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Champagne: To read and to drink

Gretchen Skedsvold

Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times tells the history of La Champagne - the region in France - and le champagne – the coveted sparkling beverage that has captured the world’s imagination for centuries. This book is the second work by authors Don and Petie Kladstrup who also penned last month’s book club book Wine and War, which examined the economic and cultural impact of French wine in World War II (and the economic and cultural impact of World War II to French wine). Much like their earlier work, this book provides historical context with compelling personal anecdotes. There is some overlap between the two books which both discus the German occupation of Champagne and the strong leadership by French resistance in the region. However, this month’s selection gives the reader insight not only into world history and geo-politics but also into the evolution of winemaking in France.

For those of you who don’t know, champagne is a (mostly) sparkling wine that is produced in a region of France of the same name. The making of champagne follows certain regulations put into place under Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in the 20th Century to ensure the quality and authenticity of the wine. Sparkling wines (there are still a few still wines made in the region like this rosé) must be made using the méthode champenoise aka méthode traditionelle and one or more of the seven (you read right, seven, not three) designated grapes grown in the region: Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir, and the lesser-known Arbane, Petit meslier, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris. Clemenceau put this regulation in place because of the fine wine’s immense popularity, although it had already undergone a dramatic transformation in the 400 years prior.

Champagne first gained notoriety under the reign of The Sun King Louis XIV who preferred it to other wines. At the time, Champagne produced a still, red wine. 300 years later during La Belle Époche Champagne produced sweet, sparkling wine, which was often doctored with syrups and fruit juices – an abomination by contemporary standards! It wasn’t until Louise Pommery produced a dry champagne in 1874 that the wine began to resemble what we now think of as champagne. The wine changed with the tastes of the public and with forward thinking winemakers like Pommery who dared to redefine it.

Even with the change in taste champagne was always steeped in tradition. 16th Century monk Dom Perignon laid the foundations of winemaking in Champagne. When he started making champagne its bubbles were seen as a flaw! Perignon established contemporary practices such as using only the highest quality grapes, harvesting grapes in the morning when temperatures are lower, pruning vines in the spring to prevent overproduction later, and avoiding additives to mask flaws in the wine. He was the first person in Champagne to use a cork to seal bottles! Earlier producers plugged bottles with wooden pegs and wrapped them with oil-soaked hemp.  

While wine evolved, wars were being fought. From the time of Attila the Hun, who fought one of history's bloodiest battles in Champagne, the region has suffered under the terror of occupations and battles. Both World Wars, the Prussian War, and The French Revolution, to name a few, all wreaked havoc on the region, destroying vines and at times poisoning the land. Champagne examines how the seemingly ceaseless onslaught of wars brought grief and loss as well as economic opportunity to the region. The quintessential celebratory libation has a tumultuous and violent past. The authors muse that this is perhaps what gives champagne such character.  

In honor of this month’s book club we are doing a tasting on Friday, December 16th with Vanessa Lisovskis of Bourget Imports who will be pouring all bubbles (it’s mostly Champagne but we are sneaking the Tissot Crémant de Jura and a Cava in there too because they're so tasty)! Whether you are looking for something special to pour on New Year’s Eve or simply curious to try this iconic beverage it is a great opportunity to discuss Champagne’s rich history while enjoying the spoils of many centuries worth of hard work!