Gabriel Matagne: THE CORONATION OF CHAMPAGNE – from the ruines of the roman empire to last Friday night

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With its roots spreading from the ruines of the roman empire to the front lines of the World War I and World War II, the history of champagne is a tale of the western civilisation, its struggles and ambition.

The first evidence of wine making in the world is 8000 years old and originates from the shores of the black sea in Georgia. The history of champagne is much younger – it is only 2 millenium old. The first vineyards in the Champagne region were planted around 100 BC.

The emergence of the christian faith in western Europe was central to the preservation and structuration of all French vineyards, which was led by monks.  As it is still the case today, wine along with bread are the two elements of the celebration of the Eucharist. Ensuring the production of wine in christian communities was therefore a non negotiable religious imperative.

The first encounter between champagne and history took place in the midst of the dismantlement of the roman empire. Stuck between barbarian violence and anarchy the catholic church was the last institution linking the population to the idea of pax romana. The situation was becoming increasingly hopeless.

The baptism of the pagan king and war lord Clovis in 496 AD by the bishop of Reims (in the region of Champagne, France) injected hope in troubled times and allowed society to regroup around its christian faith. The baptism was a brilliant political and religious move: it saved the catholic church in occidental Europe and paved the way for the creation of the French kingdom, a few centuries later.  From 898 onwards all the French kings walked in the footsteps of Clovis as all coronations took place in the Cathedral of Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region.

Photo: Gabriel Matagne

Primitives forms of Champagne were used to celebrate the first kings’ coronations. This was the beginning of the long association of Champagne with royalty and glamorous celebrations of power.  This was also  the beginning of a quest for perfection of Champagne, the wine of the kings.

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Champagne, with the characteristics it has today, emerged relatively recently around 1685. However, it is important to stress that the art of champagne making is still evolving to this very day. Until 1685, Champagne was stored and sold in barrels. The progress in glass making, grape selection and the use of solid airtight cork changed was a game changer. The combination of these 3 factors opened the way to the development  of the so called “champenoise method” where science and nature work together to create the most divine and magical wine. The champagne could be sold by the bottle which was opening new marketing horizons. 

With Louis XIV (1643-1715) , it is the consecration of Champagne and from now on, nothing will be as before. Champagne captured the heart of Louis XIV and his court.  Corks could be seen flying in every palace and champagne was served in great cascading vases to stimulate the effervescence of the alcohol and effervescence of the mind and spirit of the royal elite.

More than ever before, champagne had become the wine of kings, the symbol of ultimate luxury, pleasure, power and and refinement – a reputation which champagne has maintained to this day. 

The French Revolution caused the demise of the nobility and the clergy, ending their involvement in the production of champagne, the merchants took over. This huge change in French society led to a re-structuring of champagne production and promoted the emergence of famous brands such as Moët, Ruinât, Lanson and Gosset. The friendship between Jean-Rémy Moët (1758-1841) and Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) helped cement champagne’s reputation in this new France. The bourgeoisie, eager to reproduce the lifestyle once enjoyed by the nobility, flocked to champagne. The production and sales of champagne skyrocketed following the revolution. Representatives of the big houses became champagne’s ambassadors and travelled the world selling their magnificent elixir.

The linguistic and visionary Jahann-Joseph Krug (1800-1866)  then launched his own brand.

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With the industrial revolution and the ever-growing demand from the bourgeoisie, champagne houses continued to improve their production methods, increase efficiency and develop export markets.  Marketing campaigns became an essential part of the sales strategies of champagne houses

Meanwhile champagne was being immortalised in popular culture, including in the works of Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901)  and the Lumière Brothers. Eugène Mercier (1838-1904)  caused a sensation at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889 with the theme of champagne, luxury and celebration. The unstoppable success of champagne led to a rise in those who sought to pass off as Champagne their own versions made outside its ancestral home, which led to Champagne producers to band together to protect their interests.

In the champagne vineyards themselves, tensions mounted between the wine growers and the champagne houses over the price of grapes, threatening the industry as a whole. The vineyards were then ravaged by phylloxera insects (1890) , which destroyed vines throughout France. If the insect were not enough, humanity was to transform champagne into the killing fields of the first world war.

Photo: Gabriel Matagne

During the Great War (1914-1918) Reims was destroyed, along with two thirds of Champagne’s vineyards. The aftermath of the war was also disastrous for champagne. The financial crisis in Germany led sales to collapse, the Bolshevik revolution (1917) caused the Russian market to disappear along with Russia’s Imperial and aristocratic families, and between 1920 and 1933 the United States introduced prohibition.  The great depression, which began in 1929, ruined the international market for years to come and further prolonged the crisis that Champagne had suffered as a result of the combine effect of WW1 and the phylloxera disaster in the last years of the 19th century.

When the Second World War broke out, the Germans organised the methodical looting of the vineyards.  They even created an office responsible for requisitioning champagne, headed by Otto Klaebisch, whom the Champenois called “le führer of Champagne”. Bottles sent to the German army bore the label “reserved for the Wehrmacht”, which had to be written in both French and German.

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In autumn 1943, the Germans took control of the celebrated Champagne Houses of Moët & Chandon and Piper-Heidsieck, and Otto Klaebisch became its provisional administrator.

Many traders and winegrowers were deported to nazi death camps, including Bertrand de Vogüé, brother of Robert-Jean, and the president and chief executive officer of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, and Gaston Poittevin, the president of the General Syndicate of Wine growers.

On orders from the Gestapo, a fine was imposed on all the Champagne Houses which protested against the arrest of their colleagues.

Champagne was liberated by General Patton’s army at the end of August 1944. On May 7, 1945, The Germany surrender was signed in Reims technical college which had been taken over by the staff of General Eisenhower.

At the dawn of a new millenium, Champagne represent 30000 direct and indirect local jobs. The production of champagne is made by 360 champagne houses and 16000 wine growers. The turnover of champagne was, until COVID 5 billions euros with around 3 billons made on export markets.

In 2020, the COVID crisis has had a severe impact on champagne. We estimate that the sales figures of champagne are down by 1.7 billion euros. This figure is highly significant and is worst than the one of the great depression of 1929.

Because of COVID, champagne grapes are being turned into hand sanitiser to keep people COVID free.

It is better to be safe than sorry but in the case of champagne it is safe to say that I feel very sorry.

Despite the magnitude of the current COVID crisis, champagne will always be champagne. Its history will be written by new generation of people fascinated by the effervescence of that divine wine. As Sir Winston Churchill used to say about champagne “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”

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