UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

Champagne Guest Book


The middle classes had, with the nobility and the church up until the Revolution, always been involved in the production and sale of the wines of Champagne, but the wine merchant began to play an increasingly significant role. We saw that at the end of the seventeenth century the trade in wines was shared between Rheims, where it increased in the eighteenth century, and Epernay, where the delivery agents had just established themselves as merchants in their own right, having for a long time been depositories of glue, degreasing powder, bellows, bottles, wooden bungs, small and large corks, tow, string, wax, crates, and baskets.
In the eighteenth century there were many wine merchants in Champagne. They sold mostly still wines. The most well known, apart from the ones that operated in the vineyard market towns, were Geoffroy, Bertin du Rocheret, de Partelaine, Chertemps and Moët in Epernay, and Drouin de la Vieville in Rheims. However, maisons de commerce ("commercial houses") were established whose function was not just the buying, selling, and very occasionally the making of sparkling wines, but which, almost from the moment they were set up, made their main activity the production of sparkling wine. It was the logical consequence of the development of a product of which the relative complexity required substantial investment in order to satisfy the growing demand.

It was thus that Ruinart was established in1729 in Epernay, Chanoine in 1730 in Epernay, Fourneaux in 1734 in Rheims, Moët in 1743 in Epernay, Vander-Veken (Abelé) in 1757 in Rheims, Delamotte in 1760 in Rheims, Dubois et Fils in 1765 in Rheims, Clicquot in 1772 in Rheims, Heidsieck in 1785 in Rheims, and Jacquesson in 1798 in Châlons. Among these maisons de commerce, which represented the beginnings of the champagne trade, are several which still exist today, and which are the honour of their profession14. The stories of some of them in the eighteenth century contribute to an understanding of the commercial situation in Champagne at the time.

Nicolas Ruinart was a draper. He started his business, trading as Ruinart, in Epernay on 1 September 1729, and his first accounts register, opened in the name of God and the Holy Virgin, was closed in 1739 without recording the sales of any sparkling wine, which were to appear in subsequent registers. We find transactions concerning textiles, in particular estamine, and, fairly late, a few sales of vins de Montagne in barrels and of red wine in both barrels and bottles. In 1764 Nicolas brought his son Claude into the business, and its trading name became Ruinart Père et Fils. It moved to Rheims in 1769, when Nicolas died.

Claude Moët, who owned vines and a harvest house in Cumières, bought a broker’s practice in 1716 in Epernay. He thus became a wine merchant, trading first in barrels and then later in barrels and bottles. In 1743 he opened his first accounts register for the Moët house of Epernay. He occupied himself exclusively with the production and sale of his wines, the first recorded as sparkling were sent in April 1744 to the Maréchal Duc de Noailles in Douai. His son, Nicolas-Claude, took over the business, who was followed in 1792 by his grandson, Jean-Rémy Moët, an important figure in the history of champagne about whom we shall hear more in the next chapter.

Philippe Clicquot was a banker and draper in Rheims when he founded the Clicquot maison de vins de Champagne in 1772 , a secondary activity that enabled him to obtain the maximum profit from the vines that he owned in Bouzy and Verzenay, the wines from which he had been in the habit of selling to a small circle of customers made up of friends and business acquaintances (81) . His son, François, became his partner and began the production of sparkling wine, having married Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin in 1799, another major figure in the history of champagne of whom we shall also hear more about later.

Florens-Louis Heidsieck, a young tradesman of Outre-Rhin, married the daughter of Nicolas Perthois, a wool merchant, in Rheims in 1785, and founded Heidsieck there in the same year, a wine and textiles company which soon made its sole activity the production and sale of sparkling Champagne wines.

