Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/The American Champagne District



TWO hundred years ago a pious monk, Dom Perignon by name, held the post of cellarer to the fraternity of monks of the Order of St. Benedict, in the hamlet of Hautevillers, situated on the river Marne, four or five miles from Epernay and about fifteen miles from Rheims. His was an important position, for the revenues of the abbey depended entirely on its vineyards, and consequently on the taste, judgment, and skill of its cellarer. Consider what this pious monk did to increase the revenues of the abbey.

The important contributions that Dom Perignon made to the art of wine-making were the result of observations and experiment. Thus, he noticed that the wine which was made from the grapes growing in the different vineyards of the district showed, as might be supposed, different characteristics. For example, the black grapes produced a white wine that improved with age, instead of turning yellow and deteriorating as did the wine made from white grapes. This set Dom Perignon to thinking. Then the happy idea suggested itself to him of "marrying" the different wines produced in the vineyards of the district. Why not blend the juice of the black grapes with that of the white grapes? Now, Dom Perignon, be it said, was an artist. He tried many different mixtures until he obtained one or two wines that satisfied his nice and cultivated taste.

If Dom Perignon had been content to manufacture wine by the ancient and time-honored methods of his predecessors, he would never have discovered the light, sparkling wine which has made the Champagne district of France known the world over. His first discovery, the blending of certain wines, which was the result of care and thought, led in turn to his second and greatest discovery—the secret of sparkling wines—which, oddly enough, came by accident. One day a tightly corked bottle in the cellar exploded, and lo! to the monk was revealed the mystery of effervescence, and vin mousseux—what we call champagne was the glorious result.

The new wine met with immediate favor and great success. It revolutionized the art of wine-making; it was a revelation to wine-drinkers. Sparkling wine was so far beyond the old-style still wine that the two could not be compared in the same breath. The delicious and original qualities of vin mousseux are a fine color, a snap, a sparkle, and "beaded bubbles winking at the brim," a quick, fleeting taste to the tongue, an almost imperceptible bouquet, and last but not least a subtle, exhilarating effect.

Fig. 1.—Tying Grapes in Summer.

The straw-white wine from the Champagne district, especially from Hautevillers, became famous during the reign of Louis XIV. The king contributed to bring the new wine into fashion by having it on the royal table. The great wine connoisseur of the day, Marquis de Sillery, at a souper d'Anet, introduced champagne in flower-wreathed bottles, which, at a given signal, a dozen blooming damsels in the guise of Bacchanals placed upon the table.

Thus heralded, champagne became par excellence the wine of civilization. So Talleyrand in his epigrammatic way called it, "vin civilisateur par excellence" In England, at the beginning of the present century, champagne was the necessary adjunct to all public and private banquets. No formal affair was complete without it. And yet, ninety, eighty, seventy, or sixty years ago the amount of champagne made and required was comparatively small. Indeed, it is only within the last forty or fifty years that the consumption of champagne has increased by "leaps and bounds." It has increased fourfold within thirty years; it has-doubled within the past fifteen years; and in this connection, it is significant to note that the growing demand for champagne has come, not from France, but from foreign countries, principally from Russia, England, and America. Five times as much champagne is required outside of France as is used for home consumption.

The extraordinary demand for champagne stimulated the wine-makers of other grape-growing districts and of other countries to produce a genuine vin mousseux. The result is, there are many sparkling wines—for example, the sparkling wines of Germany and Austria—but only one kind of champagne, and that is made in the Champagne district of France.

The earliest attempt at the manufacture of champagne on a commercial scale in the United States was made in Ohio about the year 1850. At that time there were extensive vineyards in the Ohio Valley. The pioneer and promoter of an American champagne industry was the Hon. Nicholas Longworth, of Cincinnati. He procured expert and capable wine-makers, and imported improved machinery and appliances from the Champagne district of France. He was fairly successful in making a sparkling Catawba wine. For several seasons—that is, from 1862 to 1865—the vines were attacked by pests and fungoid diseases; the vineyards of the Ohio Valley were destroyed, and the champagne business ruined. Since then the grape and wine industry has been transferred to the northern part of Ohio, along the shores of Lake Erie, and a small amount of champagne is now made at Kelley's Island, Toledo, and Sandusky; also at St. Louis, Mo.

Meanwhile the lake region of central New York was rapidly coming to the front as the land of vineyards. We refer to the country around three lakes—Keuka, Seneca, and Canandaigua. The grape industry was started along Lake Keuka about fifty years ago. The first outdoor grapes were shipped to the New York market about 1847-'48 by the way of the Erie Canal. In 1860 the Lake Keuka grape industry was well rooted, and there were planted and in bearing about 250 acres.

