Burgundy vs. Champagne: An 18th Century Flame War

Is this the earliest recorded flame war between wine geeks?

A searing debate raged in France from the mid-17th to mid-18th century between the Universities of Reims and Paris.

Guy-Crescent Fagon, Royal Physician, and Louis XIV, his patient.

It all started with a change in Louis XIV’s Royal Physician in 1693.  The previous Royal Physician, Antoine d’Aquin, was a fervent promoter of the wines of Champagne.

The new Royal Physician, Guy-Crescent Fagon, made clear there would be no more Champagne, and that it would instead be Burgundy that would be used as a vehicle while administering quinquina infusions to Louis XIV1. You may recognize quinquina, or chicona bark, as a source of quinine — a modern day ingredient of tonic water and a whole host of liqueurs, which has retained its reputation as a treatment for fever and malaria.

Bag for cinchona bark, Peru, 1777-1785 Wellcome L0058857; Drug jar for cinchona bark, Italy, 1701-1730 Wellcome L0057626.

Fagon was seeking to remedy Louis XIV’s fevers2. And once Monsieur Fagon had pushed Champagne off the royal table, each town’s university medical department became engaged in a century-long battle to prove — trading blows, via graduate theses — whether the wines of Burgundy or the wines of Champagne (which were not yet sparkling) were superior.

And it got really dirty, really quick.

After a first shot fired during an earlier thesis in 1652, in which Monsieur Arbinet capriciously held that “because the wine of Beaune was the most pleasant, it is also therefore most healthful”, things heated up much later in May 1700, when a retort by Monsieur Le Pescheur was defended at the University of Reims, contending that the wine of Reims is superior to Burgundy.

Finally, we have a third shot fired when, unable to stomach Pescheur’s thesis, Monsieur de Salins’ document is written only a few months afterward in November 1700: his Défense du vin de Bourgogne contre le vin de Champagne, the subject of this article, first reprints a selection of Monsieur Le Pescheur’s pro-Champagne thesis, then tries to refute it, returning all the nasty jabs with the fiery, hateful force of a modern wine geek flame war on WineBerserkers.com.

How does one substantiate a perfectly subjective claim such as ‘X wine is better than Y?’ Why, with whackadoodle pseudo-science, that’s how! Humors, phlegm, tartar, essential salts, an obsession with “purity”, and all sorts of hysterical 17th century biochemical chicanery.

The 23 page manuscript is so disarmingly entertaining that I’ve translated some choice excerpts.

Without further ado:

Excerpts from Monsieur Le Pescheur’s Slightly Nasty Pro-Champagne attack:

“One typically praises wine’s color, odor, taste, consistency, ageworthiness, and the terroir within which it grows; as nature has its favorite places for production: when all of this is eminently visible in wine, it is impossible to refuse it its laurels. In the Kingdom [of France], only the wines of Reims and Burgundy compete for primacy.

The color of the wine of Reims is so vivid that the purest diamond couldn’t shine brighter before one’s eyes, sometimes the red is so vermilion and so full of fire that one might mistake it for distilled rubies. It is the union of these two colors which forms that which we know as the oeil de perdrix [the eye of the partridge], which is no less pleasant to look at even if it does not have as much brilliance.

The wine of Burgundy draws upon the dried rose, and shows at the edges of the glass some odd mix of yellow and orange which represents a sort of rainbow, especially once it begins to age: in regards to odor, it has none at all, or only a burnt exhalation which burns the organ and smells of the ruddy3 and mineral earth of the country, or of its burnt stones4; on the contrary, the wines of Reims possess much more subtle and volatile particles, because they grow in a light, delicate soil, exhaling an odor so pleasant that the nose is always perfumed before one tastes it, such that one might call it the very charm and delicacy of this sense—of far greater title than tobacco, which is commonly given this praise.

I maintain that the wine of Burgundy is always too hard or too soft—that there is no in between, and that this is the result of the flawed configuration of its unequal and disproportionate parts, which tear up the pores of the organ when they are not yet dulled; and which, becoming dulled afterwards, suddenly cease to make a sensory impression; whereas the wines of Reims parts are perfectly united, and proportioned to the organ, always affecting it in a gentle manner, pleasantly prickling5 the palate, which is conclusive not only for the preference, but also the healthfulness of our wines.

