From Popes to Popping Corks

A History of the Champagne Region

Is any region more synonymous with luxurious and superlative wine than Champagne?


This north-eastern French province has been known as a successful centre of wine production since the Middle Ages, when the Champagne-born Pope Urban II declared his native vintages the finest in the world. It’s believed that the first vines were cultivated here by the Romans some five centuries earlier – possibly even before.


In the 12th and 13th centuries, Champagne was a centre of commerce; a stopping-point for European fairs, where visitors from Germany, Italy, and further afield would come to exchange northern cloths for more exotic Mediterranean goods.


It’s no wonder the local wine’s reputation spread. Indeed, following Pope Urban II’s proclamation, its popularity grew to the point where even King Henry VIII owned vineyards here. As a fierce rival to Burgundy, the region had plenty of reasons to up its game – and the much-lauded efforts of Dom Perignon added excellent sparkling wine to their repertoire.

Much was made of this drink’s supposed health benefits, a notion that was given extra weight by the patronage of Louis XIV, who drank Champagne routinely for most of his life as recommended by his doctor. His switch to Burgundy wine in later years was a major blow for the region. But, with effervescence on its side, the masterful qualities of Champagne saw it through.


With the 19th century came major developments in industrial wine production, and a name increasingly known to the middle and upper classes thanks to Champagne’s appearances in both literature and artwork. The resulting growth of production was staggering: from 1800 to 1850, it rose from around 300,000 bottles a year, to a staggering 20 million.


Later the wine was increasingly endorsed by notable figures, including the Victorian entertainer George Leybourne, who famously made a deal with Moët to drink only Champagne when in public. These days, the magnificent taste of Champagne’s best vintages – coupled with its eminent history – are virtually endorsements in themselves. Plan a Champagne Weekend to dip into the region’s illustrious past, and sample a selection of flavours, fine-tuned over the centuries.

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