At the present time there are about 10,500 acres of vineyards in the Lake Keuka district. To this should be added about 10,000 acres of vineyards in the Seneca and Canandaigua districts, making a total of 26,500 acres in the lake region. In the western part of the State is the Chautauqua district, which contains about 18,000 acres of vineyards. The Hudson River district, which was established about 1860, has about 14,000 acres of vines.

In 1890,[1] when the statistics of viticulture were gathered for the first time in the United States, it was found that New York State, with one fourth of the acreage of California, raised almost twice as many table grapes as the latter State. In other words, four fifths of the grapes grown in New York are for table purposes, while in California four fifths of the grapes are made into wine.

The American champagne district, as the Lake Keuka region has been known for some time, is fairly entitled to its name. More and better champagne is produced annually in this district than in any other section of the United States. The first wine company, the Pleasant Valley, was formed in 1860, and a few years later began making champagne. In 1865 the Urbana Wine Company was organized, with the object of making a superior American champagne. These two cellars each carry a stock of 1,000,000 bottles of champagne. There are five other cellars in the district, all making champagne, and ranging in capacity from 30,000 to 150,000 gallons.

East of the Rocky Mountains no champagne in any quantity is made outside of Ohio and New York. West of that great range considerable champagne has been made in one section of California, but the Eastern product is regarded by connoisseurs as more nearly approaching in quality the best French product. There is, and will be, a difference between the best American and French champagnes, owing to the variety of grapes and soils, but outside of that, as a chemical analysis will show, the difference is no greater than that between French champagnes produced in the several localities of the Champagne district.

It is now well understood that the golden qualities of vin

Fig. 2.—The Lake Keuka Vineyard Country.

mousseux maybe attributed to three elements: (1) The variety of grape; (2) the soil and climatic conditions; and (3) the manipulation. The grapes of which the French wine is made grow on a soil which is peculiar in its mixture of chalk, silica, light clay, and oxide of iron. The surface of the champagne district is composed of light clay and pebbles, and the vine flourishes best where the soil appears most sterile. Hence, while the grapes for champagne contain but little sugar, they draw from the earth those chemical elements that give certain peculiar qualities to the wine.

When viticulture was introduced into this country, more than one hundred years ago, efforts were made to grow the European varieties of grapes east of the Mississippi. With few exceptions, these foreign varieties turned out to be failures. Then our Eastern viticulturists directed their attention to the improvement of native vines. By dint of experiment after experiment they have succeeded in developing some of the choicest and most valuable varieties of grapes known—varieties good for the table as well as for wine-making.

The two great native grape stocks are the Concord and the Catawba. From the seedlings of the Concord we have obtained Worden, Moore's Early, Pocklington, Martha, and other well-known varieties. The Concord is also one parent of Niagara, El Dorado, Brighton, etc. From the Catawba we have obtained lona, Diana, Excelsior, etc. The Delaware and Isabella have given us a few good varieties. Some idea of the varieties of native grapes can be gained from the statement that two hundred and seventy-five varieties of grapes were sent by Eastern growers to the horticultural exhibit at the World's Fair, Chicago.

The wonderful improvement of our wild American grapes is striking testimony to man's power of selection. He has transformed sourish, harshly flavored wildlings into sweet, luscious fruit. In this process there has been an evolution of the sense of taste. Our grandfathers and fathers ate sour grapes, but the children's teeth have not been set on edge, because they eat sweet grapes. The difference between a lemon and an orange represents the improvement of the grapes of the present day over the grapes of fifty years ago.

Somewhat different has been the history of viticulture in California. There, efforts to grow the European varieties of grapes were successful from the first. The California growers did not have to experiment with native vines. Numerous varieties of the foreign species Vitis vinifera were planted and cultivated, and, in the right climate and soil, they showed their Old World characteristics. Many of the choice kinds of French, German, Italian, and Spanish types seem to come nearer to reproducing themselves here than elsewhere.

California may be divided into three grape-growing sections: (1) The coast, (2) the Sierra Nevada foothills and Sacramento Valley, (3) the southern counties. In the first district are grown varieties of French champagne grapes, from which are produced large quantities of sparkling wines. The Sierra Nevada foothills are best adapted, as the Director of the Experiment Stations has pointed out, to the growing of sherry, port, and raisin grapes, while the slopes and valleys of the Coast Range must be looked to for wines of the claret, burgundy, and sauterne types.[2] The southern district of California excels in sweet wines and brandies. Here the Muscat varieties are grown for table use and for raisins.

