In my last post, I wrote about how food is a major part of French culture, and how exploring food has pushed me to explore the culture and the meaning of French life. One important aspect I thought I should’ve included in that post is wine. While it’s included in the spectrum of food and drink, I realized that wine as an entity deserves a whole separate post to celebrate its meaning, varieties, and traditions in French culture. Then I thought, if the goal of my blogging is to educate, enlighten, and encourage intercultural learning and studying abroad, I thought it might be nice to showcase an important part of my own personal exploration of this aspect of French culture. And for me, this isn’t wine, which is huge all over the world and not always specific to France… this is champagne.
I live in Reims, a small city at the epicenter of the Champagne-Ardenne region. While wine is native to all parts of France, with wine vineyards and wine makers spanning all over the country and even the world, true champagne has a unique history and is a product and luxury based solely in the Champagne-Ardenne region. Now I know what some of you might be thinking. Some of you might want to refute my statement. After all, prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, is basically the same thing and (obviously) isn’t from France… and what about sec, Germany and Austria’s own sparkling wine product? And again, what about the sparkling wine products in the USA, some of which are marked as “champagne” but made in the US? Well, champagne’s exclusivity to the region has everything to do with its history in France, and the creation of a luxury market solely for marketing purposes that has given France an immense spotlight in culture and celebration. As a matter of fact, in 2006 the champagne industry successfully protected its name by outlawing the use of the word “champagne” on any other product’s marketing or labeling – unless it was grandfathered in (as are certain products in the US). Products like perfume and yogurt have been sued and taken off the market for advertising its products to have the smell or even taste of champagne, so one can imagine how important the image is to those keeping the champagne traditional alive and well today.
Since the 17th century, the Champagne region has been home to producers of fine-quality champagne. Its international status as a fine, high-level celebration drink didn’t take off until the 1950s, so how did champagne managed to thrive in French culture for almost 300 years before that, stemming only from this regional area of France? Well, champagne’s taste, its essence, and its distinction from the tastes of the only once-fermented wine products has allowed it to hold a defined position on the French palette and in its culture. Additionally, the business associations formed by the grandes maisons (the large houses) of champagne and the vignerons (growers) has allowed the mass production of champagne to sustain throughout history, despite battling epidemics including phylloxera of the 1860s (which nearly destroyed France’s grape industry), economic recessions, agriculture depressions, and many more.
What makes champagne unique are the interesting terroirs of the French land (its soil, distinctive flavor, and minerals), and the rich history of the product which lies specifically within the region. My exploration of the culture so far has come from visits to champagne houses (so far Pommery and Taittinger), and a marketing course I’m taking, Luxe Marketing: Champagne & Wine. Through examining its making processes (which includes ancient techniques that to this day requires manual labor and emphasizes traditional methodology) to the way it is marketed (to whom, by whom, how much is allowed by export, what people are targeted to drink champagne and for what purpose) we can see that champagne has made a name for itself that isn’t soon to shift.
A significant part of my experience in Reims has been based around champagne. My friends and I have gathered to sip champagne, and I was introduced to the city by visiting the Pommery champagne house (a few days after my first lovely meal at Le Gaulois). Now my friends and I sip cheap (but still delicious) champagne in the spring air, as we all talk and laugh about our classes and tell stories about home. I bring bottles to friends as a thank you for hosting me, and have already sent some home as presents for friends and family. Before, I had never really drank champagne other than trying it once or twice on New Years. But now, drinking champagne makes me feel like I’m truly experiencing the region I live in, and getting to know an intimate and historical part of this area. While I love Paris and sometimes pine for the big city life I left behind in NYC, my experience in the Champagne region has allowed me to experience the beauty and impact of nature in the things we consume. It has given me a reason to delve deeper into France’s rich culinary history, and for that, I’ll say cheers!