One may easily distinguish the wine of Aÿ, Hautvilliers, Pierry, SilleryVerzenay, Taissy and Montbré6, without speaking of wines nearby, which, even if not as famous, are of no less merit, and of which I could not remain in silence; the fertile Valley of Vinet, which Bacchus seems to have chosen for spreading his treasures, and the Clos of S. Thierry7; the Golden Mountain which the sun never seems to lose sight of; if there are better wines which still compete with ours, in taste and pleasantness, which have been granted by nature, there can be none which can challenge its healthfulness. We know how much its aging is precious, and what a boon it is to people advanced in their years; quite different from Burgundy wines, which nearly always become bitter or fail at the approach of heat waves, which renders them as a result incapable of carrying water. It’s consistently true that all of our wines surpass all others in their ageworthiness, as today we are still drinking the very finest of 1694 [NB: 6 years old].

One might claim in favor of the wine of Burgundy that it provides a greater amount of spirits for eau de vie, but this is what it has in common with the thickest wines of Orléans, and this should instead be viewed in one and the other as a default, which evidences either that their parts are not in union or that their spirits, tartar, and phlegm are disproportionate.

Concerning the consistency of (Champagne’s) wines, they nearly always find a perfect balance, that is to say that they are neither too delicate nor do they have too much body; in any case, this allows them to be more delicious and ready to drink, to give them the consistency and maturity that one desires by wisely blending them: the wines of Aÿ, for example, pair perfectly with the wines of the Mountains of Reims, and better than the wines of Chio and Falernum (in modern Campania; Falernian wine—maderised for 15-20 years in amphorae, a sweet, white wine— was the most praised wine of Antiquity) whose blend was celebrated by the Poets (of Antiquity) and approved by Bacchus himself if we are to believe them; but to ally the wine of Burgundy with the wine of Champagne? This is what Bacchus, or at least those of discriminating taste, would never approve of; their saps are too incompatible.

Coming back to the wine of Reims, nothing argues more in their favor than the good health of our local countrymen, among whom one finds neither gout nor the unhealthy, most of whom live a very long time, and most often without a single incidence of sickness. Come, Nestor of our era, Pierre Pieton, citizen of Hautvilliers, who lived 118 years in perfect health, you who in one of our finest vineyards remained healthy and whole, well beyond the ordinary length of the longest life; come dispel those who condemn the wine of Reims, who simply welcome it during meals, where health is sacrificed to pleasure: May the number of your years be the eternal praise of a drink more pleasant and healthful than the wines of Burgundy, or any other wine of the world.

So the wine of Reims is more pleasant and healthful than the wine of Burgundy.”

Excerpts from M. De Salins’ Incredibly Nasty Pro-Burgundy reply:

“(…) I ask you, sir, if there could be a finer soil, orientation, and exposition to the sun anywhere in the world than those of the wines of Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay? Is it permissible for the best climates of Champagne to even approach them? Removed as they are from the Equinoxial Circle by three degrees and a few minutes (latitude), and thus possessing much less sun and warmth, which renders wines little more than the cadettes of our own, far from any right to claim superiority, which up to now causes the greatest and most objective connoisseurs to say: The wine of Reims is thin, not quite wine-flavored, and acid, which, like most other white wines, has the strength to make urine, but very little to nourish & to warm.

Doctor Inspecting a Flask of Urine; Evert Oudendijck, Haarlem, ca. 1688.

This property to nourish and augment natural heat resides so particularly and so eminently in the wines of Burgundy, such that when the juice is barely out of the press and placed in barrel, immediately it separates more quickly than any other French wine from its oily and slimy parts; its liquors, its principles, and its essential salts are powerful, which clarify it quicker and render it among the earliest drinkable wines.

Is it not also a great ingratitude on behalf of those gentlemen to challenge via their wines a preference over those of Burgundy, knowing full well that they simply borrowed their origin and glory from our great productions and vineyards through cuttings of our vines, which, via cowardly complicity and corruption caused some of our former coopers to send them; but thanks to God, Solo natura Subest [“Nature lies under the soil”]; Nature is attached to the land as Virgil has rightly remarked. For their wines to be as good as ours, they would need to carry home with our cuttings, our sun and our land.

