Happy Accidents: Champagne's Origins as a Failed Wine Region

For centuries, wine was made without understanding the mechanism that created it.  Imagine: you crush grapes, the liquid spontaneously bubbles and foams, and then, weeks later, you have a delicious beverage that doesn’t make you sick (unlike many sources of water at the time) and has the added benefit of making you feel great!  This truly defied common sense and, as a result, wine took on a spiritual connection from the beginning.  

As wine evolved and grew with civilization, it evolved and adapted to local conditions.  Different varieties, before they were known as such, found their home in different soil types and climates, much like the cultures that carried them.  Monks took Pinot Noir to Burgundy and Riesling to Mosel, devising the system of vineyard classification that still persists today.  Dark, spicy grapes took well to the steep, rocky soils of the Northern Rhône.  As civilization expanded, centuries of work, passion and luck slowly led to the what is now known as “typical” styles of wine.

One particularly famous example of the kind of happy accident that created beauty in wine is that of Champagne.  The Champenois were envious of the reputation that their Burgundian neighbors to the south had for their wines.  However, due to the cooler climate, achieving ripe, full wines proved to be an annual challenge.  Moreover, harvest would often occur at the same time as cooling temperatures.  The temperatures would get low enough to stop the fermentation in the tanks and, not understanding what fermentation even was, they would bottle the wine unfinished.  In the spring, when temperatures warmed, fermentation would resume, and as CO2 built up in the bottles, they would push out corks or explode.  This led Champagne to sometimes be called by the unenviable moniker of ‘le vin du diable’ or wine of the devil.

Dom Perignon actually worked hard to try to make the wine safe, still and drinkable.  He, along with a British scientist, Christopher Merrett, did succeed in making improvements to the quality of the wine at the time, but were unable to achieve their goal of quality still wines.  Dom Perignon’s lasting contribution is really the invention of the muselet, still in use today, which prevents the cork from shooting out and causing injury.

Whole generations of Champenois went to their graves thinking, not merely that they were unable to best their Burgundian neighbors, but worse still, they were actually cursed!  Yet every spring, they started anew; this year, this is the year, and they strove to create a better result than last year.  There is an irony here, that the wine that caused so much personal grief and frustration for so many growers and winemakers has been adopted as the symbol for celebration.  But, more than that, there is inspiration - only after realizing that the thing they were trying to avoid was the very thing that set them apart could Champagne find its identity.