Due to the fashion that these wines were enjoying, whether they were sparkling or not, amongst the upper middle classes and aristocracy, the customers of the producers and the merchants of Champagne were particular in that they included grand figures. The Bertin du Rocherets sold wine to the king’s librarian, to the Maréchal of Artagnan, to the Marquis of Polignac, to the Earl of Artagnan Maréchal of Montesquiou, who ordered for themselves and for their friends; the Earl of Artagnan for example had 100 bottles sent to the address of Monsieur de Puysegur, Lieutenant General of the King’s armies (B 34). Ruinart listed in his accounts books from 1775 onwards, the nobility of Saint-Petersburg, the Prince of Ligne, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and a few years later, Italian princes, the Dukes of York, Beaufort, Cumberland, and Marlborough, the Prince of Aremberg, and the Prince of Orange. In 1751 Moët supplied the Marquise de Pompadour and, in the years that followed, Maréchal de Richelieu, the Prince of Rohan, and the entire aristocracy of Europe. But the most illustrious customers were the royal courts: England and Poland were amongst those between which Philippe-Valentin Bertin du Rocheret shared out his wines, there was also Hanover, Wurttemberg, Saxony, Prussia, Denmark, and Holland. As for the French court the wine merchants of Champagne supplied several of the dozen or so merchants who had the privilege to supply the wines necessary for the house and mouth of his Majesty.

Having been extravagant at the end of the seventeenth century, the prices of still wines fell by 30 to 40% between 1720 and 1735, as the steward Larcher had foreseen. They then remained stable until the Revolution. Prices could vary from one year to another, sometimes doubling or more, depending on the size and quality of the harvest.

It was thus that local producers noted in 1788, Good, red and solid, the best since 1779. Sold at 120 pounds a pièce, and in 1789, Neither good nor handsome, tavern wine. 70 pounds a pièce, more than it was worth [1].

There was also a close link between the price of wines and the rating of the vineyards that produced them, as established by the "vox populi" on the basis of their acknowledged quality. In 1790 in the Epernay district, the price for white wines was established at 540 pounds the queue in Ay, 412 in Pierry, 375 in Hautvillers, 300 in Ablois, 252 in Moussy and Vinay, 216 in Avize and Mesnil, and 135 in Morangis (94). In the same vineyards red wines were 30 to 45% less expensive than the whites, which was true all over Champagne, with a few rare exceptions, such as Sillery whose red wines enjoyed such a good reputation that their price was higher than that of the whites, despite their renown.

From around this time onwards the wines of Champagne were more expensive than those of Burgundy. In Rheims at the coronation of Louis XV the price of still wines in bottles were as follows: flask of the finest wine of Champagne 2 L, 5 s; flask of the quality below fine 1 L, 10 s; flask of the wine of Burgundy 2 L; flask of the wine of Burgundy of second quality 1 L. By way of comparison, one paid 12 s for a pot of table wine; 1 s for a loaf of bread of 7 ounces; 7 s for a pound of meat [2].

The wines used for the production of sparkling wines, while sometimes the best, were often of modest quality, costing less by the barrel then good quality wines that were sold as still wines. On 15 February 1712 Philippe-Valentin Bertin du Rocheret offered to the Maréchal of Montesquiou three poinsons of the wine of Piery at 400 pounds a queue, and a poinson at 250 pounds a queue for making sparkling wine and he adds: If you want a greater quantity for sparkling at an even a better price of 100 pounds a queue, I can easily satisfy your requirements (B 33). Sparkling wines cost more by the bottle because of losses due to breakages. In Ay, from 1742 to 1746, Malavois de la Ganne sold his wines at 25 to 30 sols the bottle for sparkling, 20 sols for red, and 25 sols for still white wine .

Payment was made in cash and by all the other means used at that time, including, from 1789, assignats (bank notes used during the Revolution) with all the risks that this entailed. But it also happened that wine was exchanged for other goods rather than sold, a form of barter readily explained by the fact that there were merchants who had several activities. One such wrote, I sold wines in 1763 for a nominal value of 40 to 50 pounds a queue to a merchant of St Quentin, in exchange for a repeating clock valued at 400 pounds, an alarm clock and six and a half ells of lace for my daughters [3] (an ell was one and a quarter yards).

Overall the wine trade had become the region’s dominant industry and Eschard’s Dictionnaire Geographique Portatif states that principal commerce of Champagne consists of excellent wines. Here is what the Dictionnaire Universel du Commerce had to say on the subject in 1742, the wines of Rheims, Sillery, Hautvillers, Epernay, Château-Thierry and all those that may more concisely be termed the Wines of Champagne, have too much of a reputation in France, and the whole of Europe, where they are sold, to leave any room for doubt that such a volume of trade has resulted in the accumulation of much wealth in the places where these excellent vines are grown [4].