“In his Fourth Corollary, [Le Pescheur] discusses the qualities and the different properties of wine in general, without saying via which of their essential or integral parts (…) all of which demonstrate that this is yet another Champenois [inhabitant of Champagne] who can only judge good qualities in wines because he has read about them in his books, and apparently has never seen any vineyard other than his own …

After the wines of Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay, whose vermilion tint is of the most beautiful in the world, (…) come the dry white wines or those which have no liqueur, from the village of Meursault, with a higher alcohol8, bubbly9, as fine and as clear as spring water, with the peculiarity that, if added to other wines, (Meursault) not only corrects their defects, but brings what they lacked in strength and quality.

As for the rest, the wines of Savigny and Aloxe, among delicate rosés, carry them eminently above all others; those of Chassagne10, Santenay, Saint-Aubin, Morgeot, and Blagny follow very closely, and by the year’s end, the wine of Nuits has no equal and cannot be valued highly enough. The wine from villages aside this beautiful curtain of hills stretching from Nuits to Dijon have also acquired quite a reputation, and those of Chalon and Macon have also gained much reputation … and it would never end if we had to detail all of the good wines produced by the province of Burgundy; they are wonderful sources that we never see dry up.

But what good are these appearances which Champagne merchants put on to come insult us, we who think nothing of them? Why all these disputes? If they wish to properly acquire glory and preëminence for their wines, why not simply call upon as judge the wise, objective, and honorable Monsieur Fagon, first Doctor to the King, to analyze and decompose each wine, after which we will consent in good faith, that the wine which he will decide should have the honor of preference and the prize of victory.

To respond to the insults and invectives with which the Author of the thesis of Reims has lashed out against the color, odor, and favor of Burgundy wine,  I would merely need refer to the tastes of the Royal Court and the town {commoners], who want nothing other than Burgundy. (…), one need only examine the registers of the previous General Director of Customs and Taxes of Burgundy11, and one will learn that the merchants of Reims have purchased12 more Burgundy wines these last few years than any other merchants of foreign countries; why then, sir, if not to mix them by half or more with their sick, half-dead wines, to try to give them a new life, and in doing so prolong a dying reputation, one which they owe entirely to the goodness of our wines?  

These gentlemen from Reims having thus seen during these last few years that their wines were not worth more than preceding years, and having nothing good from their own production to offer foreign merchants who know them all too well from a fatal experience, have enlisted the help of this author of the Reims thesis, in order to win them back, in the hope that [he] will persuade them, via sophisms and by specious arguments, that only wines of Champagne are good, that the wines of Burgundy are defective and worthless.

How sad that these foreign merchants are lured by specious reasoning and false promises (…) [to] the wines in Champagne, which they will find for the most part falsified and softened by lead oxide in order to correct their high acid and raw greenness; although it is certain that arsenic-infused foudres [tanks] and the scum of impure mercury — of which it is full — are capable of poisoning them, such as it was clearly announced in the striking Declaration given these last few years to the Parliament of Metz in the Report of Counselor Blancheton.

To respond to the great praise of the wines of Champagne as the finest for celebration, I would content myself to say that this is the same thing as saying “this wine is good because it is worthless”; “this wine is good, because given its lack of alcohol, one can drink a great deal without fearing drunkenness”; and given their raw greenness — like all wines of this quality, as noted by Hippocrates and Gallien, and all Antiquity — consumption of such wines in excess can only produce obstructions and fermentations in the bowels, typical causes of the greatest sicknesses, as are the inflammations of the noble parts of the body, apoplexia, paralysis, gout and rheumatisms; whereas the wines of Burgundy, via their subtle and pentetrating tartars13, in combination with their volatile salts converted into liqueurs, pass promptly via the lymphatic vessels, the spleen, and kidneys leaving no impediment, obstruction, nor fermentation, which is the greatest thing to fear in the excessive consumption of this type of liqueur; and to combat the rising of vapors, which, when consumed in too large an amount, can rise into the head, the remedy is easily found: one need only drink as much water as one can consume without discomfort (…)

Jeanne Calment famously lived to 122 years of age.

