The Origin of Champagne.
The Early Vineyards of the Champagne—Their Produce esteemed by Popes and Kings, Courtiers and Prelates—Controversy regarding the rival Merits of the Wines of Burgundy and the Champagne—Dom Perignon’s happy Discovery of Sparkling Wine—Its Patrons under Louis Quatorze and the Regency—The Ancient Church and Abbey of Hautvillers—Farre and Co.’s Champagne Cellars—The Abbey of St. Peter now a Farm—Existing Remains of the Monastic Buildings—The Tombs and Decorations of the Ancient Church—The Last Resting-Place of Dom Perignon—The Legend of the Holy Dove—Good Champagne the Result of Labour, Skill, Minute Precaution, and Careful Observation.
Strong men, we know, lived before Agamemnon; and strong wine was made in the fair province of Champagne long before the days of the sagacious Dom Perignon, to whom we are indebted for the sparkling vintage known under the now familiar name. The chalky slopes that border the Marne were early recognised as offering special advantages for the culture of the vine. The priests and monks, whose vows of sobriety certainly did not lessen their appreciation of the good things of this life,
and the produce of whose vineyards usually enjoyed a higher reputation than that of their lay neighbours, were clever enough to seize upon the most eligible sites, and quick to spread abroad the fame of their wines. St. Remi, baptiser of Clovis, the first Christian king in France, at the end of the fifth century left by will, to various churches, the vineyards which he owned at Reims and Laon, together with the “vilains” employed in their cultivation. Some three and a half centuries later we find worthy Bishop Pardulus of Laon imitating Paul’s advice to Timothy, and urging Archbishop Hincmar to drink of the wines of Epernay and Reims for his stomach’s sake. The crusade-preaching Pope, Urban II., who was born among the vineyards of the Champagne, dearly loved the wine of Ay; and his energetic appeals to the princes of Europe to take up arms for the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre may have owed some of their eloquence to his favourite beverage.
The red wine of the Champagne sparkled on the boards of monarchs in the Middle Ages when they sat at meat amidst their mailclad chivalry, and quaffed mighty beakers to the confusion of the Paynim. Henry of Andely has sung in his fabliau of the “Bataille des Vins,” how, when stout Philip Augustus and his chaplain constituted themselves the earliest known wine-jury, the crûs of Espernai, Auviler, Chaalons, and Reims were amongst those which found most favour in their eyes, though nearly a couple of centuries elapsed before Eustace Deschamps recorded in verse the rival merits of those of Cumières and Ay. King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, a mighty toper, got so royally drunk day after day upon the vintages of the Champagne, that he forgot all about the treaty with Charles VI., that had formed the pretext of his visit to France, and would probably have lingered, goblet in hand, in the old cathedral city till the day of his death, but for the presentation of a little account for wine consumed, which sobered him to repentance and led to his abrupt departure. Dunois, Lahire, Xaintrailles, and their fellows, when they rode with Joan of Arc to the coronation of Charles VII., drank the same generous fluid, through helmets
barred, to the speedy expulsion of the detested English from the soil of France.
The vin d’Ay—vinum Dei as Dominicus Baudoin punningly styled it—was, according to old Paulmier, the ordinary drink of the kings and princes of his day. It fostered bluff King Hal’s fits of passion and the tenth Leo’s artistic extravagance; consoled Francis I. for the field of Pavia, and solaced his great rival in his retirement at St. Just. All of them had their commissioners at Ay to secure the best wine for their own consumption. Henri Quatre, whose vendangeoir is still shown in the village, held the wine in such honour that he was wont to style himself the Seigneur d’Ay, just as James of Scotland was known as the Gudeman of Ballangeich. When his son, Louis XIII., was crowned, the wines of the Champagne were the only growths allowed to grace the board at the royal banquet. Freely too did they flow at the coronation feast of the Grand Monarque, when the crowd of assembled courtiers, who quaffed them in his honour, hailed them as the finest wines of the day.
