1940s Archive

Champagne Belongs to the World

Originally Published June 1948

Compared to champagne, all other wines, be they ever so venerable and fine and expensive, have a certain rusticity about them, like old-fashioned gardens or good country families, or sound vins du pays. They seem to belong, in a sense, to the countryside from which they come. Champagne belongs to the world.

Since 1840 (and there are no reliable statistics for earlier years), France has exported on the average nearly three- quarters of her production of champagne. From 1870 to 1914 this amounted to between a million and a half an two million cases a year. Since World War II, and to a certain extent since World War I, the international wine trade has fallen on comparatively evil days; but whether you spell it xampán,as do the Catalans, or sciampagna, as the Italians, or champagne, as most of the rest of us, whether you call it “sautebouchon” or “a drink for gods,” or (with Talleyrand) “le vin civilisateur par excellence,” this extraordinary wine remains synonymous with festivity in every country the world over.

What, one feels impelled to ask, are the reasons for this phenomenal an universal acclaim? How, in a world where people so rarely agree about anything, does it happen that they all agree about champagne? There are far better still wines than the still wines of the Champagne country. Beer, too, has its foam; if it is bubbles you are after, you can find them in a Scotch highball or an ice cream soda; any still wine can be carbonated quite cheaply and made to sparkle after a fashion. What, then, is the secret? What is champagne?

The legal definition, as might be expected, varies considerably from one country to another. Basically, however, champagne is a wine made sparkling by a certain laborious, complicated, and expensive method first developed and perfected in the Champagne district of France. Unless it carries another origin clearly stated on its label (as California, New York State, Chile, for example), champagne is properly a wine from one specific province in eastern France. If French, it must be made from certain specific varieties of grape—principally the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Chardonnay. If not French, it may be made from these or from altogether different grapes, depending on the laws and customs of the country from which it comes. It remains a fact, however, that sparkling wines made from the Pinot grape, whether French or not, are recognizably superior to all others—considerably lighter and more delicate than the Vouvrays and sparkling Saumurs of the Loire Valley (made from the Chénin Blanc),softer and better balanced than sparkling Moselles and Rhines of Germany (made from the Riesling), cleaner-tasting an less cloying than even the best champagnes of New York State (made, generally, from native American varieties, the Delaware and Catawba). Of these, and of the champagnes of California, of Chile, etc., I shall have more to say later on. Let us, for the moment, return to the birthplace of all sparkling wine.

Next to those of the Moselle an Rhine, the Champagne vineyards are the northernmost of Europe, bleak and col and windswept in winter, cursed with a climate so generally unfavorable that hardly one year in five ranks as a fine vintage. They lie some sixty miles east of Paris, on the lower slopes of a chain of hills near Reims and the Marne Valley; they overlook, on the east, that curiously unprepossessing, unfertile plain which has long been called (though never, perhaps, with so much feeling as in World War I) la champagne pouilleuse —“lousy” Champagne.

It is said that when Louis XIV visited Reims on one occasion, some twenty years after his coronation in the little city's incomparable cathedral, he was met by a deputation of citizens who brought him the choicest products of their barren countryside. “Sire,” said the mayor, who was the committee's chairman, “we offer you our wine, our pears, our gingerbread, our biscuits, and our hearts.”

Reims is still locally famous for her biscuits and her pain d'épice, her bake pears are still admirable, and she prove the value of her stout heart once and for all between 1914 and 1918. But the wine of Champagne is more than ever the one real source of wealth in a comparatively poor province.

This being the case, it is rather surprising to learn that there are less than half as many acres under vines as there were, for example, in 1830, or even in 1870. The main decline was the direct consequence of heavy fighting in an near the vineyards (and the inevitably resulting lack of cultivation and care) in 1917 and 1918. There are some 20,000 acres in production today, and since such vineyards as have been abandoned or planted to potatoes or let go to pasture were almost without exception the less good ones, it is safe to say that the average quality of champagne is higher today than it has ever been.

Traditionally, the vineyards are divided into three separate major belts—“the Mountain,” “the River,” and the “Côre des Blancs.” The first two are plante predominantly to the Pinot Noir, a black grape out of which all of the fine re wines of Burgundy are made, and the third belt to the Pinot Chardonnay, which is elsewhere responsible for Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Montrachet. It may seem surprising that 60 per cent of most champagnes and 100 per cent of some are made from a grape as dark in color as our familiar American Concord, but such is the fact. Like almost all black grapes, the Pinot Noir has a pulp which is nearly colorless and a juice which is the hue of the palest straw.

Almost all of the champagnes that go to market, including most of the best, are blends of wines from the three major districts—the vineyards of the Mountain, it is said, contributing body an power to the perfect champagne, those of the River, softness and roundness, an those of the Côte des Blancs, delicacy and finesse. This was not the case a century ago, when names such as Sillery an Verzenay and Ay and Cramant (villages, all four) were as well known on the whole as Clicquot and Heidsieck an Pommery and Moet, not only in France but in England and in this country. Some of these names have been revived in the past two decades, and a champagne de cru (a “growth” champagne which takes its name from a town, as Ay or Cramant) is almost always interesting an almost always worth tasting when you can find it.

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