By Thomas Parker, regular contributor
Champagne owed its initial cachet not merely to the quality of the wines, nor to the fact that they were effervescent (a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking), but mostly to their close proximity to Paris, which made for convient consumption by France’s kings. But sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources also attest that Champagne’s influence grew further afield, with the wine from the Champagne town of Ay, in particular, obtaining international acclaim. Sources reported that Pope Leo X of Italy, Charles V of Spain, François I of France, and Henry VIII of England were all particularly fond of the wines from Ay. The vin d’Ay didn’t really catch on, however, until the second part of the seventeenth century when the period’s best-known connoisseur and bon vivant, Charles de Saint-Evremond, joined the party.
Saint-Evremond was from a noble Normand family, and first made a name for himself as an accomplished career soldier in the early part of the century. During the 1650s, he began frequenting elite Paris circles where he became even more known for his repartee and wit, a trait that eventually got him exiled to England when it was discovered that he was the author of a bit of satirical writing skewering the Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Chief Minister. Before leaving France, however, he and two other cronies established what amounted to Saint-Evremond’s most enduring distinction: that of an incorrigible food and wine snob. The three were so persnickety in their tastes, as the story goes, that they would only consent to drink wine issuing from three specific slopes in Champagne. Word of this spread and people began referring to them as the three Côteaux, or “Slopes.”
Rather than taking offense, the Côteaux seemed to relish the moniker, bandying it about town in reference to themselves and fanning the mix of fame and notoriety their reputation started to bring. A satire from the period, entitled Les Côteaux ou les Marquis Friands, claimed that “Of today’s aficionados, [the Côteaux] are the most elite and distinguished. Presented with game, they can tell by the smell its place of provenance.” The Bishop of Lemans added to this image in a chiding tone, “These men (…) can only eat river veal: they must have partridges from the Auvergne; their rabbits must be from the Roche-Guyon or Versine, and as for wine, they can only drink that from three slopes of Ay, Hautvilliers, and Avenay.”
It was not just the men’s choosiness that was important, but also what they chose. In each of the selections, from the river veal, reputed to be the most tender available, to the wines, the emphasis was on a set of qualities, including whiteness, lightness, delicateness, and purity, that began to pop up everywhere where food was praised in the second half of seventeenth-century.
Champagne became the very icon and pinnacle of good taste in this regard. Following in the footsteps of France’s royal tradition, Saint-Evremond, who deemed the wines of Ay superior to the two other slopes, allowed that:
“If you ask which of these wines I prefer, without allowing me to stray to the taste trends inspired by the false connoisseurs, I would say to you that the good wine of Ay is the most natural of all wines, the healthiest, and the most purified of any odor of terroir, and of the most exquisite pleasurability in its flavor of peaches, which is unique to it, and the best in my opinion of all flavors.”
The “false connoisseurs” in question were those who sought effervescent versions of champagne, a quality frowned upon by traditionalists at the time.
What is perhaps most striking is that Saint-Evremond and the Côteaux, as early seventeenth-century prototypes of today’s supertasters and wine snobs, did not gravitate toward the specificity and authenticity of the terroir as would contemporary wine connoisseurs.
Rather, along with a proclivity for all that was light and white, they sought foods washed of any flavors that would be identified with the earth. Instead of representing an unadulterated expression of place, the most exquisite, cosmopolitan, and refined foods and wines were paradoxically thought purest if they were both place specific and rang of no place.