The growth of this industry was hindered by various factors, most notably that of supply, which was reduced by frequent bad harvests. A considerable quantity of the harvest of a particular year was sold in the two following years, and demand regularly exceeded the supply. For example the inventory for the Abbey of Hautvillers in 1747 records that the cellars held 12,000 bottles of 1746, 6,000 of 1745 and 4,000 of 1742. No stock remained for the years of 1743 and 1744 (A 25).

Besides the difficulties due to wars and the protectionism of foreign countries, which will be considered later in the context of export, transport itself also raised numerous problems. Throughout the eighteenth century the wines of Champagne were essentially transported in barrels, and this applied to both fine wines and table wines which, as we have just seen, in terms of volume, accounted for most of the trade. Bottles of sparkling wine were of course also transported, but also, and increasingly, still wines were transported long distances or to customers who requested them. Savary notes on this matter the employment of thick glass bottles of which the use and consumption has become very considerable, since the advent of the belief that the best wines keep better in bottles than on their lees [5].

The means of transport left something to be desired. Most deliveries were made by river, and in particular by the Marne; Hamilton writes of the river so high / From where to the Seine Thierry does carry / His wines with those of Volnay [6]. The bargemen of Bisseuil, Mareuil, Epernay and Cumières were employed, but navigability was uncertain. On 21 December 1713 the Comte d’Artagnan asked Adam Bertin du Rocheret to dispatch 100 bottles as soon as the river will allow it (B 34). The inhabitants of Rheims were never to see the completion of a canal project involving the River Vesle in which the Marquises of Sillery had shown an interest.

Some orders were sent overland. In 1745 Malavois de la Ganne dispatched 250 bottles of sparkling wine to Canada by overland carrier to be loaded in Rochefort on to the Leopard (a ship). The road network was inadequate, and poorly maintained except for Colbert’s big roads which served Nancy-Strasbourg and Metz-Mayence. Recounting a journey that he had to make in February 1741, the Lord of Saint-Quentin, rider with the king’s provisions, wrote that the floods... have made the roads appalling, and that the road from Soissons to Rheims was terrible [7]. In the wrong season some roads became completely impractical for wagons, to such an extent that in winter, when the rivers were frozen, the transport of wine sometimes stopped altogether. The book of grievances of Vertus requested that it be granted to all the cities and large premises, especially in the wine-producing regions, branch roads or tracks onto the kingdom’s main roads in order that the trade in wine may be carried out in the winter, which is the season when commerce in this commodity is most active. An annotation made to the copy of the Archives of the Marne states that Vertus is inaccessible, through lack of usable roads and tracks.

Another obstacle was the prohibition of the transport of wine in bottles which had been pronounced for tax reasons by an order of the court of Assistance of the15 February 1676, and confirmed in 1680. This decision was not always respected. In 1721, Brother Oudart transported to Pierry some bottles of which 400 were to be taken to the sea [8]. Those in power, the mitred abbots and great Lords, were able to get round the order more easily than the merchants, as this note from Adam Bertin du Rocheret to the Maréchal de Montesquiou in 1705 suggests, I believe that 50 bottles of old wine, the most exquisite in the kingdom that I can supply, with 50 vouchers, would be agreeable to you [9].

In 1724 the aldermen of Rheims requested that the restrictions be lifted on the transport of bottles of vin gris, putting forward the argument that those who use the vin gris of Champagne prefer that which sparkles to that which does not; and that furthermore vin gris cannot be transported in barrels, neither in the interior of the kingdom, nor to foreign countries, without its quality suffering. In reply the Decree of the King’s Council of State of the 25 May 1728, His Majesty wishing encourage the Trade and Transport of the Vin Gris of Champagne, in article II allows vin gris to be sent to Normandy in bottles for the inhabitants’ consumption and forbids the entry in bottles of the Wines of any other quality, on pain of confiscation and a fine of one hundred pounds, and in article III allows similarly the passage of the said Vin Gris and Red Wine of Champagne, and of any other grape or quality, in baskets of fifty or one hundred bottles, to be transported in areas exempt from duties, or to be loaded onto ships to be carried abroad in the Ports of Rouen, Caen, Dieppe and Le Havre, and not in any other ports, on pain of the same penalties (B 12).

