Today, the Champagne region is a glorious place to visit. Just hop on a train in downtown Paris, and in less than an hour you can find yourself surrounded by rolling vineyards, gorgeous cathedrals, and miles of underground tunnels lined with millions of bottles of resting Champagne!
It has not always been so serene, however. As a matter of fact, on April 13, 1911, the headlines of the world’s newspapers read “Blind Fury of the Mob…Incendiarism and Loot…Riots in Champagne!”
The Champagne Riots that erupted in 1910 and 1911 were the result of a series of problems and frustrations faced by the grape growers of the region, whose livelihoods depended on the Champagne production houses who purchased their grapes.
One of the first problems they faced was the Phylloxera epidemic, which had begun its rampage of the area, resulting in disastrous crop losses and years of devastatingly low income for many of the families working the vineyards.
Another issue was that some producers of Champagne had begun to import grapes. The development of an efficient French Railway system, while undoubtedly a boon for business, had provided Champagne producers access to inexpensive grapes grown outside of the Champagne region. It was a well-known fact that many Champagne producers had begun to buy grapes from the Loire Valley and the Languedoc. Some even brought in grapes from as far away as Spain and Germany. These grapes reportedly could be had for less than half of the price of the local grapes. There were even reports of some producers buying Rhubarb from England to make into wine. We can only hope that rumor was false!
At the time, there were no AOC laws in place to protect the grape growers or regulate the wine. In 1910, however, the grape growers petitioned the government to put laws in place limiting the use of these “foreign” grapes in Champagne. The government responded and passed a law requiring that a minimum of 51% of the grapes used in Champagne be grown in the region. However, the use of unapproved grapes continued unabated, with many houses using 100% imported grapes. At the same time, many of the Champagne Houses banded together to drive down the price of locally-grown grapes.
In January 1911, the frustrations of the grape growers reached a peak and riots erupted in the towns of Damery and Hautvillers. Farmers intercepted trucks loaded with grapes from the Loire Valley and pushed them into the Marne River. They marched upon the Champagne warehouses, smashing bottles and throwing barrels into the River. The owner of the house of Archille Princier had his house set aflame by an angry mob chanting “A bas les frauders!” (“Down with the cheaters”)!
The worst of the riots occurred in the sleepy town of Aÿ, located just three miles north of Épernay. An angry mob descended on the city, ransacking the homes of Champagne producers and private citizens alike. After a fire started to spread and the entire village was burning, the government intervened and sent in 40,000 troops. Soldiers were stationed in every village and town.
This first round of riots was soon followed by more and more trouble. The French Government, in an attempt to quell the violence once and for all, attempted to create a true definition of “Champagne” and define its region of origin. The first version included a geographical delineation of the area that included just the villages of the Marne Department and a few from the Aisne Department. This blatantly excluded the Aube region and its capital, the village of Troyes. Riots broke out again as the growers from the Aube district protested their exclusion. This prompted the government to create a second zone within the Champagne appellation for Aube, which in turn lead to more riots as the producers in the Marne District lashed out against the loss of their exclusive status. Once again, vineyards were burned, houses were ransacked, bottles were smashed, and barrels were tossed into rivers. Violence, riots, and attempts at negotiation were still underway up until the beginning of World War I, when the region and country faced much bigger problems and internal hostilities ceased.
Finally, in 1927, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée standards for the Champagne region were agreed upon. The regulations declared (thankfully) that geographical boundaries of the region included the Marne, The Aube, and parts of the Aisne departments; and that only grapes from those regions could be used in the wine now known (and loved) as “Champagne.”
Click here for SWE’s Map of the Champagne Region
For more information:
The New York Times Archive:http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A00E3DD1031E233A25755C1A9629C946096D6CF
The Argus/National Library of Australia Archive: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article10894733