- When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity
Although most of us are willing to drink “champagne” whether it was produced in France or not, the right of one province to claim that name exclusively for its wines was so important that it provoked a massive uprising. The denouement of Kolleen Guy’s fascinating book is the violent explosion known as the “revolution of Champagne” in 1911. How the revolt occurred is the heart of this skillful study of a region’s economy and society and its relationship to the nation state.
Champagne, or more accurately, the department of the Marne, had became wealthy from its wine. Although both the department’s vineyards and the [End Page 219] amount of wine they produced had declined steadily over the nineteenth century, the sale of bottled sparkling wine increased by some 400 percent in volume and 600 percent in value through the second half of the century. These figures tell a complex story: of a sophisticated manufacturing process and equally sophisticated salesmanship, of fundamental changes in culture and tastes, of economic prosperity, and of a certain amount of fraud.
The evolution of champagne, from a rather ordinary still wine sold in barrels to a sparkling wine sold in bottles, had already begun in the eighteenth century but really took off in the nineteenth. The value of the sparkling wine was dramatically greater than its still version, due both to the greater care in its fabrication and, more importantly, to the social cachet carefully fostered by its makers. Champagne is an excellent example of the mysterious ways in which humans define themselves through their consumption and use food and drink to give meaning to social events.
Guy devotes her early chapters to analyzing champagne’s conquest of social and cultural significance, though it remains somewhat mysterious. The leading manufacturers devoted considerable energy to creating a history and identity for their wine, associating it and themselves with nobility and royalty. Through advertising and packaging they persuaded the world to turn to champagne for festivities and rites de passage and to enjoy it as a luxury and form of conspicuous consumption. Their efforts coincided with an emerging middle class that was looking for ways to spend its money on symbols of upward mobility. Guy reads the marketing strategies in the winemakers’ labels and advertising astutely, but can only offer a general overview of the process by which they succeeded.
Their success trickled down to the grape growers, the vignerons, who mostly left the fabrication of the wine to the large manufacturers but enjoyed buoyant prices for their produce. Their prosperity was threatened, however, by the arrival, in the 1880s of phylloxera and, early in the next century, by a collapse in the grape market. Here another theme of the book emerges in the complex relations between the thousands of small vineyard owners and the few businesses, many of them German originally, that owned the large manufacturing enterprises and very large vineyards. Although tied to the same markets and products, their ability to cooperate was severely tested by crises that revealed different interests.
Guy deftly demonstrates that each crisis challenged not only the wine industry’s prosperity but also its identity. With the industry’s enormous marketing success the name of champagne had dramatically multiplied the value of these wines, and the province of Champagne insisted on its sole right to this name and to the value of its prestige. Yet the manufacturing process of producing bubbly wine could not adequately distinguish their wines, for almost anybody could reproduce these techniques, and winemakers in a growing number of other regions were doing so. Determined to protect whatever made their wines unique, the winemakers of Champagne insisted on the quality of their grapes, yet as the phylloxera aphid relentlessly destroyed the region’s vines, the most promising solution threatened to undermine this distinction. Since only American root stock could resist the parasite, most growers ultimately grafted their vines onto American plants, but...