Let’s set the record straight – Champagne is only made in France. Everything else is sparkling wine (which, by the way, can be truly excellent). So what made France’s Champagne region the Champagne hot spot? Chalk. That’s right. The stubs teachers use to write on black slate. The stark-white rock that greets you from England’s southeastern shores when you cross the English Channel. It paved the roads that led to and from Rome, and those Roman highways and byways stretched out to remote places like Gaul (now Belgium, France, Germany, and part of northern Italy).
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Gaul
Emperor Julius Caesar began the memoirs of his Gallic conquest with a simple sentence that every Latin student learns in the first week of class: “Gaul as a whole consists of three seperate parts: one is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and the third by the people we call Gauls.” Today, northeastern Aquitani is further divided into four departments, including Ardennes, Aube, Marne, and Haute-Marne. They are also known by a more familiar regional name: Champagne. Situated about 90 miles northeast of Paris, the Champagne-Ardennes district covers about 9,886 square miles, a little over twice the size of the state of Connecticut.
When the Romans first settled in Gaul circa 50 AD, they planted most of their prized vines in places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Loire, not on the dry chalk hillsides around the Plaine de Champagne. The district’s chilly climate and thin, barren soil were considered better suited to corn. Not until around 276 AD did Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus grant the people of Champagne the right to plant grapevines once again.
Champagne’s vineyards flourished after that. Wines made at the local Abbey de Saint Basles (which were made with grapes from the bishop of Reims’ own vineyards) were said to tame even barbarians like Clovis, the Merovingian ruler of the Franks (who later converted to Christianity, though whether he did so to get more of the monks’ wine is unknown).
Other monasteries popped up in the region during the seventh century, including Abbey d’Epernay, Abbey d’Hautvillers, and Abbey d’Avenay, so the number of local vineyards grew. Word about Champenois monasteries’ libations spread, which kept the local wine makers busy harvesting, stomping, and fermenting.
The Holy Roman Emperor, good King Wenceslas – of Christmas carol fame – journeyed from his home in Bohemia to Reims in 1937. He had two goals: The first was to taste the regions wines, and the second was to sign peace agreements with King Charles VI. According to legend, once he reached Reims he was willing to sign almost anything as long as it didn’t interrupt his drinking.