Thus, the differences between the two great grape-growing sections of the United States are clearly defined. The grapes raised in New York and Ohio—in fact, all those raised east of the Rocky Mountains—are native varieties and contain but little sugar. They yield the delicate table wines and champagne. The grapes raised west of the Rockies, especially in California, are European varieties and are heavy in sugar. They produce brandies, the demi-liquor wines, such as sauterne, and the heavy liquor wines, such as sherries, madeiras, and ports. Hence the methods of wine-making in California are quite different from those in Eastern States.

The Eastern district possesses many points in common with the French vineyard districts. The Lake Keuka country is a fine grape-growing region, owing to the peculiar climatic and other natural advantages that it enjoys.

Here is the proper place to observe that the best grape localities or climates are those where dews are light or altogether absent. It is a matter of experience that grape culture has become popular and profitable only in such localities. It is so in the champagne district of France along the river Marne, or in the Medoc district stretching north from Bordeaux between the sea and the rivers Garonne and Gironde, and in Germany along the river Rhine. It is so in the United States, along the Hudson River, along the lakes of central and western New York, and in the strip of territory extending along the shores of Lake Erie. In all of these grape-growing regions the vines are exempt from heavy or frequent dews and fogs, on account of the presence of considerable bodies of water.

It is to these climatic conditions that the Lake Keuka grape industry owes its success. The vineyards are always under the protecting presence of Lake Keuka, and under the guard of the high hills that surround it. Here the grape is enabled to escape its most dangerous enemy—early frost. The spring comes late, as the crust of ice on the lake keeps the water and air cold, and retards the opening of the buds until the usual danger of frost is past. The water exerts a similar favorable influence in autumn, by retaining the heat collected during the summer, so that the fruit is protected from early frosts in September. The presence of this stratum of air is shown by the absence of light frosts during late autumn, and by the greenness of the foliage where the

Fig. 3. Champagne Vault.

warm breezes from the lake extend. There is a difference of from six to ten degrees between the temperature near the lake and that on the hilltops.[3]

The soil is also another important factor in the successful growing of grapes. The surface of the Lake Keuka hillsides is composed of gravel and shale on calcareous rock. It looks bare, having been washed off by rainstorms and freshets centuries ago. There are places where vegetation is stunted, and where weeds find no great encouragement; and yet the finest Catawba vines flourish in soils that appear little better than gravel beds. You wonder how grapes can grow and sweeten on such ground. The reason is, that in such earth the soil retains the sun's heat long after sundown, so that the work of fructification goes on silently by night as by day.[4]

A few words as to the methods of cultivation that obtain in the Lake Keuka district. The vines are set from six to eight feet apart, and are trained to run on trellises. Three lines of wire are stretched from stakes, which are about eight feet distant from each other. The vines begin bearing in the third year, and the yield increases until the fifth and sixth years, when a vineyard is said to be in full bearing. The life of a vineyard is often three score and ten years, so that with good care and attention the children may reap from the vines their fathers planted. The average yield is about two tons of Catawba grapes to the acre, while the Concords will often go four tons to the acre.

In the fourth year the vine, if it has made good growth, is trimmed with two arms. The method of training is known as the "horizontal arm and spur system." By this system two main horizontal branches, or canes, are trained permanently to the lower wires—one to the right, another to the left. The upright shoots, that grow from the two main arms each season, are cut back each fall or winter to upright "spurs." The strongest new shoots that spring from these spurs in the spring are left for the bearing wood of that season, and this new cane is headed back to the top wire of the trellis. A strong vine will carry four shoots on each arm, or eight in all, care being taken not to overload the vine.

The method of pruning is known to growers as the thorough renewal system. When the spurs on the two main arms become overgrown or rank, they are renewed from new shoots, which spring from the arm, or near the base of the vine. Sometimes the arm itself is renewed from the head of the vine, or from a point near the ground. Summer pruning consists in thinning the vines here and there, and cutting off damaged clusters and imperfect berries.

As soon as the frost is out of the ground the grower goes through his vineyard to see if it has wintered well—that is, if post, wires, and vines are in good shape. A few weeks later, the canes are tied by willow bands to the lower wire. During May and June the vineyard is plowed and the roots grubbed. The first plowing is away from the vines, and in the second and third it is toward the vines. During the summer the vines grow vigorously, and the climbing offshoots are tied by straw bands to the second and third wires.

