In 1900 champagne was in perfect harmony with the euphoria of the Belle Époque and ruled the world over. The wheels of its production were however to become dangerously jammed: phylloxera threatened to completely destroy the vineyards, interprofessional relations deteriorated, and the Marne origin of champagne lost its credibility with the spread of fraudulent appellations. Clouds were gathering in the skies of Champagne and would remain for half a century: it would require all the tenacity of the vine-growers and the merchants to overcome the ravages of two wars and the global economic crisis of the 1930s. But in the 1950s there came a point when the demons had been exorcised; champagne resumed the ascent that it had begun with so much success in the nineteenth century and which would carry annual production from 28 million bottles in 1900 to 176 million in 1980 and, in all likelihood, 200 million in the year 2000.
Phylloxera, like the plague of medieval times, was an evil that spread terror because its result was the total destruction of the vine. It is any one of a small group of insects that resemble aphids (plant lice), and is virtually invisible to the naked eye; phylloxera vastatrix lives as a parasite on the roots of the vines, from which it sucks the sap, causing galls (swellings) which kill the vine after a few years.1
Imported to England in 1863 with some American vines, phylloxera spread to nearly all the vines in Europe, appearing in the 1860s in the Gard and in the Bouches-du-Rhône. Between 1870 and 1880 it attacked and destroyed French vineyards one after the other, Champagne excepted. It was considered a national disaster, and since in France there is always a sense of humour about even the most serious things the cartoonists of satirical journals went to town. In the Charivari on the 6 November 1875, a drawing by Stop showed some vine growers, their hats in their hands, listening to a ridiculous looking official who tells them, Dear Friends, the commission has an infallible method for killing the phylloxera; you start by pulling up your vines, a joke that was soon to become a reality. Meanwhile over thirty years the wine production of France fell from 41 to 23 million hectolitres (one hectolitre = 100 litres).
Dans la Marne, on a longtemps cru que le phylloxera n’oserait pas s’attaquer à un vignoble si bien cultivé ! On a tout de même commencé à s’inquiéter à partir de 1873, en voyant les progrès de l’invasion dans le reste de la France, et surtout depuis 1888, lorsque l’Aube a été atteinte le 8 juillet, à Villeneuve-sur-Chemin et à Coursan, au nord-ouest d’Evry. Néanmoins, on lisait encore dans le Vigneron champenois, le 4 juin 1890 : En Champagne on croit peu au phylloxera, et le 25 du même mois: Plus de phylloxera, en plantant dans les vignes du lupin, de la luzerne et du sainfoin !
The belief was for a long time held in the Marne that phylloxera would not dare attack such well cared for vines! However vine growers began to became concerned from about 1873 when they saw the invasion that was spreading through the rest of France, and then more seriously after 1888, when it appeared in the Aube on 8 July, in the areas of Villeneuve-sur-Chemin and in Coursan, to the north-west of Evry. Nevertheless, we still find in the Vigneron Champenois, on the 4 June 1890, In Champagne we have little to fear from phylloxera, and on the 25th of the same month, Prevent phylloxera by planting lupins, alfalfa, and sainfoin in the vineyards!
The outcome of this surprising lack of awareness arrived on the 5 August of the following year, when the news hit like a thunderbolt: phylloxera was just below Chassins, a commune of Tréloup, in the Aisne, a few hundred metres from the borders of the Marne2. It was however to take the insect another two years to finally penetrate. It was first detected on the 6 August 1892 in Mesnil-sur-Oger3. It appeared on the 8th in Mardeuil, on the11th in Chavot-Courcourt, on the 18th in Moussy, on the 23rd in Mancy, and on the 26th in Damery. The areas affected were not large, amounting to a total of two hectares (about five acres) during the first year, and about the same amount for each of the following years. The insect’s progress was slow and there still seemed to be hope. But from 1898 the invasion of the Marne vineyards began in earnest with 24 hectares being affected, followed by 61 in 1899 and 560 in 1900. On 29 October 1901 the entire département of the Marne was declared to be contaminated and by 1911 the area affected was assessed to be 6,500 hectares, which was more than half of the pure vine cultivars still in existence.
