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Champagne before champagne

The sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France has only been crafted during the last few hundred years. However, the Champagne region has been growing grapes and making wine for over a millennia prior to the champagne that lets you see stars. The Celts may have planted grape vines and made wine, but after the Roman conquest in 50 AD until the collapse of Roman rule in 461 AD wine growing and winemaking become popular in Champagne. Not only did the Romans advance winemaking, they also created miles and miles of chalk quarries (crayères). Most of the crayères were 100 feet deep.

Life has been hard over the centuries for the people that lived in Champagne. For centuries, the Champagne area was a focal point for wars. To escape the invading armies, many people went into the crayères for shelter and protection. Today some crayères are filled with bottles of champagne. Not only were wars something the people of Champagne needed to live through, there were also famines and diseases.

During the Roman times and through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, still wines were made in Champagne. During these centuries the traditional varietal grapes were the white grape Gouais, the black variant Gouais Noir and gray/pink grape Fromenteau. Gouais is referred to as the “Casanova of the grapes” since 81 grape varieties in Western Europe have Gouais as a parent. There are popular grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Gamay Noir that have Gouais as a parent. Fromenteau is often referred to as Pinot Gris.

One of the challenges that winemakers had in Champagne for centuries is the weather. Often fermentation stopped when the weather turned cold. Wines that were put into casks were partially effervescent after fermentation restarted in the warmer spring. If someone did not like the fizz, they could vigorously stir the wine. Others may have liked a little effervescence.


Intentionally making a sparkling wine in Champagne occurred between 1695 and 1698. The first established champagne house was created in 1729. For another century, still wines and champagne were made in Champagne. By the middle of the 1800s red wine production fell from 90% to 66%. Sparkling champagne was becoming more profitable. The sparkling wine we know today took centuries to evolve.

If you are interested in learning more about the Champagne area, consider attending the International Wine Tourism Conference in Reims, France on April 8th and 9th. Check out the IWINETC website for details.


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