2011 is a perfect year to praise and review a book concerned with Champagne. The Notre-Dame cathedral of Reims is celebrating its 800th anniversary. The church is known as the place where French Kings were crowned (though there are doubts whether Sarkozy’s coronation also took place there) and Champagne used to be served at royal banquets that followed coronation. This does not imply that this beautiful sparkling liquid is 800 years old, and there is no historical record testifying that Clovis I, King of the Francs, who was baptized in Reims in 499 AC, got drunk after sipping a few glasses of Dom Perignon. Indeed, due to the complicated and poorly understood “two-fermentation” process, most of the production was still and not sparkling until roughly 1840.
Guy’s book, subtitled Wine and the Making of a National Identity, tells it almost all. You will, however, not find much about Clovis, since the book starts in 1789 and stops in 1914, but the concluding chapter also briefly discusses what is happening today, and how France defends (again, as will be seen later) the notions of “terroir”2 and AOC (appellation d’origine controˆ le ́ e), as well as the word “champagne” itself that the two Frenchman, Pierre Berge ́ and Yves Saint Laurent, were prevented to use as name for a perfume. Being French is therefore not enough. . .
It is a highly learned book since it grew out from a doctoral dissertation at Indiana University, and starts with an epigraph by Friedrich Engels: “La belle France! What wine! What diversity, from Bordeaux to sparkling champagne!” which should remind us that Karl Marx was the happy owner of a vineyard in Trier, on the Mosel. Nobody’s perfect.
The author describes “the complex association of champagne with social distinction and fraternal union” since the wine became a must at every private or public event. Guy quotes a British observer who noted in 1882 that “we cannot open a railway, launch a vessel, inaugurate a public edifice, start a newspaper, entertain a distinguished foreigner, invite a leading politician to favor us with his views on things in general, celebrate an anniversary, or specially appeal on behalf of a benevolent institution without a banquet, and hence without the aid of Champagne” (p. 11) 3).
The most interesting part of the volume is concerned with the fight led by winegrowers between 1890 and 1910 to give an identity to their region, and define its boundaries. In 1891, Rene ́ Lamarre, a nineteen-year old winemaker issued a pamphlet suggesting that “within ten years, people will no longer be acquainted with the name Champagne, but with those of Roederer, Planckaert, Bollinger, and it will not matter from which grapes these wines are produced.” (Lamarre, quoted p. 40) Wine, he claimed, should not be distanced from the soil, and foreign grapes (that is from other French regions) should be banned from Champagne. Interestingly, Lamarre’s intention was to create a Champagne united producers’ cooperative that would sell the wine directly to consumers at 25 francs (instead of 10), of which 23 francs would go to producers. This would make it impossible for the Roederer’s of that world to buy wine from local producers. They would have to get their grapes from other regions such as Chaˆ lons-sur-Marne, to the east of the main winegrowing areas along the Marne river, which people would call “vin de cochon” (cochon means pig) and they would, supposedly, no longer be permitted to use the name Champagne. The fight for AOCs had started. Not bad for a nineteen-year old boy!
In January 1911, 3,000 bottles of wine from the South of France were to be delivered to Perrier, another Champagne producer. This spurred a new revolution that made some winemakers march and sing to the tune of L’Internationale (p. 159)
It is the final struggle in Champagne
Against fraudulent wines
Vignerons of the Marne
Defend our wealth!
proving that Marx and Engels (see above) can sometimes be invoked. . . It led to a new deadlock about the delimitations of the region where Champagne vines could or could not be grown.
Sadly enough, phylloxera also made its way to Champagne (though much later than in other regions), but some regional “specialists” believed that “the considerable differences that exist between the cultivation, planting and soil of the vines of Champagne and the vines of the Seine-et-Marne can perhaps preserve [them] from the invasion of the blight” (p. 92, Guy quoting a regional wine specialist). And indeed growers chose not to follow other regions, which relied on American rootstocks, and thought that chemicals could save the vineyards. Though the blight had started in 1875 in Bordeaux, in 1890, Champagne growers were still very optimistic and “issued a small brochure to assure English-speaking consumers that phylloxera was not a threat to quality or supplies of Champagne” (p. 97). Guess what? They were wrong.
And then came World War I, which stopped the AOC debate for exogenous reasons: “Champagne vineyards were pulverized under the relentless assault of modern armed combat” (p. 187). It fortunately killed phylloxera also, since at the time, there was still no agreement whether chemicals or American rootstocks could save the vineyards. The debate eventually ended with the creation in 1919 of the Syndicat ge ́ne ́ral des vignerons de la Champagne viticole de ́limite ́e, whose main goal was to repress fraudulent wines. Whether they succeeded is another story.
A very nice and readable book for those who like history, or wine, or both, but are also interested in understanding some details of how the French identity was built.
You will find no guidance about which wines to buy. This is not what the book is about. Just use the following rule of thumb that two editors of the Journal of Wine Economics, meeting in a restaurant during the third AAWE meeting in Reims in 2009, give you for free: “In case you have to choose, always go for the cheapest.”
Note that this goes very much against a dialogue imagined by Rene ́ Lamarre (whom we met earlier):
“‘Waiter, some Champagne!’ the customer demands. ‘At 40 or at 50 francs?’ the waiter asks. When the customer hesitates in disbelief, the waiter continues: ‘We have some Chablis at 6, 8 and 10 francs.’ Big spenders like the imaginary customer would respond with ‘Give us some Champagne, according to Lamarre. They could do no less, because ‘the true Champagne is never too expensive’.” (p. 83).
The two JWE editors are either small spenders, or know nothing about Champagne. Or – but the dialogue does not say so – the customer chose the 40 francs bottle.
And the AOC debate is still going strong, not only in Champagne but also in the whole country.
2) On the very debatable value of “terroir”, see Robin Cross, Andrew Plantinga and Robert Stavins (2011). What is the value of terroir. American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 101, 152–156 and Olivier Gergaud and Victor Ginsburgh (2010). Endowments, production technologies and the quality of wines in Bordeaux. Does terroir matter? Journal of Wine Economics, 5(1), 3–21.
3) Page numbers refer to Guy’s book.