Though other revolutions in France are better known, the Revolution en Champagne is certainly an important event, for all of Champagne and in particular for its growers.
By the beginning of the 20th Century the reputation of the unique terroir of the Champagne region had been firmly established. Wines made from the region were in high demand and allowed for merchants to receive premium prices. Growers within the Champagne region also received premium prices for their grapes. However, incidences of merchants “cheating” were becoming increasingly regular during the early 1900s. Wines made in wineries outside of the region and using grapes grown outside of Champagne were using the term Champagne on their labels. In 1908 the Champagne region was officially delimited thereby making it illegal to use the term Champagne on wines made or made from grapes from outside the region.
Difficult economic times coupled with the spread of phylloxera in many French vineyards put financial pressure on most Champagne merchants and on the big Champagne houses. Grapes could be purchased from the Loire or from Spain at lower cost than from within the delimited Champagne growing region. These grapes were being illegally trucked into the Champagne Houses and the region’s growers were unfairly being forced to lower prices or see their grapes rot on the vines. This was exacerbated by commissaries being hired by the Houses to negotiate contracts with the growers at the lowest price possible. Not only were they using the pressure of outside grapes they were also employing intimidation tactics and threatening violence.
In January of 1911 skirmishes broke out with growers attempting to stop the merchants from importing the illegal grapes. These skirmishes were quelled, but as the illegal practices continued, it would only be a matter of time before the growers would lash out again. The Federation, the main association of Champagne growers at the time said they were in “such a state of exasperation that a simple word would suffice to make them act outside of the law”. Of course the irony here is that they would be acting outside the law to hold up the existing laws of the appellation. Finally on April 12th the underlying tensions could no longer be held and revolution broke out. Protesters marched, troops were called in and riots broke out. At the end of the day there had been serious destruction to property and many injuries, including to women and children but no lives were lost. This day and these demonstrations served an important purpose which lead to the ultimate end of the making of fraudulent Champagne, and protection of the quality of the Champagne brand and recognition of the essential place of the growers of the region.
We were introduced to this piece of Champagne history when we dined at the Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, WA. The Herb Farm was offering a special Champagne by the glass, which we decided to try. The Champagne was from one of the top names in the Grower Champagne movement, Andre Clouet. Andre Clouet’s tete cuvee is the Un Jour de 1911. Translated as “A day in 1911”, the wine is an homage to the Revolution en Champagne that took place on April 12, 1911. Production is limited to 1,911 bottles of each disgorgement. The wine comes from the families 8 hectares of vineyards that are in the Grand Cru villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Grapes for Un Jour de 1911 are 100% Pinot Noir and come from the families 10 best lieu dits, or plots, in Bouzy. Un Jour de 1911 is a non-vintage blend. The one we tasted at the Herb Farm was based on 25% 1995, 50% 1996, and 25% 1997 vintage fruit. The wine was vinified and bottled in 1998 and then rested on its lees for an incredible 16 years until being disgorged in 2014.
N.V. Andre Clouet Un Jour de 1911
Medium gold colour with a fine mousse rising in the glass. Notes of brioche, almond and citrus create a beautiful perfumed aroma. The palate is full bodied and opulently textured. Flavours of red delicious apple, cranberry, minerals and dry toast create a wonderfully complex wine. The minerally finish persists on the palate for at least 40 seconds. This is exquisite Champagne, well worth the search to locate the miniscule quantities that make it to North America.