The application of the decree of 1728 was territorially limited in France, and difficulties continued to arise with the regions and cities assuming the right to take special measures to restrict the movement of wines when it harmed the interests of their own wine producers. But these new rules were essential for the external trade in the wines of Champagne which were now the only wines in France that could be sent in bottles to England, Holland, and the rest of the world, whether they were sparkling or not. Thus in 1739, Malavois de la Ganne sent some sparkling wine in half-panniers of 60 bottles from Ay to Rouen, by water, with transfers at Charenton and Javel, probably intended for embarkation at Rouen for England (C2).

It was however not until April 1776 that the trade in wine was finally freed by Turgot’s royal edict, under the terms of which His Majesty allowed not only the free circulation of wines throughout the kingdom, but also their storage, their sale in all places, and at all times, their export in all seasons, via any port, notwithstanding any special or local privileges to the contrary, which His Majesty abolishes.

The collection of various levels of duty remained however an inconvenience for trade, although all wines paid the same entry duties, which was to the advantage of fine wines. Louis-Sébastien wrote on this subject, the barrel of excellent Burgundy, or of delicious Champagne pays no more entry than a barrel of Brie, and a wine that takes the skin off a cobbler’s throat is taxed at the same rate as the nectar that perfumes the mouth of a councillor of state.

What sort of quantities of wines were being sent out from Champagne in the eighteenth century? Without precise documents on the matter one can only make an estimate based on the volume of production. This seems to have doubled between 1740 and 1776 [10], but then to have considerably decreased in the last quarter of the century [11]. Knowing the surface area planted with vines and taking as an average yield that of the years before the Revolution, i.e. 1,150 litres per hectare, one can deduce that from a likely 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of vines at the end of the century, the yield would have been in the order of 57,500,000 litres. In 1801, according to Le Parfait Vigneron, barely a tenth of the land in Champagne produces wines of superior quality. Given the relatively low yield from such land one can hazard a guess, in the absence of concrete figures, that the production of fine wines in Champagne, was somewhere between 4 and 4,500,000 litres.

Even more difficult is to assess the production of sparkling wines. The rare figures that have survived do not distinguish them from the bottled still wines. In 1724 the aldermen of Rheims declared, the trade in the Vins gris of Champagne has considerably increased in the last few years, through the precautions that have been taken in drawing them off into bottles in order to make them sparkling (B 12). But after a good start, sparkling champagne did not, as we know, continue on its all conquering march. Production stagnated, and even regressed, all the more so because of the inevitable risks due to breakages. It was thus that the successors of Brother Oudart preferred to give up on large scale bottling and showed, up until at the very least 1774, a marked preference for the sale of wines in barrels (72). Bottling was in any case still only being practised on a modest scale, of the order of three to twenty thousand bottles for the merchants, and five to fifteen thousand for the abbeys. When Moët delivered 50,000 bottles in 1746 this was considered a huge figure. For all these reasons there can be no doubt that at the end of the eighteenth century the production and distribution of sparkling champagne were still at very low levels that were not in keeping with its fame. These are generally put at an annual maximum of 300,000 bottles, which represents about 6% of the fine wines of the Marne Valley, the Montagne de Rheims and the current Côte des Blancs, and barely 0.5% of the total production of the Champagne region. It was only in Rheims, Epernay and a few of their surrounding small towns that sparkling wine production was a real factor in the local economy.

In the eighteenth century, as in modern times, France exported its wines and Champagne began to participate to a significant degree. Out of a total of 24,600,000 pounds, the total for wine exports for the year 1778, we find champagne in second place, with 1,410,000 pounds, first place is taken by Bordeaux, with 4,360,000 pounds and Burgundy is in third place, with 1,260,000 pounds (622). This consisted essentially of still wines, the quality of which was recognized beyond France’s borders. The wines of Champagne are renown throughout Europe, the Dictionnaire de Trevoux noted in 1752. The Legras report, cited above in reference to the lack of solidity of bottles, states that the revenue of Champagne resides in the wines that it produces, both red and white, a great part of which are transported to the neighbouring provinces and above all abroad (58). This export trade already existed in the Middle Ages, as we know, but had grown with the passage of time. Abbot Pluche wrote in 1763, that the wines of Champagne were the honour of the tables of London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and all the North and that he is even assured that they have several times passed the Line with impunity: they pass it twice to arrive at Pondicherry, where some is sent (491). It was particularly the wines of the Montagne de Rheims, and mostly the reds, that were sold abroad because they did better on long journeys. Chanoine Godinot wrote, those who are charged with sending it to foreign countries should choose the wine of Montagne. As it has more body it endures transport better than the wine of the Rivière (254). However, the wines of the Marne Valley for a long time had a virtual monopoly on the export of sparkling champagne. This had been the case since the beginning of the century, but had always involved comparatively small quantities.

