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The Origins of the Vines

This first section deals with the main themes in the development of the wines of Champagne through the ages. History will also be present throughout the text, since champagne, a wine immersed in tradition, could not be considered in all its various aspects except in relation to the historic facts which have strongly marked it; it will be convenient to first consider the origin and expansion of the vines and wines of the Champagne region, and then the appearance of the bubbles, and to set out the chronicle of champagne up until the 1980s.
In so doing an attempt will be made to separate the actual facts (given that there is always a limit to the extent that historical facts can ever be truly established) from the often rather appealing and fanciful myths and legends that have contributed to the magical aura of champagne.


It would be tempting to suggest that the vineyards of the Champagne region date back to prehistoric times, since fossilized vine leaves have been found in tufa near Sézanne from the Tertiary period. However this vitis sezannensis disappeared from Europe during the great Riss glaciation about a hundred thousand years ago [1]. Furthermore, it was not suitable for winemaking, as can be seen today from related vines in America [2]. It was much later, in historic rather than prehistoric times, that vitis vinifiera, appeared in France; it is to this family that the current grape varieties of Champagne belong. The determination of the precise time of its arrival in the region does however pose some problems. Some say, without any actual proof, that it was already growing when the Romans arrived. Others, taking the contrary view, point out that Julius Cesar does not mention any vines in his Commentaires, written in 52 BC, but they are forgetting that he only mentions local resources in the context of allocating his military operations provisions of livestock and wheat. Several authors, all copying each other, have maintained that Pliny the Elder wrote during the 70s AD, in his Natural History, book XIV, chapitre VI : The other wines of Gaul, recommended for the king’s table, must surely be those of the country of Rheims, known as the wines of Ay. This is pure invention. The chapter in question is indeed devoted to wine, but no such remarks are to be found there or anywhere else in the work, which, on the subject of Gallic wines, only mentions, and very briefly, those of the Narbonnaise region. There have also been suggestions that cups and vessels found during archaeological excavations constitute proof that winemaking existed in Champagne at the beginning of the Gallo-Roman period. All that can really be deduced is that the Gauls and the Roman occupational forces used such vessels to drink the beverages of the day, which would have been cervoise (barley or wheat beer), mead diluted with water, wine from Italy or southern Gaul, and of course water.

On a souvent mis en avant, en citant l’historien romain Suétone, l’édit par lequel l’empereur Domitien, dans les années 90 de notre ère, a ordonné d’arracher une partie des vignobles des provinces romaines, en ajoutant parfois que l’édit s’appliquait à la Champagne et que l’empereur agissait ainsi pour que les vins étrangers ne viennent pas concurrencer ceux produits en Italie.

Another piece of frequently mentioned "evidence" is the edict decreed by the Emperor Domitian in the 90s that is described by the Roman historian Suetonius. The edict ordered that certain vines in the Roman empire be pulled up, and some commentators have suggested that this applied to Champagne and was because the Emperor did not want foreign wines competing with those of Italy. Here is Suetonius’ text, "In a year when cheap wine was in abundance and grain was in short supply he considered that the excessive cultivation of vines was causing other crops to be neglected, he therefore forbade the planting of more vines in Italy and gave the order to reduce the number elsewhere in the Empire, leaving at most one half, but this edict was never enforced" (596). Suetonius adds that the ever suspicious Domitian revoked the edict because of a poem published in Rome that proclaimed, "You may tear up my roots, goat,
But what good will that do? I shall still have some wine left, For sacrificing you"
. We can see now that Domitian’s motives were other than those often ascribed to him, and that the edict could not have had any effect on the vineyards of Champagne, which in fact everything suggests did not yet exist.

And what should be made of the claims that Emperor Probus and his legions played a deciding role in the planting of vines in Champagne? It is true that during his short reign, from 276 to 282, Probus encouraged the planting of vines. Here is what the Roman historian Aurelius Victor had to say on the matter, "Just as Hannibal had covered a large part of Africa with plantations of olive trees by using his troops as a workforce (he regarded their lack of activity as detrimental to the Empire and their generals), in the same way Probus covered Gaul, Pannonia and the hills of Moesia with vines." [3]. But the Roman historian Eutropius states that Probus had used military labour to plant vines on Mount Alma, near Sirmium, and Mount Aureus in Upper Moesia [4], in other words those regions which are now respectively known as Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. There is therefore nothing to indicate that, as has sometimes been claimed, Probus wished to reverse Domitian’s edict, which was then nearly two hundred years old, and which in any case, as we have seen, had not been enforced. And there is nothing that might lead us to believe that Champagne benefited from "military plantations" which, given the requirements that there would have been in terms of new vine stock, could only have taken place on a large scale in regions where vineyards already existed. This is why it is unlikely that, as has been supposed, the Gallo-Roman Mars Arch that the city of Rheims today prides itself on was erected in honour of Probus. It is more likely that it was built much earlier, in the last years of the first century before Christ, on the orders of Agrippa who would have dedicated it to Julius Cesar [5]. Rheims was the capital of the Remi, unfailing allies of the Romans, and was then known as Durocortorum. It was the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica before becoming that of Belgica Secundus. A major crossroads, four Roman roads begin in Rheims. One of them leads to Bavay (14 km to the west of Maubeuge), and starts at the Mars Arch.

Be that as it may, Roger Dion, an authority on the matter, demonstrates that, while it is certain that vines were brought to southern Gaul at the beginning of the sixth century before Christ by the Greek settlers in Marseille, it was not until the third century AD that the vineyards of Burgundy and the Moselle were established, from where vines would have reached northern Gaul and the Champagne region towards the end of that century and the beginning of the fourth. [6] Mennesson noted in 1806, in the Rural Observer of the Marne, that in Champagne, "there is fairly general agreement amongst scholars that the vineyards date from the beginning of the fifth century".


[1ENJALDERT (Henri). History of Vines and Wines. Paris, 1975.

[2DION (Roger). History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century. Paris, 1959.

[3AURELIUS VICTOR. Book of the Cesars, translation into French, Pierre Dufraigne, Paris, 1975

[4EUTROPIUS. Short Guide to Roman History, French translation Maurice, Rat. Paris, 1934.

[5GALERON (ME.). Historic Journal of Rheims from its foundation to the present day. Rheims, 1853.

[6DION (Roger). History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century Paris, 1959.