But the wines which drew forth all these encomiums were far from resembling the champagne of modern times. They were not, as has been asserted, all as red as burgundy and as flat as port; for at the close of the sixteenth, century some of them were of a fauve or yellowish hue, and of the intermediate tint between red and white which the French call clairet, and which our old writers translate as the “complexion of a cherry” or the “colour of a partridge’s eye.” But, as a rule, the wines of the Champagne up to this period closely resembled those produced in the adjacent province, where Charles the Bold had once held sway; a resemblance, no doubt, having much to do with the great medical controversy regarding their respective merits which arose in 1652. In that year a young medical student, hard pressed for the subject of his inaugural thesis, and in the firm faith that
“None but a clever dialectician
Can hope to become a good physician,
And that logic plays an important part
In the mystery of the healing art,”
propounded the theory that the wines of Burgundy were preferable to those of the Champagne, and that the latter were irritating to the nerves and conducive to gout. The faculty of medicine at Reims naturally rose in arms at this insolent assertion. They seized their pens and poured forth a deluge of French and Latin in defence of the wines of their province, eulogising alike their purity, their brilliancy of colour, their exquisite flavour and perfume, their great keeping powers, and, in a word, their general superiority to the Burgundy growths. The partisans of the latter were equally prompt in rallying in their defence, and the faculty of medicine of Beaune, having put their learned periwigs together, enunciated their views and handled their opponents without mercy. The dispute spread to the entire medical profession, and the champions went on pelting each other with pamphlets in prose and tractates in verse, until in 1778—long after the bones of the original disputants were dust and their lancets rust—the faculty of Paris, to whom the matter was referred, gave a final and formal decision in favour of the wines of the Champagne.
Meanwhile an entirely new kind of wine, which was to carry the name of the province producing it to the uttermost corners of the earth, had been introduced. On the picturesque slopes of the Marne, about fifteen miles from Reims, and some four or five miles from Epernay, stands the little hamlet of Hautvillers, which, in pre-revolutionary days, was a mere dependency upon a spacious abbey dedicated to St. Peter. Here the worthy monks of the order of St. Benedict had lived in peace and prosperity for several hundred years, carefully cultivating the acres of vineland extending around the abbey, and religiously exacting a tithe of all the other wine pressed in their district. The revenue of the community thus depending in no small degree upon the vintage, it was natural that the post of “celerer” should be one of importance. It happened that about the year 1688 this office was conferred upon a worthy monk named Perignon. Poets and roasters, we know, are born, and not made; and the monk in question seems to have been a heaven-born cellarman, with a
strong head and a discriminating palate. The wine exacted from the neighbouring cultivators was of all qualities—good, bad, and indifferent; and with the spirit of a true Benedictine, Dom Perignon hit upon the idea of “marrying” the produce of one vineyard with that of another. He had noted that one kind of soil imparted fragrance and another generosity, and discovered that a white wine could be made from the blackest grapes, which would keep good, instead of turning yellow and degenerating like the wine obtained from white ones. Moreover, the happy thought occurred to him that a piece of cork was a much more suitable stopper for a bottle than the flax dipped in oil which had heretofore served that purpose.
The white, or, as it was sometimes styled, the grey wine of the Champagne grew famous, and the manufacture spread throughout the province, but that of Hautvillers held the predominance. To Dom Perignon the abbey’s well-stocked cellar was a far cheerfuller place than the cell. Nothing delighted him more than
“To come down among this brotherhood
Dwelling for ever underground,
Silent, contemplative, round and sound,
Each one old and brown with mould,
But filled to the lips with the ardour of youth,
With the latent power and love of truth,
And with virtues fervent and manifold.”
