Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Context and conclusion of the Burgundy-Champagne 100-year war

On February 2nd, 2016, Gargantuan Wine posted a scintillating piece on the 100-year (mid-17th to mid-18th century) battle between supporters of  Burgundy and Champagne for the primacy of their favored wine at Court, and, as a result, in the realm. Since reading that post I have encountered a book (Thomas Parker, Tasting French Terroir) which places the battle within a wider context. I share Parker's perspective in this post.

As I will cover in a future post on the topic, the concept of terroir has had a roller-coaster existence during the course of its French history. And this period was one of its down times. Further, terroir was not confined only to wines and foods of regions; the word could be used to denigrate a person, a region, or a population. For example, Paris, was the center of French society (and, therefore, the center of the universe). But as you ventured away from this center, you encountered increasing terroir; that is, less refinement and more country bumpkinness. And so with the wines of France.

Nicholas Abraham de la Framboisière, the Royal Physician of Henry IV and Louis XIII, in some of his early 17th-Century writings spoke of white- and rosé-colored wines as being produced closer to Paris (and thus more cosmopolitan) while lighter to darker reds could be found in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The latter wines, according to de la Framboisière, contained more terrestrial elements; in a time when that was considered unsavory. The table below (compiled from Parker) captures de la Framboisière's characterization of white and red wines.

In the mid-17th Century Champagne was a still wine but, according to Parker, was "already imbued with prestige" and was "long the choice of royalty and other elites." In this timeframe it was considered bad form for a wine to reflect terroir. Charles de Saint-Évremond, the most refined epicurean of his age, captures both his love of Champagne and aversion to terroir in the following passage (Parker):
If you ask me which of these wines I prefer, ... I would say to you the good wine of Ay is the most natural of all wines, the healthiest, the most purified of any odor of terroir -- and of the most exquisite pleasurability in its flavor of peaches, which is unique to it, and the best in my opinion of all flavors.
Potrait of Charles de Saint-Évremond.
By Sir Godfrey Kneller - Collection of James stunt,
Public Domain,

It was in this timeframe that the skirmishes described in Gargantuan Wine began. Medical texts of the latter half of the 18th Century favored Champagne because it supposedly contained a large proportion of water which led to "healthful, frequent urination" (Parker). The battle royal was kicked off by Guy-Crescent Fagon (Louis XIVs Physician) who indicated that the frequent urination associated with Champagne was caused by excessive tartrates and that Burgundy would be the King's drink henceforth because Champagne was too acidic for his stomach.

Despite the efforts of the Champagne proponents, red wines gained a foothold at Court and across the land. During this same timeframe, the light, still red wines produced in Champagne began to lose favor in the Parisian markets, forcing the Champenois in ever greater numbers towards an effervescent wine (Parker).

When the smoke of battle had cleared, the following outcomes could be discerned:

  • France had modified its drinking practices
  • The status of red wines had been elevated
  • The French had begun to take the first steps towards a new, 18th-Century view of terroir.

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