Kings, Celtics and Champagne: A Brief History

The earliest mentions of Champagne as a region date back to the 5th century (or possibly the 6th, depending on which authority one chooses to believe), when it was known by the Latin name of Campania, which means “land of plains,” with many noting how similar the district was to the Italian district of Campania, found south of Rome. Other authorities claim vines were cultivated here only a decade or two after the death of Christ, and there is even a suggestion that fossils of vine leaves from the region have been found, dating back 60 million years.

Words by drinks writer, Ken Gargett

The region was first formed into a political entity in the 10th century, under the House of Vermandois, and then was ‘acquired’ by the House of Blois and divided amongst its family members. An alternative theory as to the name of the region comes from the number of Celts who settled here, with the Celtic ‘kann pan’ meaning the ‘white country’, a reference to the exposed chalk seen so often throughout the district.

The region leapt to prominence thanks to the visits of various kings and especially as a result of their coronations – Clovis I in 496 (a pagan warlord who promised his Christian wife he would convert if he could vanquish his foes, a promise he kept) and Hugh Capet in 987 in the Reims Cathedral (or at Noyon depending on the authority). Regardless of exactly where his coronation took place, 37 of his successors underwent their coronation in the cathedral at Reims, the final one in 1825 – Charles X. With that, the tradition of monarchs visiting the region was established and confirmed. Needless to say, this gave their wines a boost – in those days, light pink wines made from the pinot noir grape.

In 1125, Thibaut IV, who later became ‘Thibaut II, the Great of Champagne’, reunited the various counties, however, there was an endless conflict between Champagne and the Kings of France, notably Louis VI and Louis VIl. Marriage between various heirs and kings eventually ended the conflict, and in 1314, France and Champagne were united with Louis X as King.

The great disadvantage, and advantage, enjoyed by the region is that it is often described as being at the crossroads of Europe. For centuries, it has been traversed by everyone from tourists and travellers to merchants and armies. For several centuries, it was the hub for commercial fairs, attracting visitors from across Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy. It soon became one of the key mercantile centres of the continent. The Hundred Years’ War and development of new trade routes diminished its importance. Textiles and wines helped the region survive economically, but by 1790, ‘Champagne’ was abolished as a separate entity.

For the next few centuries, the region was largely dominated by an extensive series of wars – the Habsburgs, the Battle of Valmy and especially the First World War and Battle of the Marne – taking over from the parade of vandals, goths and huns who had played away in previous centuries.

The Second World War was also a very difficult time for the region, though perhaps not to the terrible extent that was suffered during its predecessor. Notably, though, it was in the city of Reims where the German commander, Alfred Jodl, confirmed the unconditional surrender to the Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, on May 7, 1945. The signing was inevitably accompanied with Champagne – half a dozen cases of Pommery 1934.