Ever busy among his vats and presses, barrels and bottles, Perignon alighted upon a discovery destined to be most important in its results. He found out the way of making an effervescent wine—a wine that burst out of the bottle and overflowed the glass, that was twice as dainty to the taste, and twice as exhilarating in its effects. It was at the close of the seventeenth century that this discovery was made—when the glory of the Roi Soleil was on the wane, and with it the splendour of the Court of Versailles. Louis XIV., for whose especial benefit liqueurs had been invented, recovered a gleam of his youthful energy as he sipped the creamy foaming vintage that enlivened his dreary têtes-à-têtes with the widow of Scarron. It found its chief patrons however, amongst the bands of gay young roysterers, the future roues of the Regency, whom the Duc d’Orléans and the Duc de Vendôme had gathered round them, at the Palais Royal and at Anet. It was at one of the famous soupers d’Anet that the Marquis de Sillery—who had turned his sword into a pruning-knife, and applied himself to the cultivation of his paternal vineyards on the principles inculcated by the celerer of St. Peter’s—first introduced the sparkling wine bearing his name. The flower-wreathed bottles, which, at a given signal, a dozen of blooming young damsels scantily draped in the guise of Bacchanals placed upon the table, were hailed with rapture, and thenceforth sparkling wine was an indispensable adjunct at all the petits soupers of the period. In the highest circles the popping of champagne-corks seemed to ring the knell of sadness, and the victories of Marlborough were in a measure compensated for by this happy discovery.
Why the wine foamed and sparkled was a mystery even to the very makers themselves; for as yet Baume’s aerometer was unknown, and the connection between sugar and carbonic acid undreamt of. The general belief was that the degree of effervescence depended upon the time of year at which the wine was bottled, and that the rising of the sap in the vine had everything to do with it. Certain wiseacres held that it was influenced by the age of the moon at the time of bottling; whilst others thought the effervescence could be best secured by the addition of spirit, alum, and various nastinesses. It was this belief in the use and efficacy of drugs that led to a temporary reaction against the wine about 1715, in which year Dom Perignon departed this life. In his latter days he had grown blind, but his discriminating taste enabled him to discharge his duties with unabated efficiency to the end. Many of the tall tapering glasses invented by him have been emptied to the memory of the old Benedictine, whose remains repose beneath a black marble slab in the chancel of the archaic abbey church of Hautvillers.
THE VINEYARDS AND ABBEY OF HAUTVILLERS.
Time and the iconoclasts of the great Revolution have spared but little of the royal abbey of St. Peter where Dom Perignon lighted upon his happy discovery of the effervescent quality of champagne. The quaint old church, scraps of which date back to the 12th century, the remnants of the cloisters, and a couple of ancient gateways, marking the limits of the abbey precincts, are all that remain to testify to the grandeur of its past. It was the proud boast of the brotherhood that it had given nine archbishops to the see of Reims, and two-and-twenty abbots to various celebrated monasteries, but this pales beside the enduring fame it has acquired from having been the cradle of the sparkling vintage of the Champagne.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MESSRS. CHARLES FARRE & CO., AT HAUTVILLERS.
It was in the budding springtime when we made our pilgrimage to Hautvillers across the swollen waters of the Marne at Epernay. Our way lay for a time along a straight level poplar-bordered road, with verdant meadows on either hand, then diverged sharply to the left and we commenced ascending the vine-clad hills, on a narrow plateau of which the church and abbey remains are picturesquely perched. Vines climb the undulating slopes to the summit of the plateau, and wooded heights rise up beyond, affording shelter from the bleak winds sweeping over from the north. As we near the village of Hautvillers we notice on our left hand a couple of isolated buildings overlooking a small ravine with their bright tiled roofs flashing in the sunlight. These prove to be a branch establishment of Messrs. Charles Farre and Co., a well-known champagne firm having its head-quarters at Reims. The grassy space beyond, dotted over with low stone shafts giving light and ventilation to the cellars beneath, is alive with workmen unloading waggons densely packed with new champagne bottles, while under a neighbouring shed is a crowd of women actively engaged in washing the bottles as they are brought to them. The large apartment aboveground, known as the cellier, contains wine in cask already blended, and to bottle which preparations are now being made. On descending into the cellars, which, excavated in the chalk and of regular construction, comprise a series of long, lofty, and well-ventilated galleries, we find them stocked with bottles of fine wine reposing in huge compact piles ready for transport to the head establishment, where they will undergo their final manipulation. The cellars consist of two stories, the lowermost of which has an iron gate communicating with the ravine already mentioned. On passing out here and looking up behind we see the buildings perched some hundred feet above us, hemmed in on every side with budding vines.
THE PORTE DES PRESSOIRS, HAUTVILLERS.
