Snapshot: The Champagne Region

Celebrating the new year has become synonymous with drinking champagne, but the grapes are from an area steeped in history

The Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is perhaps most famous as the traditional coronation site for French kings over a period of a thousand years. Among them was Charles VII, who was crowned here in 1429, accompanied by Joan of Arc. Considered one of the world’s finest examples of High Gothic architecture, the cathedral has been subject to damage by war throughout much of its history, most devastatingly during World War I, when it was almost completely destroyed by German shell fire. After the war, John D. Rockefeller donated generously to help rebuild and restore it. In 1991, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. iStock Photo
At a major crossroads, Champagne has been at the center of European history during both war and peace for millennia. Named campania by the Romans for its high plains and open hills suitable for planting fields of grains, grapes, and other products, Champagne remains one of the most important and productive agricultural regions in France. Janet Hulstrand
In 1908, the French government declared that only wine coming from vineyards in the Marne and Aisne districts could be labeled “champagne.” Peaceful protests by excluded winemakers gave way to violence, and the area came to the brink of civil war: thousands of vines were burned and trampled, millions of bottles of champagne were destroyed, and the army was called in to restore order. In the end, the government revoked its decision, and by 1927 vignerons in the Aube had regained their right to be recognized as legitimate vintners of champagne. CORBIS
In the Middle Ages, Troyes, historic capital of Champagne, was a thriving center of commerce at the crossroads of the main trade routes between the northern “low countries” and Italy, as well as between Paris and cities in Germany. Today Troyes is the administrative capital of the Aube, and a thriving cultural, educational and commercial center. Over the past few decades, much of the medieval and Renaissance architecture in the center of town has been beautifully restored. Rooted, but hardly stuck in the past, in October 2007 Troyes hosted a celebration for the launching of the world’s first commercial hybrid train, which made its inaugural trip from Paris to Troyes. Janet Hulstrand
The peaceful village of Essoyes, in southern Champagne, became the summer home of the Pierre-Auguste Renoir's family when they purchased a house there in 1895. The painter’s studio now houses a museum of photographic and other documentary artifacts celebrating the life of the Renoirs in this small town: a short stroll away, the painter, his wife, and all three of their sons are buried in the village graveyard. In the streets of Essoyes murals reproducing some of the painter’s most famous images celebrate and showcase both his artistic talent and his love of his family. This mural, of Jean Renoir with his nanny, is labeled “Gabrielle and Jean.” Janet Hulstrand
The vineyards of the Aube, while less well known in some parts of the world than their counterparts in the area around Reims and Epernay, produce some of the world’s finest champagnes. After the devastation caused by phylloxera, a wine louse that was accidentally brought into Europe from North America in the 19th century, vignerons learned how to graft the branches of European vines onto American root stocks, successfully creating a plant that is resistant to the disease. The amount of individual attention devoted to each vine is impressive, and the effort goes on throughout the year. Pruning, a complicated process that involves not only painstaking hand labor, but also extensive knowledge of viticulture and no small amount of judgment, takes place in the winter months. Janet Hulstrand
On a beautiful autumn day this field near Bar-sur-Seine shows why Champagne is an area famous not only for its agricultural production, but for its beautiful landscapes as well. Janet Hulstrand

Origin: It took millions of years and a unique combination of climate, soil, and brilliant agricultural minds to create the right conditions for raising the variety and quality of grapes needed to make champagne. About seventy million years ago, oceans that once covered this region receded, leaving behind chalky subsoil deposits; sixty million years later, earthquakes pushed marine sediments to the surface. The unique soil created by these geological events is one of several factors that make champagne supreme among the world's sparkling wines, with a reputation for unsurpassed excellence.

The appeal: The Route Touristique du Champagne is a 375-mile system of eight separate "trails" that lead visitors through forests, hills and fields into picturesque little villages, and into the cellars of the region's winemakers. More than 80 designated sites offer visitors the opportunity to learn about the complicated process of making champagne, its history and traditions, and to enjoy the accueil of the winemakers, who share their knowledge and enthusiasm as visitors taste their wares. The region also offers many less well-known attractions: historic cities, museums and other cultural institutions, and sites of interest abound. The area encompasses 25,000 hectares of lakes, rivers, and ponds as well as 373 miles of canals, offering abundant opportunities for boating, water sports and fishing. Bird-watching, bicycling, hiking, camping and other outdoor activities are also popular throughout the region. In addition, a diverse array of beautiful vistas—of villages, forests, fields and lakes—delight and inspire artists, photographers, and anyone with an eye for beauty.

Interesting historical facts: Because of its location at the crossroads of major European trade routes, for millennia Champagne has been a very active corridor. In 451 A.D. Attila and his Huns were defeated by an alliance of Romans, Franks and Visigoths near what is now Chalons-en-Champagne. During the Middle Ages, Champagne Fairs were festive gatherings of merchants from across Europe, who traded their wares in towns like Troyes, Provins and Bar-sur-Aube. At their peak in the 13th century, these fairs brought prosperity to the region and introduced fundamental modern practices, like the extension of credit and currency exchange, into the European economy. Throughout its history, Champagne has been a battleground as various invaders from the East made their way toward Paris. Significant battles were fought in Champagne at both the beginning and the end of World War I, and in 1940 the Nazi army rolled over the region on its way to Paris. A few years later, in 1944, Allied forces fought alongside the French Resistance to win it back.

Who goes there? One of the less densely populated regions of France, Champagne is home to about 1,336,330 inhabitants. Tourism is also somewhat lighter than in other areas of France, making a pleasant experience for those who choose to vacation here. The weather can be cool and rainy for much of the winter and early spring: the best times to visit Champagne are late spring through mid-autumn.

Then and now: The Romans called this area campania ("open country") for its predominant topographical feature, high plains suitable for planting grain, grapes and other agricultural products, as well as for herding sheep and cattle. While wine has been produced in the region since at least the first century B.C., until the 17th century Champagne was known mainly for fine wool production. Today Champagne is an official administrative region of France, consisting of four departements: Marne, Haute-Marne, Aube and Ardennes. Its main products are still agricultural: in addition to the sparkling wine for which it is world-famous, the region is also the nation's foremost producer of alfalfa, barley, and other grains.

Famous sons or daughters: Dom Perignon, a 17th-century Benedictine monk, is often falsely credited with inventing champagne. In fact he tried, unsuccessfully, to find a way to rid the wine of its bubbles, which were considered a flaw and presented a real hazard, leading to broken bottles. In his experimentation, he developed several of the practices key to what is now known as la methode champenoise, the fundamental rules for making champagne. Both Pierre Auguste Renoir, the Impressonist painter, and his son, the great cinematographer, Jean Renoir, made their summer home in Essoyes, the native village of Mme. Renoir, nee Aline Charigot. Visitors to this pretty little town in southern Champagne can visit the painter's studio, stroll through landscapes he immortalized in his paintings, and pay their respects to the family in the local graveyard. Another famous Frenchman, Charles de Gaulle, spent his retirement years in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. His estate, La Boisserie, is now open to the public: the great general is buried in a simple grave in the village cemetery.

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