The techniques for making the sparkling wine of Champagne were still rather imprecise, but it was by now much appreciated and even worshipped by some. However the area of production was extremely limited; champagne was talked about more than it was sold, and consequently its success unfortunately had little impact on the general situation of the vine growers, which was still somewhat precarious even in the Age of Enlightenment. The Regency was not for everybody what Voltaire called the reign of pleasures and luxury . Certainly the general economy of Champagne, which was still based on textiles and wine, grew throughout the eighteenth century, and there was an architectural renaissance of which the Place Royale in Rheims is a fine example. But only the middle classes directly benefited. The nobility continued to accrue debts and the peasants to become poorer.
The vines did not suffer, as in previous centuries, from military campaigns and civil wars. In 1712 during the War of the Spanish Succession, the daring raid of the Dutch General Growestein stopped at the gates of Rheims. From the Peace of Utrecht which ended the war up to the Revolution the region did not suffer from the ravages of bands of roughneck soldiers that had been such a problem in previous years. The royal armies did of course continue to be a tax burden on the population, but did on the other hand help to regain a reasonable level of security under the vigilant and generally kindly administration of the royal stewards. The lucrative post of Lieutenant-Général de la Généralité de Champagne et de Brie was granted on a purely honorary basis, and it was the stewards who held the power on a regional level.
A lot of vines were planted at the end of the seventeenth century, partly in the euphoria over the success of the vin gris, and partly due to the considerable growth in the sales of table wines in rural areas, and the steward Le Peletier was concerned over the over-abundance of wine which would result in increase in the price of barrels and a decrease in the price of wines.
On his request the King’s Council passed a decree on the 29 November 1729, that prohibited the planting of new vines without His Majesty’s express permission, and threatened a fine of 3,000 pounds. Similar decisions had been made in 1720 and 1721 concerning the vineyards of the Aube for another reason, exposed by the most senior member of the tribunal of Châlons, who wrote that there are places in this region which are so full of vines that the workable land does not produce enough grain to feed the inhabitants. It was for the same reason that a decree was passed on 5 June 1731, this time applying to the whole of France, that forbade the planting of any new vines, even on land where they had previously been vines, the only possible exception being when the land was not suited to any other type of crop (B 11).
These decrees had little effect due to the resistance of the vine growers who, moreover, produced dissertations demanding that the decree be repealed, one of these asserting that he who drinks wine eats less bread than he who drinks water (A 23). The stewards of Champagne settled finally on a policy of protection of vines, confirmed by the central powers which, without expressly revoking the decrees in question, took the decision in 1759 that in principal the owners of businesses should not be put in financial difficulties over the purposes for which they use their land.
It is a fact that in the eighteenth century vines were for many of the inhabitants of Champagne the main if not the sole means of existence. Having regressed, as we saw, during the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century due to the wars and troubles of the period, vineyards regained some of the lost ground. The land area covered by vines in the province of Champagne was in 1789 estimated to be of the order of 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres). A survey ordered in1773 by the administration of Champagne recorded 14,710 hectares of vines on the land corresponding to the current département of the Marne, of which 10,250 in the wine producing Côte and Val de Marne, 1380 in the central plain, 1800 in ’humid’ Champagne, and 1280 on the plateau de Brie-Tardenois. But by the eve of the Revolution, the 14,710 hectares had become 20,354, essentially due to the growth of the vineyards in the Rheims and Epernay districts which accounted for 8,500 and 6,700 hectares respectively. It was thus that a report of 1780 noted that in Pierry, one hundred years ago, at least three quarters of the land that is now planted with vines used to be woods or fallow.
The distribution was still the same as at the end of the fifteenth century, which was, in order of density of wine-producing parishes, the regions of Rheims, Vitry-le-François and Epernay, the southern side of Epernay and of Vertus, the regions of Sézanne, Châlons and Sainte-Menehould (C 3). As we have seen, it was, from the seventeenth century onwards, the slopes of the Marne and the Montagne de Rheims which produced the wines that made the region’s reputation, which were sparkling, but also and for the most part, still white and red wines. We also saw that from the eighteenth century the land that is the current Côte des Blancs became a wine-producing area, and prices of wines there were rising sharply, as were the prices of land planted with vines, which was the general rule every time land entered the category of those that were most sought after for wine production.
