1652-1781: The Champagne-Burgundy war

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The “querelle des vins” as it is called, was an “unarmed war” fought in France between mid-1600s and late 1700s. Two factions of doctors, literates and poets battled each other with thesis, verses and rhymes to decide which was the healthiest and most delicious wine of France: that from Champagne or that from Burgundy.

In the early XVII century the two region’s wine were already competing at the table of the french aristocrats and nobles: Burgundy had been the favourite since the middle ages, thanks to its success at the papal siege of Avignone and to the dukes of Bourgogne, who actively promoted it. It was so esteemed that until 1500 in France there were only “wines of Bourgogne” or “wines of France”. No other region deserved mention.

Champagne, for its part, began slowly improving from the XV century : its strengths were the proximity to the thirsty markets of central Europe (particularly the Flanders) and its ties with the capital and the court. At the time the region made mainly red and, possibly, still wine, with Burgundy its greatest rival on nobles’ tables.
Nicolas Brûlart de Sillery was one of its most important supporters. Brûlart, heir of an important champenois family, had a brilliant career at the court of Henri III and Henri IV, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of France, one of the most powerful roles in french ancien régime. He also owned Sillery Castle and the surrounding vineyards, contributing to the introduction of champagne wine at the king’s cohort.

But the first shot of the war came from a burgundian: in 1652 Daniel Arbinet published a thesis (“Ergo vinum Belnense potuum ut suavissimus sic saluberrimus “) which claimed the superiority of Burgundy wines over all other, including of course the ones from Champagne. The reply took over 25 years to come, but finally at April 8th, 1677 De Revelois, before the same faculty of medicine where Arbinet had discussed his writing, affirmed that the crown of healthiest wines should be appointed to the ones from Rheims.

The querelle went dormant for another 2o years, exploding blatantly in 1693, with the words of Guy-Crescent Fagon, royal physician responsible for the health of His Majesty Louis XIV.

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The late Sun King’s health was troubled by gout and fever, probably caused by his alimentation, but Fagon blamed also Champagne of hindering the king’s recovery, further complicating the situation.

Le mélange de vin de Champagne, que le roi buvait à ses heures de repas, en prenant le quinquina dans celui de Bourgogne, ont beaucoup contribué aux fréquents retours de la fièvre, aux chaleurs, aux démangeaisons et aux inquiétudes qui incommodaient S.M. pendant l’usage réitéré du quinquina en infusion dans le vin, et particulièrement dans le vin de Champagne, qu’elle buvait aux petits repas de biscuits qu’elle faisait le matin et après dîner, après les prises de quinquina, au lieu de l’eau pannée que le roi a bien voulu boire par mon conseil, dans ces occasions, depuis que j’ai l’honneur d’être son premier médecin.

Fagon had just replaced Antoine d’Aquin, who had been a big supporter of the wine of Reims. In 1694 he asked the king to ban from his table any wine save the ones from Burgundy. Louis XIV reluctantly accepted.

Sur la fin de ce mouvement de goutte, dont la douleur et l’incommodité avaient mieux persuadé le roi que toutes les raisons que j’avais souvent eû l’honneur de lui représenter pour l’engager à quitter le vin de Champagne et à boire du vin vieux de Bourgogne, il se résolut à vaincre la peine qu’il lui faisait au goût, et d’essayer s’il s’y pourrait accoutumer.

Today his motivations seems questionable at least: Champagne, even though pleasant to the taste, would have been very dangerous to the nerves, being lean, sharp and, especially, rich in tartar. Fagon’s words, coming from a reknown doctor, had a strong impact on the battle, helping Bourgogne in gaining fame.
Others shared his ideas, namely Mathieu Denys Fournir, who underlined again the danger Champagne would have on the nerves and the predisposition it would cause to “catarrh, gout and other diseases”.
In 1700 finally comes the reply: Gilles Culotteau and the entire Faculty of Medecine of Reims deny these accusations, mantaining that their wines are not only perfectly wholesome, but also that it is far better than the “dull and unbalanced” juice of Bourgogne:

A l’egard de l’odeur il n’en a point du tout, ou ce n’est qu’une exhalaison brûlée, qui blesse l’organe & qui ressent de la terre rougeâtre & minerale du Païs ou des ses pierres adustes. […]
Je dis que le vin de Bourgogne est toujours trop dur ou trop mou, il n’y a point de milieu.

