La Champagne, the region in northwestern France that is home to the world’s most celebrated wine – ‘le champagne’- has ever been at the crossroads of European history. In contrast to its rightful claim of a wine of superlative clarity, joy and finesse, it has been the site of some of the bloodiest battles of ancient and modern times.
Don and Petie Kladstrup’s lovely and heartbreaking book encapsulates an enormous stretch of history into 300 wonderfully readable pages. The authors originally intended to focus solely on the role of La Champagne during WWI and this crushing war does indeed receive most of the attention. But the Kladstrups realized as they began their research that the story of ‘le champagne’ could not be told properly without the historical context that defined the region it calls home.
They are quick to dispel the myth of Dom Pérignon- a 17th century monk and cellarmaster- as the father of champagne. Dom Pierre was a fantastically skilled winemaker who presided over the vines and vats of the abbey at Hautvillers. He established some of the earliest winemaking standards that laid the foundation for France’s system of delimited wine zones or appellations contrôlées. But the inventor of la méthode Champenoise? Je crois pas, moi! Our monk of Hautvillers endeavored his whole life to stop the process that turned still wine to sparkling. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the process was fully understood and pursued with dedication and precision. It was the marketing genius of the champagne house Moët and Chandon that led to the image of a blind monk tasting sparkling wine for the first time and declaring “I have tasted stars.”
The Kladstrups could have taken a few moments to tell the rest of the story- that the process for creating a sparkling wine was indeed invented by monks in the early 16th century, but far to the south at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire in the town of Limoux, deep in the Languedoc. Silvery-brisk, clean, ravishing Blanquette de Limoux is rightfully the world’s first sparkling wine and remains a treasure- at about 1/4 the price of a fine champagne.
I also wish the authors has given just a page or two to explaining how champagne is made. It is hinted at in Dom Pérignon’s efforts to stop secondary fermentation in the bottle and his championing of blending wines, at the Cliquot invention of rémuage, at the process of chaptalization, at Pasteur’s unraveling the mysteries of yeasts, but they never give the full, fascinating picture of the champagne process. Perhaps this is important only to a wine geek, but it goes a long way to explaining why champagne is so celebrated and so darn expensive.
At the heart of this book is a celebration of France and of its resilient and graceful citizens. Every so often, when France and the United States disagree over a grave matter of foreign policy, I hear grumblings of the cowardice of the French and their reluctance to contribute resources to a military effort. I say those grumblers are in need of a history lesson. Here’s a brief one: “Thirteen million lives had been lost in the Great War, with France having suffered the most proportionately. More than one and half million of its soldiers had been killed. Another three million were disabled, one million of them permanently. A whole generation had been practically wiped out.” (p.213). This was France in 1918. Twenty years later the shadow of war fell upon it again. Now, please tell me why this proud and beautiful nation should have to justify its trepidation to anyone.
Le champagne, the wine that tastes of starlight and joy, is more than a drink. It is a history, a culture, a story of love and loss; it is a phoenix rising from the rubble of war. Champagne is hands-down the perfect food wine. There is no dish, from omelets to osso bucco, Tarte Tatin to turkey, pizza to pancakes, that wouldn’t taste all the more delicious accompanied by a flute of France’s finest.