Here are the views of P.V. Bertin du Rocheret on this subject, who wrote in 1744, Avize is a fairly large town, considerably increased in the last twelve or fifteen years or so due to the frenetic arrival of sparkling wine. It was still poor in 1719, their vines producing only a crude tasting insignificant sour wine that caused them to be placed amongst the lesser localities; ordinarily this wine sold for 25 or 30 pounds the "queue", but since the mania for popping corks this abominable drink has been selling for up to 300 pounds, and an acre of vines, which would have been difficult to sell at 250 pounds, is now fetching up to 2,000 pounds.
In the top vineyards the grape varieties tended to be those that were preferred in the previous century, such as Fromenteau, and Morillons, both black and white. These produced better quality wines but had a comparatively low yield. It was thus common that in the lesser vineyards, which could be found all over Champagne, that preference was given to the coarser varieties that produced more grapes. In this way the vine grower, while not achieving the same financial returns as the top vineyards, could at least hope to make his living by selling cheaper wine in larger quantities, the demand for everyday table wines having considerably increased in both town and country. At the end of eighteenth century, following a slump in sales and a drop in the price of wine, some of the better quality vineyards also adopted this policy and made more ordinary wine, at the risk of compromising the image of Champagne’s wines. Maizière wrote on this subject that when the problems mounted to the extent that the best quality vineyards could not survive, even by lowering their prices, the vine growers chose to replace the fine grape varieties with inferior vines, the wine from which was easier to sell, even though there was more of it.
Luckily this phenomenon remained limited and specialists both in France and abroad were in agreement at the end of the century, as they had been at the beginning, in their admiration for Champagne’s wine-producing techniques. Valmont de Bomare’s Dictionnaire Raisonné Universel d’Histoire Naturelle (volume IX) confirmed that in 1775 of all the different methods used in the various regions of France, there is nowhere that approaches the level of care and precaution that has been practiced in Champagne for fifty-five years. This reputation was due to the best vineyards of the valley of the Marne d’Ay-Épernay, and the chalky cliffs around it to the north and south where, contrary to practices elsewhere, in Champagne and generally in France, quality was deliberately chosen to the detriment of quantity. This was obtained not only through the choice of grape variety but also by being sparing with fertilizer. Another point favouring quality were the efforts that were made to eliminate the practice of growing fruit and vegetables in the vineyards, which the vine-growers complained about to the administrative powers. (À 23). In 1767 the town assembly of Verzy obtained the satisfaction of its parish concerning fruit trees for, everything under these trees and in the immediate vicinity not being able to produce anything but acrid grapes of which the pernicious blending affects the quality of the wines.
At the time of the Revolution the yield for the whole of Champagne in an average year per hectare (2.47 acres) was between eleven and twelve hundred litres. It varied considerably depending on climactic conditions and, as we have just seen, on the quality and position of the land. In areas where table wines were produced the yield could reach two thousand litres, which was the figure used as the basis for a calculation in 1800 in Le Parfait Vigneron (The Perfect Vine Grower) of the income of a producer in the département of the Marne selling his wine at the price at the time which, at 50 francs for a pièce of 220 litres, was very low. The conclusion of the calculation was that the net income was 33 francs per demi-hectare. This was extremely modest and could have only have resulted in poverty for small producers of average quality wines. We can but agree with Le Parfait Vigneron that in the département of the Marne the difference between the production of fine wines and ordinary wines is immense, and that only the best quality vineyards, the wines of which sell for 200 and 300 francs a pièce can prosper, given that the costs of cultivation do not exceed those of common vines. According to Chaptal it was in these vineyards that could be found growers full of zeal, of ideas and activity who in building their fortunes are maintaining and spreading the fame that the wines of France have known since antiquity.
