As 2013 draws to a close, thousands of bottles of champagne are being purchased to welcome in the New Year. Champagne, a sparkling wine, has long been a beverage associated with celebrations, a linkage that dates to the kings and queens of France. To end the old year, Spoon has looked into the history and the potential future of one of the world’s most popular wines, examining how it has gained its current status, as well as what changes it may undergo in the years to come.
Champagne, the region of France in which champagne wine was invented, has long been involved in the creation of alcohol; the first wine-producing vineyards in Champagne were started by monks between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. Wine from Champagne gained a royal association in 496 A.D., when some was used by Saint Rémi to anoint King Clovis of France after his conversion to Christianity. Yet this wine, which was still and pinkish, was nothing like champagne as we now know it. It wasn’t until the 17th century that, according to legend, the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon discovered how to make white wine effervescent, thus inventing champagne. Dom Pérignon wasn’t actually the first to make a wine sparkle; that distinction likely belongs to the English scientist Christopher Merret, who discovered how to produce the secondary fermentation in the bottle that is necessary to create champagne’s bubbles.
Regardless of who made a sparkling wine first, Champagne, both region and drink, gained their association with celebration when the cathedral in Reims, located in Champagne, began to be used for coronations, and continued in this capacity from 987-1825. As a result, champagne was not only consumed at coronations but was also regularly sampled by visiting royalty from other countries for all kinds of celebrations, becoming more and more famous as it was tasted by more and more tongues. While the year 1927 did not see the celebration of any king’s coronation, it did see a law that developed the limits of the vine-growing region of Champagne, a process that began in 1908 when certain regions of Champagne were noted to be particularly suitable for raising grapes. Since then, Champagne has been famous for both its grape and wine production.
Today, champagne is not only one of the world’s most famous wines, but it is also one of the most regulated for quality. This intensive regulation comes courtesy of a 30-year-long process from 1905 to 1936 to legally define champagne and determine Champagne vineyard boundaries. Real champagne is produced only in thelegally designated Champagne region of France, and by law can only be made from three grape varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay. There are also very strict laws governing how champagne can be labeled. Non-vintage versions, for example, must be aged a minimum of 15 months before they can be labeled as champagne, while vintage champagnes, which contain only grapes of a single year’s harvest, have to be aged at least 3 years. Champagne can be purchased under a wide variety of prices, with most non-vintage champagnes costing around $25-$40, while Vieilles Vignes, one of the most desirable champagnes on Earth, is made in extremely small quantities and costs up to a thousand dollars a bottle. Even with all these laws, however, a buyer must still beware in choosing a bottle! Some countries, including the United States, allow producers to label unregulated and inferior drink as champagne.
The United States is the second largest export market for champagne, with more than 17 million bottles being imported in 2008 alone. The love that people around the world feel for champagne, however, will not halt the changes the drink is currently undergoing. Climate change is now altering growing conditions in wine-producing regions, and grape production long associated with regions further south is beginning to shift to new areas. As climate scientist and wine expert Antonio Busalacchi of the University of Maryland has expressed it, this will “result in changes to the alcohol, acid, sugar, tannins, and color in wine.” The climate is changing to such an extent that England may soon be the champagne-center of the world; over the past four years, it has experienced a boom in the number of hectares that are producing the primary grapes usually grown in Champagne. Those three varieties now account for more than 50% of England’s total varietal plantings. Although climate change may spell disaster for many wine-producing regions, for the time being this change has been mainly beneficial to Champagne. Over the last 20 years, yields have on average gone up by 50%, and grapes have become heavier. It cannot be forgotten, however, that grape vines are particularly sensitive to climate variability and change. As such, climate change will likely result in a compressed growing season in France. It could also lead to an increase in extreme events such as heat waves, which shut down vine photosynthesis, and hail storms, which can ruin grape production in a matter of minutes. Champagne produces a one-of-a-kind terroir, one that could, in the years to come, very well disappear.