These were the types of vine which were traditionally planted before phylloxera. In 1983 there were still two parcels of such vines, each of about 20 ares (about half an acre), belonging to Bollinger, one of them in a walled area in Ay, the other in Louvois, buried in a restocked vineyard where it had been sheltered from phylloxera, and against which it had not received any special treatment. There were also ten hectares in the localities of Sacy, Ecueil and mainly in Villedommange, and generally on land that was pure sand, a particularity that must have protected them from phylloxera. These last are, indeed, still in Champagne. They can be seen in Vertus on a few grafted vines that had accidentally returned to the cultivar state, and are in the process of disappearing. In 1957, experiments with the planting of vine cultivars in Ambonnay and Cramant ended in failure: phylloxera found them after a few years and attacked.
On the eve of the First World War phylloxera had conquered France, but not without a struggle from the merchants and the vine growers, helped by the regional and national authorities. Before the curse had even appeared there were good souls regularly offering infallible remedies in the columns of the Vigneron Champenois, which were either recipes thought up by dreamers or advertisements placed by charlatans. The first serious measure, in 1877, was the prohibition by the préfecture of the introduction of vines to the département of the Marne, and at the same time a fund was started by the préfet to receive contributions towards the costs of studies and the publication of literature concerning the struggle against phylloxera. Measures also took the form, from the beginning, of the destruction of the vines in affected areas, the ones in Tréloup were even bought by Moët & Chandon for this purpose. The vines and stakes were burnt on site and the ground disinfected with a massive dose of carbon sulphate.
People soon realized that passive measures would not be enough. On the 17 July 1891 an association was formed for a renewable period of five years; the Syndicat antiphylloxérique, commonly known as the Grand Syndicat, was given large grants from the department, the state, the Chamber of Commerce of Rheims, the city of Epernay, and organized by a departmental teacher of agriculture, the devoted Monsieur Doutte.
Voici ce qu’en dit Georges Chappaz : Sur 25 729 propriétaires possédant 12 821 hectares de vignes, 17 370 avaient adhéré à l’association syndicale et possédaient 9 772 hectares. Ce syndicat avait pour mission bien définie de lutter contre l’invasion du fléau en détruisant, aussitôt découvertes, les taches phylloxériques par des traitements d’extinction utilisant de très hautes doses de sulfure de carbone. Des équipes furent organisées, conduites par des délégués, pour rechercher les taches et les traiter. Mais le syndicat se heurta à des résistances brutales. Les vignerons qui n’avaient pas adhéré au syndical ne voulurent pas toujours laisser faire les recherches. De véritables émeutes s’organisèrent contre le malheureux professeur départemental d’agriculture et ses collaborateurs .
Here is what Georges Chappaz had to say on the matter, Out of 25,729 vine owners controlling 12,821 hectares of vines, 17,370 owning 9,772 hectares joined the association . The association had the clearly defined purpose of fighting against the invasion of the pest by destroying, as soon as they were discovered, any traces of phylloxera with eradication treatments using very high doses of carbon sulphate. Teams were organized, led by delegates, to search for traces and treat them. But the association met with fierce resistance. Vine growers who had not joined did not always want to be inspected. Riots and demonstrations were organized against the poor departmental teacher of agriculture and his helpers (96).
The opposition stemmed from the fact that a number of vine growers, not convinced of the dangers of phylloxera, accused the merchants of using it as a pretext to rob them, and regarded the obligatory payment of taxes and inspections as threats to their liberty. They found a leader in René Lamarre. This ardent young man was full of ideas and had published a pamphlet in1880 entitled La Révolution Champenoise, in which he exhorted vine growers to take their fate into their own hands and to compete with the merchants by forming a cooperative and making the champagne themselves. In 1891, with his father, he founded a weekly publication in Damery also entitled La Révolution Champenoise, in order to incite resistance amongst the vine growers, contrary to their interests.
When it had completed its statutory term, five years after its creation, the Grand Syndicat was dissolved. The struggle continued through individual means, and the extinction treatment was replaced by treatment of the vines.
This involved spraying carbon sulphate in the general area of the vine’s roots with a stake injector, at a rate of 30 to 40,000 injections per hectare once or twice a year, each one containing 4 to 6 grams. The resulting holes were then blocked with plugs pushed down with a stick in order to stop the product evaporating. This operation would take a man twenty-five days for each hectare.
A new stage in the struggle against phylloxera began on 1 March 1898 with the creation in Rheims of the Association Viticole Champenoise, the A.V.C. originally consisted of 24 of the large vine-owning merchants, under the presidency of Monsieur Goulden, and had as its objective to fight against phylloxera through the use of carbon sulphate and any other means in order to preserve for as long as possible the vines of Champagne, to help if and when the time comes to re-establish the vineyards and to carry out studies and experiments which will be begun forthwith. From 1907 it also produced a technical publication, by taking over the Vigneron Champenois.