The church of Hautvillers and the remains of the neighbouring abbey are situated at the farther extremity of the village, at the end of its one long street, named, pertinently enough, the Rue de Bacchus. Passing through an unpretentious gateway we find ourselves in a spacious courtyard, bounded by buildings somewhat complex in character. On our right rises the tower of the church with the remains of the old cloisters, now walled-in and lighted by small square windows, and propped up by heavy buttresses. To the left stands the residence of the bailiff, and beyond it an 18th-century château on the site of the abbot’s house, the abbey precincts being bounded on this side by a picturesque gateway tower leading to the vineyards, and known as the “porte des pressoirs,” from its contiguity to the existing wine-presses. Huge barn-like buildings, stables, and cart-sheds inclose the court on its remaining sides, and roaming about are numerous live stock, indicating that what remains of the once-famous royal abbey of St. Peter has degenerated into an ordinary farm. To-day the abbey buildings and certain of its lands are the property of Messrs. Moët and Chandon, the great champagne manufacturers of Epernay, who maintain them as a farm, keeping some six-and-thirty cows there with the object of securing the necessary manure for the numerous vineyards which they own hereabouts.
The dilapidated cloisters, littered with old casks, farm implements, and the like, preserve ample traces of their former architectural character, and the Louis Quatorze gateway on the northern side of the inclosure still displays above its arch a grandiose carved shield, with surrounding palm-branches and half-obliterated bearings. Vine-leaves and bunches of grapes
decorate some of the more ancient columns inside the church, and grotesque mediæval monsters, such as monkish architects habitually delighted in, entwine themselves around the capitals of others. The stalls of the choir are elaborately carved with cherubs’ heads, medallions and figures of saints, cupids supporting shields, and free and graceful arabesques of the epoch of the Renaissance. In the chancel, close by the altar steps, are a couple of black marble slabs, with Latin inscriptions of dubious orthography, the one to Johannes Royer, who died in 1527, and the other setting forth the virtues and merits of Dom Petrus Perignon, the discoverer of champagne. In the central aisle a similar slab marks the resting-place of Dom Thedoricus Ruynart—obit 1709—an ancestor of the Reims Ruinarts, and little square stones interspersed among the tiles with which the side aisles of the church are paved record the deaths of other members of the Benedictine brotherhood during the 17th and 18th centuries. Several large pictures grace the walls of the church, the most interesting one representing St. Nivard, Bishop of Reims, and his friend, St. Berchier, designating to some mediæval architect the site the contemplated abbey of St. Peter was to occupy. There was a monkish legend that about the middle of the 7th century this pair of saints set out in search of a suitable site for the future monastery. The way was long, the day was warm, and St. Nivard and St. Berchier as yet were simply mortal. Weary and faint, they sat them down to rest at a spot identified by tradition with a vineyard at Dizy, belonging to-day to the Messrs. Bollinger, but at that period forming part of the forest of the Marne. St. Nivard fell asleep with his head on his companion’s lap, and the one in a dream, and the other with waking eyes, saw a snow-white dove—the same, firm believers in miracles suggested, which had brought down the holy oil for the anointment of Clovis at his coronation at Reims—flutter through the wood, and finally alight on the stump of a tree.
In those superstitious times such a significant omen was not to be disregarded, the site thus miraculously indicated was at once decided upon, the high altar of the abbey church being erected upon the precise spot where the tree stood on which the snow-white dove had alighted. The celerer of St. Peter’s found worthy successors, and thenceforward the manufacture and the popularity of champagne went on steadily increasing, until to-day its production is carried on upon a scale and with an amount of painstaking care that would astonish its originator. For good champagne does not rain down from the clouds, or gush out from the rocks, but is the result of incessant labour, patient skill, minute precaution, and careful observation. In the first place, the soil imparts to the natural wine a special quality which it has been found impossible to imitate in any other quarter of the globe. To the wine of Ay it lends a flavour of peaches, and to that of Avenay the savour of strawberries; the vintage of Hautvillers, though fallen from its former high estate, is yet marked by an unmistakably nutty taste; while that of Pierry smacks of the locally-abounding flint, the well-known pierre à fusil flavour. So on the principle that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, the produce of grapes grown in the more favoured vineyards is added in certain proportions to secure certain special characteristics, as well as to maintain a fixed standard of excellence.