complete, including the final stage of labelling the bottle.
  4. It was forbidden to produce other sparkling wines in Champagne. Specifically, this meant that wines from other regions could not be brought into Champagne for the purpose of converting them to sparkling wine.
    There could be no coexistence between Champagne and other sparkling wines within the geographical indication of Champagne .

Construction continues

By 1935, it seemed reasonable to assume that the essential objective had been achieved. However, the status of Champagne wine would continue to develop in the years that followed, building on the rules already put in place.
A whole series of complementary measures have been taken since then to improve the system still further. Examples are:

  • the regulation of vine pruning (1938),
  • the regulation of the use of vintage wines (1952),
  • exact rules regarding the height, spacing and density of vine plantings (1978),
  • regulations prohibiting the bottling of wines before 10 January in the year following the harvest (1984),
  • the compulsory use of grape presses that comply with all relevant quality standards and regulations (1994),
  • Finally and more recently, the raising of the minimum aging period from 12 to 15 months.
    The status of Champagne wine can thus be seen as a living concept, one that continues to evolve as time goes by.
    There is every likelihood that Champagne will face new challenges in the coming years — new issues arising from technological advancements in the world of winemaking and viticulture.
    But whatever needs to be done we will never lose sight of the essence. The outstanding quality of the product, and the heritage that has been acquired over two centuries of uninterrupted tradition are the backbone of Champagne production — they will always remain true.

Champagne: ever ready to defend the identity of its wine

As an industry that works under strict constraints, albeit self-imposed, the Champagne business expects that the name of its product should be respected. So it is a matter of great resentment that certain countries, mainly outside Europe, can legally authorise, or at any rate allow, the use of the name Champagne for locally produced sparkling wines.
Then there’s the problem of the name Champagne being misused to describe just about anything —bubble bath, toothpaste, cigarettes, mineral water, perfume— simply to misappropriate the reputation of the Champagne appellation and the kudos that is attached to it.
The greater the misuse, the more serious the risk of commoditization and of Champagne losing its true meaning.
No-one knows this better than the leaders of the Champagne industry, who routinely intervene to put a stop to these abuses of language, which cannot just be shrugged off as the price you pay for success.