11/15/2013 01:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Makes Champagne Special? A Brief History

Pinot Noir vines in Cumières

The vast appellation of Champagne doesn't look like the world's other wine regions. The extensive vineyards -- spreading for miles in some places, covering every available slope -- are high density plantings, containing from 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare. The vines are also pruned to be much closer to the ground and more compact than most wine grape plantings elsewhere.

These techniques, dictated by the longest rule book of any appellation in the world, are aimed at minimizing the number of grape clusters, for greater fruit concentration, as well as ensuring full ripening by allowing the grapes to benefit from the heat that radiates from the ground in this northerly and otherwise cool winegrowing region.

Things look different in the wineries and cellars too. Because of the unique process involved in making Champagne, specialized presses are used. There is extensive space devoted to cellaring bottles in which wine is undergoing secondary fermentation, or aging on its lees. There are also riddling racks or machines, needed for eliminating the sediment that develops in the bottle as a result of the secondary fermentation. Whether the producer is one of the great houses -- producing millions of bottles a year -- or a small, grower producer, one can tell at a quick glance that one is in Champagne and not anywhere else in the wine world.

These unique features of one of the world's great wine regions became truly vivid for me during a press trip to the region at the end of September this year. The trip was organized for several of us American wine, food and travel writers by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). That's the joint trade organization representing all growers and producers (houses) in Champagne.

Maison de la Champagne, headquarters of the CIVC in Reims

How did these differences come about? After all, Champagne, like other major wine regions of France, has seen the cultivation of grapes for wine for at least 2,000 years, since the time of the Romans. Indeed, it was the Romans who named the area "Campania" for its resemblance to the rolling hillsides of Southern Italy's Campania region.

What is now known as the Champagne region starts about 70 miles east of Paris. French kings donated generously to monasteries in the region. Monasteries or abbeys were expected to offer fine products to their benefactors and other important people. Wine was considered "the blood of Christ," so many abbeys specialized in the production of wine.

When Bordeaux and Burgundy ultimately became part of France, the Champagne region's fortunes as a provider of wines to the court and nobility greatly declined since those regions were able to produce more robust, deeply colored wines that were then in greater demand.

Medieval cellars still very much in use at Taittinger

It took an English innovation and English technology to bring the wines of this region back into royal favor and start them on the road to their now distinctive position in the world of wine.

The technology involved was reinforced glass, for bottles, and the rediscovery of the bottle sealing properties of cork -- long used by the Romans but abandoned until the English started employing it again in the 1600s.

English wine merchants generally bottled wine purchased in bulk from France and other wine producing countries. Sometime in the mid-1600s, English merchants started adding sugar and molasses to various kinds of wine to generate a secondary fermentation in bottle. This sparked a 17th century English fad for fizzy wine that ultimately spread to the court around Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who became regent of France on Louis XIV's death in 1715. Champagne region winemakers like Dom Pierre Pérignon at the Abbey of Hautvillers began to use the stronger English glass, known as verre anglais, for bottles and started using cork stoppers, permitting them to experiment with secondary fermentations.

tomb of Dom Pierre Pérignon, Abbey of Hautvillers

Other innovations were necessary to turn Champagne into the refined and reliable product we know today. Among the most important of these was the invention in 1836 of the sucre-oenomètre by pharmacist Jean-Baptiste François permitting producers to more accurately add the necessary amount of sugar to trigger the fermentation that would reliably yield sparkling wine without producing more pressure than the bottle could withstand.

Sparkling wine production took off in the region in the 1840s. The following decade, thanks in part to well publicized U.S. visits from Charles "Champagne Charlie" Heidsieck, saw the U.S. and England becoming major markets for the stuff.

The effort to officially define the area entitled to call its wines Champagne began at the turn of the century. Ultimately the final boundaries of the region were set by law in 1927. These boundaries, which comprise 34,000 hectares, remain the official boundaries today.

Since the 1950s, however, the adoption of increasingly stringent grape growing and winemaking requirements have helped ensure steady improvement in the quality of Champagne. The Champagne houses have also done a remarkable job of selling their region's specialty as a quality and luxury product. With sales of Champagne having quadrupled since 1950, every portion of the region that can be planted to grapes has been. The steadily increasing world demand for the product now requires that additional growing regions be identified for inclusion in the appellation or that prices continue to rise indefinitely.

Jacques Perrier designed headquarters of Piper Heidsieck in Reims

The drive for quality and constant improvement in this region became palpable for me on my September visit to the region. Not only are the producers here actively engaged in refining their methods, supported by constant research and studies financed by the well resourced CIVC, they have witnessed the success that results from continuous improvement and an emphasis on quality. There is, of course, a strong drive for higher quality and improvements in viticulture and winemaking throughout the world. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of any wine region where this has been more of a constant drive since 1950 and where the financial benefits of such a laser focus on quality have been better demonstrated than in Champagne.