UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Planches réalisées par le Docteur Jolicoeur représentant le phylloxéra sous ses diverses formes. By the 1860s, French vineyards were in the grip of phylloxera: an aphid carried across the Atlantic from North America leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Phylloxera vastatrix lived in the roots of vines and sucked the life out of the plants. Its spread was unstoppable and its rate of reproduction was nothing short of phenomenal: a single louse could produce 10 million descendants in one year. The Champenois originally thought their chalky soils and particular local climate would stop the killer bug in its tracks but on 6 August 1892 it made its first appearance in a vineyard in in Mesnil-sur-Oger.

The Syndicat du Commerce responded by forming a large group of wine producers to get rid of the infestation, mainly by pulling up all infected vines and leaving the ground fallow for six years. Things did not go smoothly however, partly because the group was run by the Champagne Houses even though 90% of the vineyards were grower-owned but also because certain winegrowers underestimated the risks.

Among them was Damery grower René Lamarre who said that if phylloxera existed at all it was a blessing for growers as it would create a shortage of grapes and send prices rocketing. For other growers, the whole thing was just an elaborate ploy to deprive them of their vineyards in favour of the Champagne Houses. In the end, the anti-phylloxera group did not survive the squabbles and was disbanded in 1896 to be replaced a year later by the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC, Champagne viticultural association).

In sharp contrast to its predecessor, the AVC consisted solely of Champagne Houses, so avoiding arguments with growers, and did not enforce its requirements directly but working in compliance with local anti-phylloxera associations. It also argued for grafting onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock in preference to ripping up colossal swathes of vineyard. But the use of American rootstock did not sit well with all of the Syndicat members. Alfred Werlé and Gaston Chandon de Briailles in particular worried that resorting to foreign grape varieties, albeit as rootstock, would give ammunition to those who lobbied against restricting the name Champagne to wines exclusively produced in the Champagne production area. Such a move, they said, could undermine the quality and identity of the wine, most particularly because it meant entrusting the choice of locally adapted rootstock to the AVC – a collective, research organization that could so easily fall under the sway of the civil service.

They argued that collective research was better adapted to industry than to agriculture, where there could be no “one-size-fits-all” solution as every terroir was different. Messrs. Moët & Chandon therefore chose to resign from the Syndicat du Commerce executive committee and establish a research centre of their own: Fort Chabrol.

Research conducted by the AVC meanwhile led to the choice of 41B rootstock: a variety native to Texas whose calcareous-rich soils were comparable to the chalky, chlorosis-prone soils of the Champagne production area. Though spraying with carbon sulphate remained an option in severely affected areas, the AVC was careful to keep French varieties alive for as long as possible to avoid restocking the vineyards too quickly. This slow, gradual approach was crucial to preserve the quality of the Champagne vineyards but also to allow time to train growers in grafting techniques and new ways of pruning the vines, which were henceforth planted in rows and not as before en foule (literally “in a crowd”). The Champagne landscape would never look the same again.