At the end of the seventeenth century after the period of respite that followed the Peace of the Pyrenees, the situation of the vine-growers of Champagne had improved. But it was alas to deteriorate again during the unfortunate period at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, and the Palatinate wrote in March 1709, The common people are dying of the cold like flies. The mills have stopped, and so many are dying of hunger. A slight recovery was made under Louis XV, with ups and downs, but during the 1770s poverty reappeared in all the wine-producing parishes except the elite cantons whose production was destined for consumption by rich people and foreigners. Wine was not selling well and money was short. Bread was the staple food and it was both expensive and in short supply. In Rheims in 1771, and again in 1775, the population tried to seize the wheat stores. Verzy’s book of grievances, drawn up it must be remembered in the context of the general situation in 1789, stated that the markets were assailed by the starving people. In 1783 the receiver of taxes for the Rheims district spoke of the extreme poverty of all those in the vineyards of this district (À 22), and in 1789, the administration of Châlons could not express how deplorable had become the situation of the unfortunate inhabitants of the wine-producing regions, of whom the excessive poverty is truly alarming (À 21).
This state of affairs was the result of the province’s poor economic situation, and, locally, of the monoculture of grapes which was a feature of much of the land. It also resulted from the accumulated divisions of properties by successive generations to the extent that heirs found themselves reduced to poverty. To cap it all the vine grower was crippled by a host of tithes, duties, gabelles, and various taxes. These were continuously rising, ultimately becoming so high that the total duties were sometimes more than the sale price of the wine. While the droit de banvin (right of the Lord) had been abolished by Turgot in 1776, the very unpopular duty of common use of the presses, which carried an obligation to bring ones grapes to the seigniorial press, remained in force until the Revolution.
It must be emphasized that the deterioration of the vine-growers’ situation was due in good measure to the harsh climate of eighteenth century France. In 1741 Malavois de la Ganne wrote, The shortage of grain this year has caused a veritable famine, to the point that people are living on buckwheat bread, oats, and roots that they collect in the fields. And for vines there followed a series of incredibly bad years, either in quantity or quality, dominated by the big freeze of the winter of 1788-1789. One can only imagine the dramatic consequences of these calamities for a small vine-grower, there being no way of recovering the costs of maintaining the vines, and insufficient regular income to enable money to be put aside for such eventualities. With no earnings for a year or more there was a real threat of famine. In the proceedings of the municipality of Bar-sur-Aube, on 16 May 1713, it was recorded that by barrel of wine, that year, the cost exceeded the harvest by fifty-nine sols and six deniers. In the book of grievances for the commune of Chaillevois we read that the staple food is bread soaked in salt water; meat is eaten on mardi-gras, Easter day, the ’fête patronale’, the day of going to the presses and at weddings. In exclusively wine-producing parishes, and there were many, the vine grower did not even have the possibility of extra income from the loan of his services to other farmers. Nothing better expresses the deplorable condition of the small vine-grower at the end of the eighteenth century than Oger’s books of grievances where we read that despite being a landowner, due to debts generally accumulated on account of the misfortunes attached to the cultivation of vines, he cannot properly be said to posses anything and is in fact in the class of a serf bound to the glebe; a good harvest will pay his labour and his dues and nothing more; a bad one will deprive him of everything.
The Traité sur la Culture de la Vigne declared in 1801 that the vineyard labourers, freed of the worries of being owners, are much happier. This opinion is questioned elsewhere, for while the day labourer enjoyed a certain security this was obviously dependent on his having employment, his work was tough and his pay modest, as demonstrated by the mayor of Epernay’s order of the10 April 1772, allocating for the winter work up to Saint-Vincent, for men, with the loaf, 8 sous, and for women and children, with the loaf, 6 sous, and specifying that they would start work, all year, at sunrise and would stop at sunset and that neither eau-de-vie or anything else should be given to the workers to improve their lot (À 31). That the workers were not happy is also suggested by the fact that there were revolts, notably that of 1760 in Cumières, where they were so serious that the Lieutenant-General Marquis of Crémilles, who was in charge of the regional garrison, had to be brought in to enforce the disarmament of the vine-growers in the locality. In Ambonnay and Bouzy, in 1789 the day labourers went on strike in an attempt to get a pay rise. Disputes frequently arose between employers and employees. The vineyard workers of Montbré, Trois-Puits, Champfleury and Trigny formed a union in order to protect their interests against those of the monks of Saint-Rémi and Saint-Thierry.
