History of winemaking in France

Creating the "king of wines" - champagne

In the 18th century, Champagne - an area of gently rolling chalk hills in north-eastern France - was gaining a new and unique reputation as the home of a delicate sparkling white wine.

Some wines from this had always sparkled, but this was viewed as a problem rather than an advantage. The bubbles were a natural phenomenon; in cold weather the yeast which turned the grapes' sugar into alcohol stopped fermenting, but began again when the weather was warmer. The carbon dioxide produced during this secondary fermentation created bubbles within the sealed bottles. This process could occur with any wine, but it happened particularly in Champagne because the region's challky soil contained large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Of all the winemakers who were involved over many years in the development of a palatable sparkling wine, Dom Perigon - a 17th-century monk - is credited with playing the most significant role in the perfecting the drink.

Dom Perignon was cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvilliers - in the Champagne district, close to Reims and east of Paris. The Champagne region was abundant in black-skinned Pinot grapes that yielded white juice; white wines made from these grapes were traditionally a yello straw color. Don Perignon ran the abbey's estate, and oversaw all the tenants who grew grapes on its land. Over the years, by demanding the most exacting standards, he unlocked the secret of making a completely clear sparkling white wine, that did not quickly discolor, from black grapes.

The abbey imposed a tax on its tenants of one-eleventh of their produce. Dom Perignon elected to take this in wine, and mixed wines from different vineyards and of different vintages to produce a blend known as cuvee (vat). Some historians of wine also credit Dom Perignon with improving the bottling of sparkling wine by introducing high-quality Spanish corks.

Mass producing the king of wines in France

For decades sparkling wine was regarded as inferior to still wine, and in Champagne the worry was that the new drink would harm the region's winemaking reputation. But it slowly won admirers in cultured Parisian circles. The first firm to produce the new wine was formed in 1734 by Jacques Fourneaux in Reims, and is today owned by Taittinger family. In 1743, Claude Moet, who owned vineyards, established the House of Moet in Epernay.