As for the example of the long life of Pierre Pieton of Hautvilliers cited, we must respond (…) that in a small village such as Beaune, there are over 12 people aged 80 and 90 years, and 30 over 70. Making a trophy out of one man aged 118 years! Monsieur le Baron de Villebertin, our neighbor, who drank only Burgundy wine, lived nearly 120 years!

The blood, which is affected by the wine of Reims, pinches and pricks the parts which are of the most exquisite sentiment (sic), from which it results that those who regularly consume [the wine of Reims] are most often subject to the spilling over and inflammation of the humors of the brain via the nostrils, and to gout; but the wine of Burgundy — particularly the wine of Beaune, even if it is slightly bitter in its first months— softens shortly afterwards, and because of the branchlike parts14 which constitute it, it attaches more intimately to foods in the stomach, and being distributed with them to all parts of the body, it is converted into worthy and well-conditioned blood, without encouraging the danger of any sickness; would this not be the reason that the illustrious M. Fagon, charged with caring for the health of kings, has expressed a preference for the wine of Burgundy over that of Reims?”

***

So how did this war conclude?

After Louis XIV died slowly and painfully of a gangrene in his leg which he had ignored, Fagon was removed from power — standard protocol upon a king’s death. His successor, Phillippe II, became obsessed with sparkling Champagne.

Champagne exports surged in the coming decades15 — and once bottle and cork technologies improved, by the early 19th century the sparkling wine as we know it greeted world markets. Champagne’s market dominance over Burgundy soon became a foregone conclusion.

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  1. En 1679, Robert Talbor visita la France et l’Espagne. En France, il eut l’opportunité de guérir le Dauphin d’un accès de fièvre et traita avec succès d’autres éminentes personnalités. Ces résultats lui attirèrent les faveurs de Louis XIV qui, moyennant une forte somme d’argent et la garantie d’une pension annuelle, obtint de lui la composition de sa recette. Le secret tenait essentiellement dans l’administration de fortes doses d’écorce de quinquina infusée dans du vin et dans le renouvellement régulier des prises. http://www.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/guibourt/exposition_guibourt_1.htm []
  2. http://cour-de-france.fr/article1531.html?lang=fr []
  3. rougeâtre = ruddy: iron. []
  4. “de ses pierres adustes: elsewhere translated as burnt; cf. Mémoires, Volumes 13-14 By the Société d’archéologie de Beaune (Côte d’Or), visible at https://books.google.com/books?id=hA5OAAAAMAAJ&lpg=RA1-PA125&ots=cWTa4SKfL6&dq=%22pierres%20adustes%22&pg=RA1-PA125#v=onepage&q=%22pierres%20adustes%22&f=false []
  5. “Ortient agréablement le palais”: from an infinitive ortier, cf. ortie, or a stinging nettle: « Les gourmets disent que le vin, pour être bon, doit ortier le palais, c’est-à-dire le piquer doucement. » Richelet, 1710. cf. http://uses.plantnet-project.org/fr/Urtica_%28Rolland,_Flore_populaire%29 []
  6. Source text spelling is Mombré, cf. equivalancies here: https://books.google.com/books?id=Zh3cDacJzUEC&lpg=PR13&ots=yRBVR58Fdi&dq=mombr%C3%A9%20champagne&pg=PR13#v=onepage&q=mombr%C3%A9%20champagne&f=false []
  7. Better French listing, showing the presumed Clos: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Thierry, although he may refer to Château Thierry: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau-Thierry []
  8. spiritueux. []
  9. pétillant. []
  10. Interestingly, a separate 18th century publication, Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, sur les vins qu’elle produit, sur la manière de cultiver les vignes, de faire le vin et de l’éprouver, Arnoux, 1785, contended that Chassagne reds were the finest of Burgundy, in particular because they traveled and aged reliably []
  11. Fermes du roi, with ferme possessing meaning completely outside of agriculture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferme_g%C3%A9n%C3%A9rale []
  12. “avoient plus fait de”: aporetic syntax: context suggests purchase more than production or sales. []
  13. Possibly equivalent to lime? tartre: calcaire. []
  14. “parties rameuses”: https://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/rameux#fr []
  15. ‘Exports of Champagne to Paris and Versailles from Epernay alone went from 960 bottles in 1708 to 62,085 bottles in 1727′. B. Musset, 2007, p86; as cited in the excellent Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea, Thomas Parker, University of California Press, 2015. []

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