Notice that the term “blesse” is completely different from the English “to bless”, meaning here “wound” or “harm”. Burgundy would be harmful to the organism, other than poor in aroma, while in Hautvillers, thanks to the local wine, a vigneron is said to having married at 110 and died at the age of 118 (from which we can deduce how bad for health is marriage).

Such words could not remain without reply. The task is entrusted to Jean-Baptiste de Salins in its “Défense du vin de Bourgogne contre le vin de Champagne”. The author strongly praise burgundian wine, for in no other place we can find a better one than that of Beaune, Pommard e Volenet (Volnay). Champagne is too far in the north and the climate too cool for quality winemaking.

Le vin de Reims est seulement menu, ou peu vineux, & acide, ayant comme la plûpart des autres vins blancs, la force de faire rendre des urines, mais tres peu pour nourrir & pour échaufer.

In other words, a wine “too thin and good only to stimulate pissing”. And, he continues, even if Coulotte takes pride of his 118 years old centenarian, in Burgundy you will find plenty of seventy, eighty and ninety years old farmers.
A reaction ensues again from Reims side, this time by Pierre Le Pescheur in 1706, to whom Salins answers again. Another reply follows, but the discussion seems more or less stuck on the same issues: one side accuses the other’s wine of being unhealthy and poteantially dangerous for human body, while the contender replies praising  its durability and flavour and ridiculing the rival. When De Salins reports Mathieu Fournier’s conclusions on Champagne, the belief that it would cause gout, a Reims physician replies that “Fournier can say everything he wants – luckily his words do not cause gout -“.

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In 1711 new challengers enter the arena: up to this point the quarrel has being mainly a medical one, but finally poets and troubadours starts taking one side ot another, singing the praise of this or that wine. The first to embrace the pen is Bénigne Grenan, professor at the university of Paris, but born in Noyers, between Auxerre and Dijon. The following english translation (and all the other english quotes I will report) is taken from “A history of Champagne”, by Henry Vizetelly.

‘ Lift to the skies thy foaming wine,

That cheers the heart, that charms the eye ;
Exalt its fragrance, gift divine,

Champagne, from thee the wise must fly !

A poison lurks those charms below,
An asp beneath the flowers is hid ;

In vain thy sparkling fountains flow
When wisdom has their lymph forbid.

‘Tis hut when cloyed with purer fair
We can with such a traitress flirt ;

So following Beaune with reverent air,
Let Reims appear but at dessert.’

It is interesting to notice that here Champagne is described as sparkling and clear, as it was already starting to become similar to what we drink today. But the author calls it “a poison”, praising Burgundy instead, which he considers a modern Hippocrene, the holy fountain of the greek legends.
Champagne reacts once again: its new champion is Charles Coffin, professor at the College de Beauvais in Paris, but born in Buzancy, near Reims. The following verses are taken from its Campania Vindicata, published in 1712.

The Massica, erst sang by Horace of old,
To Sillery now must abandon the field;
Falernian, nor Chian, could ne’er be so bold
To rival the nectar Ay’s sunny slopes yield.
As bright as the goblet it sparklingly fills
With diamonds in fusion, it foaming exhales
An odour ambrosial, the nostril that thrills,
Foretelling the flavour delicious it veils.

Champagne surpasses even the semi-mythical falernian and chian wine. But what about the burgundian charges about it causing gout or being unhealthy?

Despite the tongue of malice,
No poison in thy chalice
Was ever found, Champagne!
Simplicity most loyal
Was e’er thy boast right royal,
And this thy wines retain.
No harm lurks in the fire
That helps thee to inspire
The heart and spur the brain.

What does Coffin thinks about Bourgogne? Well, Beaune does not make bad wines, but, let’s face it, they cannot be compared to Champagne. In french:

Mère des vins moëlleux, c’est toi, je le confesse,
Qui d’un teint languissant corrige la pâleur,
Qui versant dans les corps une douce chaleur,
Sait égayer ensemble, et nourrir la vieillesse.
Mais ne crois pas te faire un mérite éclatant
D’ôter au laboureur le souci de sa taille,
D’animer le soldat dans le champ de bataille;
Un simple vin de Brie en ferait bien autant.

