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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.