The algebraic stands for the unknown quantity in grape-growing—for bad weather, diseases and pests. A few years ago the Lake Keuka vineyards were attacked by "black rot." At one time it looked as if the industry would be wiped out as completely as it was in the Ohio Valley thirty years ago. But the remedy known as the "Bordeaux mixture" proved to be the salvation of the grape-grower. It is a composition of six pounds each of sulphate of copper and lime to fifty gallons of water. This is sprayed

Fig. 4.—Finishing Champagne.

on the vines three times during the season: first, when the blossoms begin to appear; second, just after blossoming and when the fruit has set; third, when the grapes are partly grown. For the last spraying many growers use a copper carbonate ammoniacal solution.

The vintage begins the first week in September and lasts until the third week in October. It depends, of course, on the weather and on the kind of grapes grown. The Delawares ripen first, then the Concords, while the Catawbas seldom mature before the first week in October. The grape crop is picked in boxes which hold from thirty to forty pounds. When filled they are carried to the end of the rows, and there gathered two or three times a day and drawn to the packing house. The fruit that is not packed in boxes for market is stored in crates or on trays and, by proper ventilation and temperature it can be kept fresh and fair for several months. This gives the grower a long range of season, and choice table grapes are supplied from October till the following March or April.

This grape-picking time is a kind of long and pleasant picnic—all the more pleasant for being a busy one. The men and women look forward to it from year to year as a chance to earn money to carry them through the winter, while the young people regard the season as one of recreation and enjoyment. The most expert pickers are the women and girls. They come from the neighboring farms and country villages. The usual rate of wages is one dollar per day without "board," or three dollars per week with board.

The Lake Keuka grape crop is sent to market in small baskets. Last year (1893) the number of cars shipped from the district was not less than 2,200. As each car holds from 2,500 to 2,700 baskets, the reader can form some correct idea of the quantity of grapes produced annually in this one district. The bulk of the crop is sent to the Eastern cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The growers send table-grapes as far west as Omaha and Denver, and last season several carloads were shipped to the Northwest, and even to Manitoba.

At the present time the wine cellars take a very small per centage of the total crop. It is estimated that the twelve wineries in the Keuka Lake district use from 5,000 to 6,000 tons of grapes during the season. There is now an overproduction of grapes for table purposes. The growers look to the growing wants of the wine cellars to take their surplus crop. With the increasing demand for American wines, especially for champagne and delicate table wines, the time should be not far distant when the output of the cellars will be ten times as great as it is to-day.

Of course, the reader will be interested in learning how the pure, sweet juice of the grape is converted into lively, sparkling champagne. There is more or less of a veil of secrecy thrown around the ways and methods of the champagne-maker; for he is an artist and does not wish to disclose the mysteries of his art. What follows concerning the various processes through which the wine goes in its successive stages is the result of a visit made last autumn to the largest establishment of its kind in the United States.

The building of A. B. & Co. is on the shore of the lake, and, being constructed of huge blocks of quarried stone, looks like a mediæval castle. The outside gives one little notion of the size and capacity of the establishment. There are fourteen separate vaults, or cellars, and these extend far under the hill. Together they are one hundred and thirty-two feet long and one hundred and five feet wide. Stored underground are one million bottles of champagne made by the French method—i. e., by fermentation in the bottle.

You enter: the nostrils are tickled with the odor of the wines. You see the vats heaped full with luscious grapes; the two double wine presses are working and squeezing out the life-blood of the berries; the liquid stream is pouring into large tanks; the men are bare-armed, their hands and faces smeared with red stains—you see this, and can imagine Bacchus and his merry crew holding high carnival.

This new wine, or "must," after it deposits its lees in the course of a few days, is run into casks holding from two to four thousand gallons each. Here it remains for six or eight weeks—that is, until it has passed through its first fermentation. Then it is racked off into other casks, and is now ready for mixing.

The composition of the blend is, of course, one of the secrets of the art. The French wine-maker mixes the juice of black grapes with that of white grapes in the proportion of three to one. The American wine-maker does about the same. He takes juice of the black Concord and Isabella grapes and mixes it with that of the red Catawba, Iona, and Delaware grapes. The great point is to get the right amount of saccharine matter, so as to cause neither too much nor too little effervescence: if too much, the bottles break afterward; if too little, the wine becomes dull, flat, and insipid. Thus the cuvée is effected. Think of the delicacy of taste required in order to know what the juices of many different grapes will bring forth two years hence! The mixture is put into casks in which it undergoes the process of fining, and then it is ready for bottling. After being bottled, the wine is kept in a semi-warm room until fermentation is well begun. The bottles are then carried to the deep, cool vaults, where they are packed in horizontal layers, making a pile four or five feet deep and twelve or fifteen feet long. Thus the bottles remain until the wine within is fully ripe—a period of from twelve to eighteen months.