At the instigation of the A.V.C., and thanks to its grants, local anti-phylloxera unions were gradually formed, or superimposed on the rare defence unions that already existed. Their main role was the fight against the pest, but this extended to various other agricultural activities. Their creation was slow, but by 1913 there were 130, of which some were very active and operating in close collaboration with the A.V.C. which gave them grants, as did the state from 1911. The merchants and vine growers had finally managed to unite in their efforts in the face of danger. Nevertheless the available techniques for fighting phylloxera did not succeed in halting its progression, whether carbon sulphate was used or the procedures used in other vineyards such as the growing of vines in sand or the intensive use of fertilizer, in Champagne the latter were rejected as being incompatible with the region’s traditional quest for quality.
From 1880 it was planned to introduce American vines to Champagne, for there had been successful experiments in other wine producing regions. The American vines had the ability to resist phylloxera because the tissue directly underneath the bark was particularly active and was able, after the insect had made a hole, to manufacture a corky material that repaired the damage. By grafting the vines of Champagne, the European vitis vinifera, onto the American vines the characteristics of the former could be preserved, and a new vine obtained of which the root stock would ensure protection against the parasite. But, as can be read in the Vigneron Champenois of June 1883, passions have been great and the proposition has raised storms of protest leaving no doubt as to the general mood. The remedy did indeed seem paradoxical because it was these same plants that had, twenty years earlier, transported the parasites from one continent to another. There was even talk of the supposed resistance of the American vines and of the dangers of introducing them to Champagne; any introduction of new vines was after all prohibited by the legislation in force.
However it came down to necessity and it was decided in around 1897 to resort to the American vines. Authorization was obtained for experiments, under the surveillance of the Agricultural Department of the Marne, representing the Service National du phylloxera. On the 11 December 1901 their free circulation was finally permitted in the Marne, with an agreement that they would be planted in 63 communes and then, gradually, in all the others6. From then on a new stage of the fight began: the reconstitution or rebuilding of the vineyards of Champagne: cultivars had to be replaced by grafted vines everywhere that phylloxera had struck. At the same time a struggle was kept up to protect those that had not been affected and which, after the arrival of their American cousins took the name of vignes françaises (French vines). By 1906 one thousand hectares had already been replanted, and then 2,000 by 1910 and more than 2,500 by 1914, which represented about a third of the vines that had been contaminated.
In fact the operation constituted a veritable revolution in vine growing practices. Not only were the vines themselves changed but also the methods of cultivation. The vigne en foule (irregular propagation of vines) system was not suited to the use of grafted vines, with which the operations of provignage and assiselage (see: The Nineteenth Century: Vines, Wines, and Vine Growers) simply would not work. Vines were thus replanted in straight lines supported by wires and maintained this way, thereby leaving room between the rows for the passage of draught animals: the age of the vigne à chevaux (vines with horses) succeeded that of the vigne à bras (vines by hand). Instead of a forest of vines and stakes there was now an army prepared for battle, which quickly became, in the hands of the vine growers of Champagne, the best cared for garden in the world.
This type of vine growing was not unknown. It was what was practised at that time in most of the great vineyards, in particular in the Médoc, where the plough was pulled by oxen, and even in Champagne, in the Sézanne region, in the Vitry-le-François district and to the north of Rheims. It was the method recommended as early as 1799 by Maupin who, in his Méthode, advises establishing and keeping vines in rows with spaces in between, with no ’provignage’.
In Champagne encouraging experiments were carried out 1822 by a vine grower in Ay. In 1849 the renowned doctor Guyot even set up a 34 hectare vineyard in Sillery in order to experiment with the vines in lines method, and shared his favourable conclusions in 1860 in his book, Culture de la Vigne et Vinification, which recommended growing vines in low lines and on root stock, the vines distant from each other at least one metre in every direction, and with no ’provignage’, any gaps being filled with new vines.
