Coteaux: The Discerning Palate

These gentlemen carry it to extremes. They can only eat Normandy veal; their partridges must come from Auvergne, and their rabbits from La Roche Guyon. They are not less particular as to fruit; and as to wine, they can only drink that of the good coteaux of Aÿ, Hautvillers, and Avenay.

—Attributed to the Bishop of Le Mans

Coteaux means “hillsides” in French, conjuring images of lush green knolls decorated with vines growing the perfect champagne grape—but non. In the annals of Champagne, coteaux refers to someone with exceptionally discerning taste when it comes to food and wine—the birth of the discerning palate.

In the late 1600s, Charles de Saint-Évremond — respected author, critic and soldier — had a reputation for enjoying the finer things. In fact, the finer things are the only things Saint-Évremond and his entourage enjoyed, much to the annoyance of the Bishop of Le Mans, who began referring to them as “les trois coteaux” (the three hillsides), a nod to the three famous hills from which Saint-Évremond and his bacchanalian friends exclusively drank their wine: Aÿ, Hautvillers, Avena. Apparently the insult stuck. Shortly thereafter, Louis XIV assembled L’Ordre des Coteaux, a legion of aristocrats, gourmands and wine connoisseurs—including Saint-Évremond, of course.

Soon enough Champagne become known as a bastion of excellence, and discerning palettes from around the world took notice. In 1794, George Washington imported 485 bottles of Champagne and Burgundian reds into America for $355.67. The 18th-century poets Diderot and Voltaire dedicated whole verses to the effervescence of Champagne. During the congress of Vienna in 1814, it was reported that 143 representatives from all over Europe would end their days with Champagne as a way to celebrate.

And the rest they say, is French history. Louis XIV’s club of gourmands was swept away in the French Revolution, but the idea of a society dedicated to craft and excellence was soon revived. In the 1950s, François Taittinger of the eponymous Champagne house reformed the L’Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, which still exists today. Its nearly 4,000 members—with palates that Saint-Évremond and George Washington would certainly approve of—work together to promote Champagne’s exemplary wines around the world.