It is important that the vaults be kept at an equable temperature. This is accomplished by the cold storage system, and the thermometer will not show a variation of more than three degrees throughout the year. The bottles are of great strength and of foreign make. The loss from breakage is always considerable, ranging from five to fifteen per cent. It is one of the items of the extra expense of champagne; the others being the quality of the juice, the care and manipulation required, and the capital invested for two or three years.

When champagne is considered fully ripened, the bottles are placed upon clearing tables, or racks, the necks pointing obliquely downward, in order that the sediment which has been formed during fermentation may work down upon the cork. Twice a day for three or four weeks the workmen give the bottles a quick little shake, and turn them partly around and down. At the end of this time the sediment is in the neck of the bottle, while the body of the wine is clear.

Now the bottles are taken to the finishing room, cork down, and the sediment is "disgorged." The workman cuts the cord holding the cork, and zip! out shoots the sediment with a report. The bottle is quickly placed on a machine and supplied with a temporary cork.

The wine in this state is raw vin brut without any liqueur. It is sharp and not cloying to the taste. It must be sweetened. So the bottle is placed in a machine, and a spoonful of liqueur is injected into it from a graduated glass tube or reservoir. This "dosage," as it is called, is simply pure sugar crystal dissolved in old wine or fine brandy. The dry champagne which the English and Americans like contains from four to eight per cent of liqueur; the Russians like sweet champagne, which has from fifteen to twenty per cent of liqueur.[5]

The bottle is permanently corked, and passed to a workman who ties in the cork and fastens wire around it. An ingenious capping machine puts on the pretty gold and silver foil that decorates the bottle, and finally the label is pasted on and the wine cased.

Such, in brief, are the successive stages through which champagne must pass ere it reaches the table with a bird and is called a "cold bottle." During these processes each bottle has been handled about two hundred times, and the transition from the grape to the finished product has taken two years and a half of time. There is, however, a short cut to champagne. Man does in a few days or a week what it takes Nature to accomplish in two years. He forces carbonic gas into the wine, and he even imitates closely the different bouquets. All is not champagne that sparkles.[6]

Champagne! There is an indescribable charm over, around, and about thee. The very word suggests glitter and bubble and sparkle. It brings to many of us a flood of recollections: pleasant company—bright eyes and rosy cheeks—laughter, sunburned mirth, and Provençal song—the feast of reason and flow of soul—the flow of words, repartee and banter—after-dinner speeches, and dull, formal dinners—all jumbled together. Even at this late day many a Cassio listens to the voice of the tempter Iago, who says: "Come, come; good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used; exclaim no more against it!"

  1. In that season the New York growers shipped to market the enormous quantity of 60,687 tons, or 121,374,000 pounds, of table grapes, while California sold only 38,785 tons for the same purpose.
  2. See report for 1889.
  3. The influence of water in ameliorating climate is seen in the varieties of native grapes that flourish in certain localities. The labrusca stock is a native east of the Alleghany Mountains, and is suited to a moist climate. It does not do well or flourish in the dry regions of the Western and Southwestern States. The bourquiniana varieties, such as herbemont, are eminently dry climate grapes. The æstivalis of the South and the native viparias of the Northwest are best fitted to their environment.
  4. The peculiar climatic and other natural advantages of the Lake Keuka region are summed up by William Saunders, Government Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds, as follows: "Here the Catawba and other late grapes mature and reach remarkable perfection, taking the latitude into consideration. These vineyards are mostly on the hillsides extending for several hundred feet above the valley and surface of Keuka Lake. The soil is a drift formation, and the surface is thickly covered with loose shale. The marked adaptability of this locality for grape culture may be attributed to its elevation and nature of the soil."—(Report of Secretary of Agriculture for 1889, p. 113.)
  5. The word "dry" is used by wine-growers to indicate natural-juice wine, such as claret or Rhine wine, in which no sugar is left after fermentation. As applied to champagnes, "dry" is used to indicate the degree of sweetness, as "dry" and "extra dry" or "special dry." We do not undertake to pass on the comparative merits of the French and American champagnes.
  6. The apparatus for charging wine and formulas for imitating bouquets are given in Antonio dal Piaz's book. Die Champagner-Fabrikation und Erzeugung imprägnirter Schaumweiue. Wien, 1892.