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.
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 -“.
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 boldTo rival the nectar Ay’s sunny slopes yield.As bright as the goblet it sparklingly fillsWith diamonds in fusion, it foaming exhalesAn odour ambrosial, the nostril that thrills,Foretelling the flavour delicious it veils.
Despite the tongue of malice,No poison in thy chaliceWas ever found, Champagne!Simplicity most loyalWas e’er thy boast right royal,And this thy wines retain.No harm lurks in the fireThat helps thee to inspireThe heart and spur the brain.
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.
Ainsi, docte Fagon, il s’agit de ma gloire
Contre ce faux censeur qui ternit ma mémoire.
Daigne me secourir de ton autorité.
“To the doctor to goOn behalf of your wine
Is, as far as I know,
Of its sickness a sign.”
“Your cause and your wineMust be equally weak,Since to check their declineA prescription you seek.’”
‘Bold Burgundian ever gloriesWith stout Remois to get mellow;Each well filled with vinous lore isEach a jolly tippling fellow.’
Joignez ces liqueurs ravissantes,
Vous ferez des vers plus charmants,
Laissez aux Muses languissantes
Boire la liqueur des Normands.
[…] 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.