Bienvenue dans la Champagne! The french region of exclusive beverages, expensive land and very poor soil. When you try to impress someone with your french, make sure to use "La Champagne" for the region because "Le Champagne" would mean the beverage.
The history of this region is very interesting as geological factors played an important role on both the development of the drink and the development of the region.
Image by Roger Nelson under CC ShareAlike 2.0
Situating the region
Let us first situate the region on a map. The Champagne region lies within the greater Paris Basin, which is one of the major geological regions in France. It consist out of a central plateau, the "Ile-de-France" which literally means Island of France. It consist out of a tough Tertiary Menière Limestone and as visible from satellite images, this plateau is not ideal for agriculture as a lot of it is covered by forest. The soil consists mainly out of clay which is the weathered product of the lithology underneath. The surrounding areas were initially unproductive for agriculture as well, because the soil exists out of cretaceous material that is very permeable for water but does not hold nutrients that well. But when artificial fertilizers were introduced after the second World War agriculture became viable. This can still be seen as the satellite image shows many agricultural fields nowadays.
Before artificial fertilizers were introduced to the champagne region, agriculture was not efficient and the region was rather poor. on the steep hills of the Iles-de-France, growing wheat or vegetables was not possible at all. Many farmers planted vineyards as they managed to somewhat thrive on these even worse soils. Of course these were no high quality wines and were known to be cheap, sour wines.
One of the monks in the region, Dom Périnon, experimented a lot with these wines and frequently mixed them (17th century). one time he found that after mixing, and re-fermenting mixtures, the creation had bubbles. Bubbles in wine were not new and were often seen as undesirable since it often broke the wine bottle, but he found these bubbles actually made the sour wine taste much better.
After that it only took good marketing to make the "Champagne" wine the most popular party wine in Paris. After the second World War Champagne was discovered by America and the demand increased rapidly. Now the major growth in demand for the beverage can be found in Asia.
On this satellite image the divide is clearly visible. On the left there is the Ile-de-France with poorer soils. On the right you can see the cretaceous soils made fertile with the help of artificial fertilizers, and between the two, on the steeper hills you find the vineyards for wine production.
Influences of this history on geography
Their are many requirements for a sparkling wine to be called champagne. First of all the grapes have to originate from the original fields that produced champagne. This resulted in land prices increasing up to 1 million euro for 1 ha of land. This is way more than building lots in the region and land use largely remained unchanged due to this fact as nobody requests an expansion for their house. Their are plans to expand the region where the grapes can officially be grown, but opinions are strongly divided of course, as farmers do not want to expand production to keep the prices high.
Another requirement is that only certain types of grapes can be used for the wine and it has to be a mixture of these. In total 7 were defined but only 3 are used for 99% of all champagnes. These 3 grapes also grow in 3 different regions where they are grown best, so farmers have to make arrangements in order to acquire the right types of grapes for wine production. This led to a organisation of farmers in cooperatives or larger wine-houses.
Extra facts about champagne
- Champagne will almost never have a date on the etiquette such as you find on wines. Since champagne is by definition a mixture of different wines, adding a year has no use. Only on exceptionally good years, when all grapes were grown in that year, it can be written on the label.
- Rosé Champagne exists. As champagne is a mixture of several wines, making one of those a red wine will lead to a Rosé champagne. It was a cheaper and sweeter variant of the original drink and gladly accepted by consumers who often thought the original was too dry.
- The production of the grapes requires the use of many herbicides which pollute the surface water. But this does not weigh against the economic benefits gained from the production so it is not one of their biggest problems.
ConclusionI have to be honest, I typed the word "champagne" so many times in the last few hours that I can actually smell champagne here... I thought this history was interesting and I visited the region already a few times. It are those little interesting stories that keep conversations going ;). Let me know what you thought about this article, If I made any mistakes... You know what the comments are for!