The restocking was a huge and onerous task for the vine growers. They had to pull up and replant, but also had frequently to change the boundaries of parcels of land and carry out earthworks widening paths, or altering their course, in order to enable the passage of ploughs and other horse drawn equipment. They also had to buy and transport new vines and set up the stakes and wire supports. Finally they had to learn how to plant, graft and use draught animals. The vine growers did all this with admirable courage and persistence. Fortunately they were well supported by the local anti-phylloxera unions. They were also helped with loans from the Crédit Agricole which, from 1910, decentralised its offices to a communal level. The merchants also provided considerable support, obviously taking a great interest in the success of the restocking. Substantial grants were thus awarded either by the champagne houses on an individual basis, or by the Syndicat du Commerce, or by the A.V.C. The departmental authorities did not rest on their laurels and the Conseil Général de la Marne (departmental council) responded to the situation, subsidizing from October 1910 a School of Agriculture and Winter Viticulture at the College of Epernay.
On a technical level the A.V.C. played a vital role. It set up a grafting establishment in Ay and organized courses and competitions for apprentice grafters, who would eventually become maître greffeurs (master grafters). Via the intermediary of the local unions it took charge of the supply to vine growers of root stock that was brought up from the Midi (the South of France). At the instigation of Raoul Chandon de Briailles7 , Moët & Chandon founded a large wine production research centre in Epernay, baptized Fort-Chabrol 8 , which consisted of, wrote Moreau-Bérillon, model facilities for grafting using a new method, a wine production research laboratory with a micrography room and a library, an oenological laboratory, in service from 1895, where Monsieur Émile Manceau pursued his remarkable research into the oenology of Champagne, a collection of American vines and an experimental nursery.
Would the restocking alter the characteristics of champagne? The question was being asked before the restocking had even begun; and concern that the identity and quality of champagne would be compromised was one of the arguments advanced against it. Abbot Rozier and Chaptal had however written that any fruit grafted onto a wild subject will not lose its quality and take on that of the wild fruit, and the quality of vines grafted in Burgundy and Bordeaux was recognized as excellent. Furthermore, professionals and consumers did not seem to find any difference between the champagne before and after the restocking. In the 1970s direct comparisons of the two categories were made and, three quarters of a century later, the question was answered firmly in the negative. Indeed the house of Bollinger produced, with grapes from its two parcels of French vines, and put on the market in 1974 a blend that they called Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Old French Vines) that came from the harvest of 1969, and which revealed itself to have the same character as the house’s classic champagne. It has thus been confirmed that the quality of the wine remained unchanged by the grafting of the French vines. It should also be known that while the restocking was not, theoretically, expected to change the character of the champagne, much effort was nevertheless made to methodically study the new principles that were to be applied to grafted vines drawing inspiration from the traditions established with the old French vines, which no doubt contributed to the result that nothing changed in the glass of the champagne lover.
However, as we have seen, the change was equally immense in terms of farming practices, and the question was also asked whether such changes would have harmful or beneficial effects. It was feared that by abandoning the vigne en foule technique one would lose the protective effect of the stakes which, on account of their huge numbers, provided not only a wind barrier but also, due to their enormous mass, stored some of the sun’s heat and stopped the vines becoming too cold at night; however, on the other hand, there was no forgetting that they played a role in the spreading of parasites, and, since they had to be removed every year, involved a great deal of very hard work. Many deplored the replacement of hundred year old vines by plants that could not be freely propagated (provignage) and which would have to be replaced more often, but it was acknowledged that while one may have replanted less frequently, one would also expect a lower yield from old vines. There were other regrets, but above all there was sadness to see the disappearance, as Moreau-Bérillon wrote of, the ’vignes en foules’ (crowds of vines), the product of more than a thousand years of experience, a source of admiration from visitors, and of pride and fortune in Champagne.
However, the vine growers of Champagne quickly became aware of the superiority of the new system over the old, for in reality the vines in lines brought numerous benefits, which may be listed as follows: several operations (assiselage, provignage, staking and removal of stakes) were no longer necessary, thereby simplifying and reducing the labour required; both work and its surveillance became easier; some tasks could be carried out by draught animals rather than men; drainage was improved and there was less risk of gulleys forming; the grapes were better exposed to the sun, and this largely compensated for the advantages that the en foule system offered for maturing; yield was increased and was more regular. Jules Roy, who had had several years experience of the new methods in Tréloup, wrote in the Vigneron Champenois of October 1899, comparing the work of the vine grower’s plough and the horse drawn hoe to the hand held equivalent is like comparing locomotives to the horse drawn buses of the 1830s.
All things considered perhaps we should actually thank phylloxera for having come to Champagne. If only because, as Maurice Hollande wrote, it taught the necessity of union and the benefits of solidarity to those incorrigible individuals the vine growers (298).
 CHAPPAZ (Georges). Le Vignoble et le vin de Champagne. Paris, 1951.