Chaptal’s and his colleagues in the Traité sur la culture de la vigne give comparative figures of French wine exports from 1720-1725 (the average over the five years) and in 1788. Elsewhere they give the figures for 1778, taken from Turgot’s files. Here is a comparative table of the exports of the wines of Champagne based on this data15 :

Some interesting observations may be made from this table and by comparing it with the one that appears in the Traité sur la culture de la vigne for the other wines of France:

1. After increasing by 144% in fifty years, exports from Champagne decreased by 68% between 1778 and 1788. This dramatic drop concerned only the table wines; exports of wines in bottles, during the same period, increased by 36%. The same was true for the wines of Bordeaux, due, it would seem, at least to a large extent, to competition in the market for cheap table wines, of which exports, particularly of those from the Languedoc, were becoming substantial. On their account total exports of French wines almost doubled in sixty years [12], while exports of the wines of Champagne fell by 22% during the same period (1725 to 1788).

2. Taking the figures for 1778, which best reflect the situation in the wine trade in the eighteenth century, we see that exports of the wines of Champagne in bottles had increased sevenfold since 1725, but that the 212,498 bottles exported in that year still account for less than 11 % of the volume exported.

3. There is no indication in the figures for bottles of the proportion of sparkling champagne, which is further proof of the marginal character of this sector of the market in the eighteenth century.

Export was irregular and often difficult. There were the harmful effects of war, which involved not only the closure of enemy borders but also a general destabilization of transport. Malavois de la Canne wrote in 1748 that the trade that had been interrupted by the War has this year been re-established with the Peace, and transport to foreign countries where our wines have been outlawed since 1740 has become easier. Exports were again interrupted by the American War of Independence, in which France participated from 1778 to 1783. The merchants and the council of the city of Rheims addressed a petition in 1780 to the minister Sartine declaring that because of the war they found themselves with very large stocks of the wine of Champagne, as much from their vines as from others, which they desired to export. In times of peace the markets opened and closed depending on the duties that the importing countries imposed. In Russia these reached 100%. In Austria French wines were taxed from 1773 onwards at a rate of 21 florins, or 52 pounds, for 80 bottles, a duty that Joseph II increased by a further 50%. In Sweden and countries that were part of the German Empire the entry of French wines was prohibited.

Commercial relations with the English, champagne’s greatest fans, were fraught with difficulties. After the Methuen Treaty, signed in 1703 between Portugal and England, the merchants of Champagne had to compete on unequal terms with port and sherry, for which the duty was eight times less than that for French wines. They also had to put up with competition from new drinks such as gin, curaçao and other eaux-de-vie, and even from coffee and chocolate. They thus greeted the Treaty of Utrecht in 1715 with some satisfaction, in one of the clauses of which England gave to France the status of most favoured nation. But the English government imposed a system of import licences, which were distributed with discouraging parsimony. On 28 May 1728, fearing tax evasion, a bill was drawn up by Walpole and signed by George II prohibiting the entry of wine in bottles (16). This bill would have completely deprived the English of any sparkling champagne, but they were already too partial to it for this to be allowed to happen. Those with connections obtained dispensations, and the champagne lovers who could not acquire Dutch contraband returned to making the wines of Champagne sparkle in their own cellars, as they had done in the seventeenth century.

In 1728 P.V. Bertin du Rocheret sent to his correspondent, James Chabane, some barrels of vin gris with instructions on how to turn them into sparkling wine: it will be necessary to bottle in London at 5° and 6° of the moon, which is to say the 13, 14 and 15 March (B 35). In 1747 on the subject of breakages attributed to bottles made in Argonne, the Academy of the Sciences observed in a report that the English and the Flemish do not make nearly such considerable losses when they buy the wines of Champagne in barrels and bottle it themselves (B 13).

