The Champagne Riots
The Champagne riots of 1910-11 were a socially and economically driven series of riots in France. The riots mainly took place in the wine-producing areas of the Champagne region but also affected other French wine-growing regions. The conflicting interests of the grape growers and champagne houses resulted in devastation as violence caused the streets to run with spilled wine. Several Champagne houses were forced to close.
To understand the Champagne Riots, it is important to focus on the difficulties of grape growers and Champagne houses at the time. For the grape growers, the problems were serious and continuous. In the early 20th century, rain and frost severely damaged crops and drastically reduced yields.
Mold and mildew ravaged grape production between 1902 to 1909. Then devastating hailstorms and floods in 1910 destroyed more than 90 percent of the grapes. Additionally, the phylloxera epidemic that started in the south of France had also reached Champagne and was destroying vineyards and reducing yields.
On the other side, Champagne houses had long processing times, high production costs, exploding bottles, and difficulty storing the product. Despite the problems faced by both groups, Champagne was considered a symbol of celebration and sophistication, and demand was increasing.
Due to a rise in demand and a decline in grape availability from the local region due to disease, Champagne houses started importing grapes at cheaper prices, mainly from Spain and Germany and still labeled the product as Champagne. At this time there were no laws prohibiting this. The local growers were unhappy with this practice, and they called sparkling wine made from foreign grapes fake. They petitioned the concerned authorities to put in a law stating that at least 51% of the grapes used to make Champagne must come from the Champagne region. Additionally a year later in 1908 the French government tried to specify exactly what constituted the Champagne region. They included the districts of Aisne and Marne, but left out the area of Aube which contained the historic capital of the Champagne region, Troyes. This further enraged local growers and contributed to unrest in the area.
The Champagne houses tried everything, including violence and intimidation, to appease the local growers and continue to buy grapes at a low cost set by foreign regions. However, the local growers refused to sell their grapes at these lower prices. Already struggling with low yields for several years, this attitude of Champagne houses forced the local growers into starvation.
The growers finally had enough and started riots against the Champagne houses in the towns of Hautville and Damery. They captured trucks loaded with grapes, wine bottles, and barrels from the Loire Valley and dumped them into the Marne River. The situation was worse in Ay city. A fire started and spread throughout the city. The houses of private citizens, as well as Champagne producers, were destroyed.
Failing to tackle the situation, the governor of Ay asked the French government for help . The government sent an army to retain peace and to start negotiations between the local growers and champagne houses to resolve the tension. However, WWI arrived and put a halt to negotiations.
After the war, the French government worked with stakeholders and presented rules and regulations in 1927 to avoid any tension in the future. Only wines from Marne, the formerly-excluded Aube and parts of the Aisne departments were allowed to be called Champagne. A classification system was introduced to resolve the pricing problem between the champagne houses and growers. Villages in the region were rated based on the quality of grapes. This classification system is still present, but is not obeyed as strictly as it was in the past.
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