The Champagne region of France still sparkles to this day 300 years after the death of Dom Perignon

(#08 – Top 10 Highlights from 2015 Tour de Travoy) The above photo shows one of the Moet et Chandon vineyards in Hautvillers in the Champagne region of France. Hautvillers is where Dom Perignon perfected the production of white wine from red grapes around 1690. The techniques Dom Perignon used caused bubbles to form in the white wine and this sparkling wine eventually came to be known as champagne all round the world. Between August 1st and the 3rd 2015, I cycled from Saint Geosmes to Fismes through the Champagne region of France. The Champagne-Ardennes region is half the size of Ireland but the sparkling wine that is known as champagne the world over is only produced in 2 small areas of the Champagne-Ardennes. One wine growing area is in the south along the river Aube and the other is in the north alongside the rivers Marne and Aisne with about a 50 km gap between each region. But the farmland in both these regions of Champagne is arguably the most valuable anywhere in the world.

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Vineyard near Bar-sur-Aube in Champagne. When you look at all the vineyards along the Aube in this part of France, it is hard to believe that in 1908, the French government proposed legislation excluding these vineyards from calling their sparkling wine Champagne. This early development of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée regulation benefited the Marne and Aisne districts to the significant exclusion of the Aube district. This proposal and a bad harvest in 1910 due to hailstorms lead to what was called the Champagne Riots in 1911. Protests erupted from growers in the Aube district as they sought to be reinstated as part of the Champagne region. The government, trying to avoid any further violence and disruption, sought a “compromise solution” by designating the department as a second zone within the Champagne appellation. This provoked the growers in the Marne region to react violently to their loss of privilege and they lashed out again against merchants and producers who they accused of making wine from “foreign grapes”—including those from the Aube. Thousands of wine growers burned vineyards, destroyed the cellars of wine merchants, and ransacked champagne houses. Protests were still ongoing until World War 1 broke out and that caused all parties to unite in defense of the Champagne region.

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Wine growing regions of France showing the Champagne regions in red. The red region to the top is the Marne and Aisne while the bottom red region is the Aube. Following the Champagne Riots of 1911, the French government set up a classification system for villages in the Champagne region. Villages were rated on a numerical 80-100 scale based on the potential quality (and value) of their grapes. Vineyards in Grand crus villages would receive 100% of the price while Premier crus village with a 95 rating would receive 95% of the price and so on.

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Bunch of grapes in Champagne. 2015 is bound to be a vintage year for champagne after all the sunshine France has had this summer

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Traditional oak barrel for fermenting champagne at Ay. Many famous champagne brands, such as Krug and Bollinger, are based in Ay. The name of the  town is often used to refer to wines from Champagne in the same way as Bordeaux is used to mean wines from the Gironde. It is hard to believe though that this sleepy town only 3 km from Epernay was the epicenter of the Champagne Riots of 1911. Bad weather in 1910 led to a 96% of the crop in the vineyards around Ay being lost. Champagne producers had to ship grapes from other parts of France and this led to a lot of resentment in the local area. Finally, in April 1911, the poor harvest and low prices they were being offered for their grapes caused a mob of vineyard owners to attack the champagne houses in Ay. Dozens of premises were ransacked and then set on fire during the evening of April 12 1911. The French government had to send 40,000 troops to the region to restore order. In the aftermath of the riot, champagne houses were forced to pay an agreed price for grapes and to pay more for grapes from Grand Cru villages such as Ay.

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Street art in Vraux Why did the chicken cross the road ? or as they say in France “Pourquoi le poulet a t-il traverse la route ?”.

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Moet et Chandon vineyard in Hautvillers. I was surprised how little fencing there was around these valuable vines. These grapes are literally worth thousands yet I could have easily helped myself to some of them. Moet et Chandon now own the 25 hectares of Benedictine Abbey grounds in Hautvillers where Dom Perignon himself grew his grapes and perfected the methode champenoise. The company also recently paid for the Abbey building and cloisters in Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers to be restored.

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Approach road to the village of Hautvillers There was quite a steep climb up to the village. The hill is obviously beneficial for growing wine but not so beneficial to a weary cyclist on a very hot day.

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Hautvillers, where champagne was perfected by Dom Perignon 325 years ago. Dom Perignon is often credited with inventing champagne whereas in fact, he spent his whole life trying to remove the bubbles from his wine. Dom Pierre Perignon was employed as cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers. It was there that he perfected the production of white wine from red wine grapes, particularly Pinot Noir. But he looked upon bubbles in his wine as a fault that would destroy the glass bottles if there was too much pressure. It was actually, an English scientist called Christopher Merritt who discovered that the bubbles were caused by sugar which built up when the wine stopped fermenting during the cold winter in the Champagne region. The English loved the sparkling wine and would often add extra sugar to French wine to make it even more bubbly. Indeed, it would be 100 years after Dom Perignon’s death before the French took to champagne and many of the famous champagne brands such as Moet et Chandon and Tattinger date from this period.

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View of the Moet et Chandon and other vineyards from above the village of Hautvillers. Vineyards, vineyards as far as your eyes could see. This photo shows probably the most valuable farmland anywhere in the world. The grapes in these vineyards are literally worth millions and yet there is little fencing or any other sign of security features. The land here and the traditional methods of growing and harvesting wine have barely changed since Dom Pierre Perignon’s time here 300 years ago and long may it continue.

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