In 1789, but not for much longer, the church was still the biggest owner of vines, along with the nobility, except for the instances in which inheritances had come to Paris to be transformed into diamonds, lace, silver plate and sumptuous equipages. Lland owners escaped taxes, when they were not profiting from them, and increased their estates by buying from vine-growers, their prosperity contrasting with the poverty of the latter. On the death of the Maréchale d’Estrées in 1785 there were 71,650 bottles of champagne in his cellars and 509 pièces of wine in barrels.
If for example we examine the situation of the parish of Verzenay, the majority of the vines belonged to the Abbey of Saint-Basle, to the Chapter of Rheims and to the Lords of Sillery. The latter owned, combining their holdings in Verzenay and Sillery, 110 arpents (an arpent was approximately an acre) in 1770 and 180 in 1789 . Their wines sold well and their accounts show an average income of 153 pounds for each arpent, which was infinitely more than a vine-grower could ever hope for.
In Pierry, the petite noblesse and the middle class land owners together owned in 1780 more than twice as many vines as the small vine-growers, without counting the possessions of the Benedictine Lords, and it was they who made the great white wines of Champagne, the small vine-growers making either only red wine or table wines.
This situation was to change profoundly in the Revolution, which stripped the nobility and the church of their possessions. The change of regime took place without any notable events in Champagne, where it was not accompanied by the same excesses as elsewhere, excepting a few riots over famine. In 1790 the Généralité of Châlons was divided into four départements: the Ardennes, the Aube, the Marne and the Haute-Marne. The region of Château-Thierry, which came under the jurisdiction of the general government of Champagne but was outside the boundaries of the Généralité of Châlons, was returned to the département of the Aisne. Finally the region of Bar-sur-Seine, which was part of Burgundy, became incorporated into the département of the Aube.
Small vine-growers benefited from the Revolution, but their situation did not change dramatically. Some became owners as the result of the abolishing of their feudal tenures, but this in itself did not solve their problems. Many bought property from the church after 1789, and that of expatriates after 1792. Given their poverty one might be surprised that they could afford to buy any land at all, but prices were low, and holdings were also often very small, which unfortunately resulted in so many divisions that some properties were too small to be profitable. Once again it is to Chaptal and his colleagues that we turn for an account of the unhappy lot of the vine-grower after the Revolution if he did not have the good fortune to be in one of the favoured districts, Visit our vineyard regions... You will find these unfortunate owner vine-growers, who make up the most active class, the most practiced in the hardest tasks in the art of agriculture, completely worn out at the age of forty, and dead soon after, under the weight of a life that one might call immoderately laborious, because the means of recovery are almost never proportional to the exhaustion of vital forces and who, even with a vineyard giving a full yield, must, in order to survive, have an income independent of the one that might be hoped for [from the vineyard].
To some extent middle-class wine production did further benefit from the Revolution. It is true that when it came to the sale of the national heritage most wine merchants were more interested in farms or mills than in vines. But those who did buy did so on a substantial scale, thereby creating estates in the best areas for comparatively little money, of which the size contrasted with the meagre properties of the vine-growers.
Whether they had benefited to a greater or lesser degree from the change in regime, the inhabitants of Champagne had to wait to enjoy their acquisitions in peace. France was at war, and while manoeuvres generally took place outside of Champagne, the province was nevertheless threatened in 1792 by the Prussians, luckily stopped at Valmy, before reaching the vineyards, by Dumouriez and Kellermann. The corks must have popped all over champagne, but times were to remain hard and uncertain until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
 VOLTAIRE. Summary of the Century of Louis XV.