by Fred McMillin
for April 2, 1998

Charlemagne, Born April 2, 742


Emperor Charlemagne was so fond of the red wine from his fine Corton vineyards that, in his enthusiasm, he would sometimes spill it, coloring his noble beard. His wife felt the stains were hardly appropriate for her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor. To silence her complaints, he ordered some of the red-wine vines of Corton uprooted and replaced with white. Thus was born one of the great Chardonnay wines of the world, Corton-Charlemagne.

...From a brochure I picked up in Burgundy.

The light at the end of the Dark Ages has a name—and it is Charlemagne.

..."Vintage," by Hugh Johnson

The Rest of the Story

Here are some indications of exactly how bright that light was.

A born leader, he was a huge man, nearly seven feet tall, with a "merry face" and blond hair (remember those stains).

He ordered that crushing of wine grapes no longer be done with the feet, but that a mechanical screw press be used.

Likewise, wine was no longer to be stored in skins, but in wooden kegs instead.

The first regulations for winemaking in Germany were promulgated by "Carolus Magnus," his Latin name which meant Charles the Great.

He liked cheese as well as wine, pronouncing Brie to be "one of the most marvelous of foods," and ordered two crates a year.

One spring on the Rhine, he noticed the sunlight reflected off the water in a way that caused the snow to melt first on a hill facing south. He ordered a vineyard built there. Some say it became Germany's famous Schloss Johannisberg.

Viticulture became so successful during Charlemagne's reign that there was an excess of wine. Thus, "banvin" had to be imposed, which meant none of the tenants could sell their wine until the lord had sold his own (from H. Wirtjes).

The ultimate indication of his affection for the vine occurred when he renamed the months of the year in his own languge. October became "windume-monath," that is, the month of the wine harvest.

As for my birthday toast, it has to be with a non-staining Chardonnay. The budget can't handle a Corton-Charlemagne, but here's a fine one I can afford. Winemaker Margaret Davenport tells me Charlemagne would approve, since she DEFINITELY DID NOT crush the grapes with her feet or age it in animal hides.

The Wine

'96 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Sonoma County
Clos du Bois Winery,Geyserville, CA.
Food Affinities—Charlemagne decreed that each of his farms have at least 30 geese, 100 hens and one fishpond. This Chardonnay, with hints of cinnamon, lemon and full-flavored pear, will support any of them nicely, provided of course that you finish the wine and meal with some dreamy, creamy Brie.
Winery Stature—Last fall a collection of Clos du Bois double magnums sold for $8,000 at the Sonoma County Wine Auction.
Contact—The erudite Dan Solomon, who true to his namesake, knows much more about California wines than I.
Phone—(707) 433-8268.


Since monks did not pay taxes, Charlemagne forbid them from doing any commerce; i.e., he didn't want any "monk-ey business."


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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