The Role of Wine in the French Revolution
The summer of 1789 saw the start of the French Revolution. It began with irate mobs storming the Bastille in Paris. And wouldn’t end until Napoleon’s rise to power on November 9, 1799. The years in between were a violent and brutal time, while France found a way to create a new government. This time led to significant changes in France’s political, social, and economic organization.
The Wine Industry Pre-French Revolution
Wine was a significant part of society in late 18th century France. Common people typically drank simple, low-quality wine, while the wealthy drank expensive wines from Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. The popularity of wine in everyday life was a substantial source of revenue for the authorities in the form of taxes. The alcoholic beverage tax brought in more money than all other taxes put together. The alcoholic tax rate was extremely high, particularly when entering Paris. It was so high, that the cost of a barrel of wine tripled as it passed through the toll gates on its way to the city center. These high taxes were one of many factors that contributed to the eventual revolution.
Another factor that contributed to the French Revolution was the unchecked power of the Church. Before the revolution, the Catholic Church was very powerful and exercised authority over many areas of life. In fact, much of the French wine industry was controlled by the Church. They owned most of the vineyards, especially in the famous winemaking regions.
Did You Know: The Cistercian Order (a group of monks and nuns in the Catholic Church) owned more than five thousand vineyards.
The Revolution’s Effect on the Wine Industry
One of the main goals of the revolutionaries was to make a fairer society for all people. Part of this goal included making the tax system more equal and fair for the commoners, who before the revolution felt they were shouldering most of the tax burden. On May 1, 1791 taxes on consumer goods, including the tax on wine was lifted. To celebrate, many long and raucous celebrations erupted in Paris and other major cities. This tax amendment made wine cheaper, and more available.
The Revolution was also set to reign in the power of the Catholic Church. In 1790, revolutionaries seized the Church’s assets, including their lands, and nationalized these vast assets. The state took these lands and auctioned them to small vignerons and farmers, leading to the rise of small-scale viticulture in regions previously controlled by the Church.
This contributed to the privatization of property and transformed the viticultural industry during and after the revolution. Because of these policies, there was a rise in the number of small vignerons. These vignerons were also able to redirect their surplus earnings to commercial purposes, rather than to the former harsh taxes and fees due to land owners. The interwar period manifested tangible benefits that led to the viticulture industry.
In 1793, the Jacobins (a more radical group of revolutionaries) took over power and decreed the end of mutual land, contributing to the end of land monopolization by the nobles and wealthy. The commons’ land was rehabilitated into vineyards. The 1793 legislation is regarded as the origin of the viticultural revolution experienced later in the 19th century.
After the Revolution
After the revolution, when Napoleon came to power he adopted new legislation, and the commons’ land was either leased or sold to generate revenue. By the mid-19th century, the common land that covered up to 16% of France had reduced to 9%. Rural economies benefitted from increased income, improving standards of living across the country.
While the revolution led to a period of unrest and violence in much of France, it made some significant, positive contributions to the future of France, especially to the wine industry. The surface area under vines increased exponentially during the revolution, primarily due to the privatization of the commons land. This increased wine production and consumption throughout the country. And the amount of land under vines and with it the wine industry continued to increase with Napoleon’s ascension to power.
This Day in Wine History
September 14, 1715 – Dom Perignon died. Perignon made a significant contribution to French wine in the Champagne region. Perignon was a monk at the Abbey Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. He was born in 1638 in Saint-Menehould, Champagne, France. At 17 years, he joined the monastery and started his monastic life. In 1658, he became a Benedictine in the monastery. Although he was not raised a winemaker, his curiosity led to his success when he became a cellar master at Hautvillers. At the Hautvillers, Perignon devoted his life to producing high-quality wines. The French revolution led to the destruction of the monastery in 1793. However, the Abbey Church still stands and was protected as a World International Heritage Site in 1998.
June 10, 1793 – The law of privatization of the common’s land was passed. The legislation significantly influenced French viticulture and wine production. At the time of its passing, wheat and wine were the basic products in the continent. Therefore, several small owners that appropriated the land put it up for grape cultivation. Consequently, viticulture and wine production increased during the revolutionary period. Grape vines were not the only ones planted in the newly-acquired common’s land. They also planted wheat grains, but not in as much quantity as grapes. The legislation acts as the origin of the viticulture revolution in France experienced in the Napoleonic era.
August 30, 1793 – The French government banned the export of essential commodities, including wine, wheat, bread, sugar, meat, soap, salt, and oil. The prohibition significantly impacted southern France, which hosted major wine-producing regions. Consequently, its residents protested the prohibition due to its damaging effects on their economic status. They argued against it under articles 16 and 17 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted by France’s National Constituent Assembly on 26 August 1789. The prohibition was eventually lifted in 1794 after the government allowed the exchange of wine for grains.
Want to read more? Try these books!
-  Thomas Carlyle, French Revolution. (James Fraser, 2019).
-  Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. (University of California Press, 2020), p. 274-275.
-  Noelle Plack, Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, C.1789-1820 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).
-  Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. (University of California Press, 2020), p. 439.
-  Plack, p. 141.
-  Plack, p. 138.