When we think of Champagne, the famous sparkling wine
growing region of France, we think of rolling vineyards and crystals glasses
overflowing with effervescent golden Champagne, however, during the early part
of the 19th century, the region's wine grape growers and wine makers
were in a row over the finished wine price and over grape prices, and the battle that ensued
almost destroyed the region. The rift between the growers and wine makers
escalated to angry mobs, rioting, villages being torched and ultimately led to
the French Government deploying 40,000 troops to subdue the out of control situation.
While the basis of the dispute was centered around the price per pound of wine
grapes, there were many other factors that contributed to the riots and
ultimately changed the way the region was regulated by the Appellation de
Controle (AOC). But those changes came almost two decades after the riots, much
like many of the factors that started decades before the riots that set the
wheels in motion for one of the most violent conflicts in the wine world.
The Great French Wine Blight
In 1910, French vineyards were still struggling to regroup from the devastation of the Great French Wine Blight that started in the 1860’s and attacked vineyards, nearly wiping out French grape growers and wine makers. Phylloxera, an aphid that is believed to have been brought to France on disease resistant American vine stock, ruined the vines in vineyard after vineyard all across France, including the Champagne regions. During the early part of the 1900’s, growers in this region were beginning to re-establish their vineyards after nearly two decades of no or very low wine grape yields at harvest.
As the growers struggled to make a living and produce quality, disease-free yields, wine makers began importing grapes from throughout Europe, made possible by the boom of the French and European Rail System due to the introduction of electric trains and the infamous pacific Locomotive. The advanced transportation made importing grapes easy, and as tariffs on wine grapes hadn’t been established, they were tariffed like other fruits. This made imported grapes an obvious and affordable alternative to winemakers who couldn’t rely on local grapes after the blight.
Transportation, Trade & The Separation of Growers and Winemakers
The French Railroad was first introduced in 1827, and by the early 1900’s, the railway had expanded all over France and made travel and trade with other European countries possible. Wine grape growers and winemakers are not necessarily the same entity or business, in fact, in France at this time, the growers and winemakers were often completely separate. This led to great hardship for both the growers and winemakers after the blight. However, while growers experimented with pesticides and grafting in an effort to re-build their vineyards, winemakers turned to neighboring growers and countries to import grapes to make wine. Champagne winemakers were importing grapes from within France as well as from other parts of Europe, including Spain and Germany, often, these grapes were being imported for half the price of locally produced grapes.
The Angry Mob of Champagne
Tensions peaked after local growers petitioned the French Government to regulate the wine of the Champagne region. While the Government responded by passing a law stating that wines produced in the region required the use of a minimum of 51% of local grapes, local wine makers continued to use imported grapes sometimes, solely relying on imports. As if this blatant dis-regard for the regulations wasn’t bad enough, local wine making houses tried to drive down the prices that local growers set for local wine grapes. Local Farmers could not contain themselves any longer when they came across a shipment of grapes from the Loire Valley; they overturned the truck into the Marne River. Riots quickly spread through the towns of Hautvilles and Damer, with farmers looting the warehouses, smashing bottles and throwing barrels of wine into the river.
The growers weren’t the only ones protesting and rioting, the New York Times reported in April of 1911 that winemakers were destroying vines and burning houses in protest. Not only were wine makers and wine growers targets for violence, wine merchants, who were selling Champagne wines were also the targets of looting, with their wine stocks being destroyed and the shops set on fire. The rioting peaked in the town of Ay, as both sides turned violent and the town was lit on fire. At this point 40,000 French troops were deployed by the Government to subdue the riots and violence. With every town patrolled and guarded by troops, the French Government began to define the region of Champagne.
The Geography & AOC Regulations of Champagne
Defining the geography of Champagne proved very difficult, as initially, the region excluded the Aube region, and more rioting and violence broke out. Protestors destroyed vineyards, burnt vines, looted homes, destroyed bottles of wine and tossed barrels of wine into the streets. This turbulent scenario was played out again and again until the start of World War I. When attention turned to the bigger violence and concerns of the world. After the war, negotiations continued and tempers were cooled and winemakers and growers had different perspectives, and during the war many vineyards had had adequate time to become re-established, and wine crop yields were up. However, it wasn’t until 1927 that the AOC was finally able to establish both a geographic but a regulatory guideline for the Champagne region.
So, that's the historic and often violent story behind the bubbly celebration libation we enjoy so much today. Although drunk now in high spirits and indulgence of quthenticity and quality, that wasn't always the case, it took a great deal of war to produce such a revered spirit.