Grénan had attributed to burgundy wines the power of giving courage to soldiers (Mieux que trompettes et tambours/Tu ferais au soldat affronter les alarmes/Lui qui languit à jeun sous le poids de ses armes/Ne le sentirait pas aidé de ton secours), but Coffin seems sure: any wine, even a simple one from Brie, could do the same. It’s a pleasant drink, even “the mother of mellow wines” (burgundy wines were probably lightly sweet at the time), and good to comfort and warm the old age. However, the gaiety and the glory its rival can bring to any répas are unmatched.
Campania vindicata had a huge success: source of inspiration for many of the following champagne supporters, it gained to the author four cases of Champagne.
But the quarrel is far from being settled. Grénan, taking offense, answers again. This time he addresses to Fagon, the royal physician we’ve already talked about, hoping to find a powerful ally to his cause. He personifies burgundian wine and makes it lament the arrogance of the enemies. Then he shows again its virtues and accuses once more the detestable champagne poison.

Ainsi, docte Fagon, il s’agit de ma gloire
Contre ce faux censeur qui ternit ma mémoire.
Daigne me secourir de ton autorité.

But this call for help turns out to be a double edged blade. After its publication two anonymous epigrams reply, with sharp irony and notable wit.

“To the doctor to go
On behalf of your wine
Is, as far as I know,
Of its sickness a sign.”

“Your cause and your wine
Must be equally weak,
Since to check their decline
A prescription you seek.’”

Another longer composition takes the form of a decree issued by the faculty of the island of Cos. Bourgogne is deemed superior than its rival , but the tone is again ironic and between the lines Champagne comes out as the real winner.
The battle starts losing momentum: between the two factions’, “moderate exponents” appears. An anonymous letter addressed to Monsieur Grénan in 1712 declares the futility of the conflict.

‘Bold Burgundian ever glories
With stout Remois to get mellow;
Each well filled with vinous lore is
Each a jolly tippling fellow.’

De Bellechaume invites the two sides to join forces: enjoying the two wines together can only have beneficial effect to their poetry.

Joignez ces liqueurs ravissantes,
Vous ferez des vers plus charmants,
Laissez aux Muses languissantes
Boire la liqueur des Normands.

Probably the two wines were already starting to cut their own different market and saw each other more as partner than rivals. However, if poets were sheathing their pens, doctors were still very much into the fight.
Champagne charges again in 1729, with Jean-Paul Bignon, abbey of St. Quentin and Philippe-Valentin Bertin du Rocheret, physician from the faculty of Paris, and in 1730 with Jacques de Reims, the doctor responsible for king’s health when His Majesty was in Epernay. It’s interesting to notice that while they all praise it and its supposed healing virtue, they also recommend to not overindulge in it and to mix it with water. Jacques de Reims makes a surprising remark.

[…] j’ose même ajouter que la chaleur tempérée de ce vin blanc ou gris non mousseux, et sa grande légèreté, sont les deux moyens les plus spécifiques pour conserver la fluidité des vertus et la vertu motrice des fibres dont nos corps sont composés.

In other words to be healthy a champagne must be “white or gray and not sparkling”: this drink, for its “temperate warmth and lightness”, is ideal for maintaining our fluids well oiled and our body in shape, red wine being too heavy and rich in tartar to benefit human health (I must confess I don’t understand medical explanations from the 18th century, but I would never entrust myself to a physician of that age). He also refuses, once again, the gout accusations suspecting the rumor to have been spread by someone who had economic interest in favoring burgundian wine: les champenois maybe drink a little bit too much, but those illnesses are hard to find in the region.
In 1777 Navier, rector at the university of Reims, praises Champagne low tartar content and low alcohol (la partie spiritueuse), extending its beneficial properties also to sparkling wines: they are not only delicious, but also formidable allies in fighting malaria, a serious problem in Reims at the time. The following year the medical faculty of Paris, always more leaning on the burgundian side, gives a remarkable verdict, asserting Champagne superiority over Bourgogne, particularly in the light of its diuretic virtues. In 1781 another physician, Robert Linguet, discusses his preference for Champagne before the same chairs.
Linguet’s thesis seems to put an end to the centuries-old debate. The country has most pressing problem to face, a revolution is at the door and with it the Terror and the Napoleonic Empire. In the 19th century french wine will finally start to take its modern shape: Charles-Henri Heidsieck, Widow Cliquot, the Dubois family and others will give Champagne the form it has today and competition with Bourgogne will be more or less forgotten. In 1830 a late voice in Dijon will rise, taking inspiration from Coffin’s Campania Vindicata, once again in Champagne favor. But the struggle has lost its energy, no one cares to answer: the French and the World have understood the futility of this quarrel and just enjoy the two wines together, their alliance to benefit our tables, our hearts and our throats.