Some relaxing of the regulations took place in 1745 and P.V. Bertin du Rocheret noted in his journal on 24 May 1746, bottles permitted in England (B 35), but in 1778 we still do not find any exports in bottles to England in the figures in Turgot’s files. It was not until 1800 that authorization was finally given by George III to import bottles of French wine, but still subject to certain restrictions.

In 1763 customs duties were increased in England by 30%. However the fashion for the wines of Champagne was so great that its wealthy clientele remained loyal, while spurning other French wines. Great hope was born in 1786 when William Pitt signed a commercial treaty with France. It specified that the wines of France should not be more heavily taxed than those of Portugal.

Talleyrand wrote of the treaty, If it increases the ease with which France can satisfy the partiality and caprice that rich people display for English merchandise, it will procure for England even greater delights, for which she will pay France, as a result of the decrease in duty on the wines of Champagne and Bordeaux, a decrease that will surely increase consumption in England.

The euphoria did not, alas, last very long. From January 1794 England was at war with France and the wines of Champagne could only be received in small quantities, when they were able to be sent by circuitous routes, such as, for example, via the Channel islands.

In 1778, according to Turgot’s figures, Germany represented by far the biggest market for the wines of Champagne.

Imports rose to 1,209,100 litres in barrels and 165,944 bottles. Monsieur de Francheville, the King of Poland’s infantry general, was right when he wrote on 30 September 1719 to P.V. Bertin du Rocheret requesting that he send two barrels of wine to Warsaw via the intermediary of the Residence of His Electoral Highness of Bavaria.. who may in the future have considerable requirements.

Then, in the following order, came Flanders, England, Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy, where Casanova, in the Memoirs, prides himself on having an excellent cellar in Venice, stocked with the wine of Champagne which was supplied by Count Bonomo Algarotti, a merchant and banker in the Doge’s city. The Antilles, which were known then as the Islands, had represented a considerable market, but are only listed with 698 bottles, because of the American War of Independence.

At the end of the eighteenth century the American market was still very modest, but the wine of Champagne was already familiar to the presidency of the United States. On the subject of a dinner that was given on 4 March 1790, Samuel Johnson wrote that an excellent champagne was served, followed by coffee which he had the honour to drink with George Washington’s wife, a very charming lady. In the presidential accounts, which were maintained by Tobias Lear, there appears in May 1792 the cost of transporting six baskets of the wine of Champagne from the ship to his residence.

We have seen then that by the eighteenth century the wines of Champagne, with or without bubbles, were already acclaimed all over the world. It was not until the nineteenth century that the sparkling wine of the region was to gain its dominant position in France and elsewhere.


[1The Wine Harvests of Bouzy and Ambonnay from 1788 to 1874. Rheims, 1893.

[2Costs of provisions and commodities in the city of Rheims. 12 October 1722. Rheims, 1722.

[3POINSIGNON (Maurice). General History of Champagne and Brie. Châlons-sur-Marne, 1886.

[4SAVARY des BRULONS (Jacques). Universal Dictionary of Commerce, Natural History, Arts and Trades. Amsterdam, 1726.

[5SAVARY des BRULONS (Jacques). Universal Dictionary of Commerce, Natural History, Arts and Trades. Amsterdam, 1726.

[6HAMILTON (Antoine). Letters and Epistles. Paris, 1812.

[7NARBONNE (Pierre). Diary of the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV from the year 1701 to the year 1744, published by J.A. Le Roi. Paris, 1866.

[8ulletin from the Experimental Laboratory of Wine Production and Oenology of the Maison of Moët & Chandon. Epernay, 1908.

[9BOURGEOIS (Armand). Unpublished Letters and Documents relating to the Wine of Champagne under Louis XIV and Louis XV. Paris, 1897.

[10ROCHE (Emile). The Wine Trade of Champagne under the Old Regime. Châlons-sur-Marne, 1908.

[11Theoretical and practical treatise on the cultivation of vines, and the art of making wine by Cen Chaptal, M. l’Abbé Rozier, les Cens Parmentier et Dussieux. Paris, 1801.

[12Parfait Vigneron (Le). The Perfect Vine Grower. Paris, 1801.