The Surprising History of Champagne

BOTH COVERSYesterday was #NationalWineDay, so I thought I’d post an extract from my book A Million Years In A Day on the surprising history of Champagne. If you enjoy this chapter, I hope you’ll perhaps take a look at the rest of the book, which charts the history of daily life across a modern Saturday. It’s fun, honest!

7 p.m.
A Champagne Aperitif

Tonight we’re hosting a little party to celebrate the birthday of a good friend, and as our guests arrive, looking glam and chipper as they come through to the dining room, we proffer a glass of champagne to each of them. After all, champers is the default drink of the celebratory gathering – but it wasn’t always so.

Here’s a lovely story for you. On 4 August 1693, an aged Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pierre Perignon was standing in the winery at the Abbey of Hautvillers with a grin plastered across his face. Shouting excitedly for his monastic brothers to gather around him, he declared ‘come quickly! I am drinking the stars!’ He had every right to be thrilled. After years of experimentation, he had finally cracked the secret to producing fizzy champagne. Alas, this charming anecdote is mostly bollocks. The idea that Dom Perignon set out to invent fizzy white wine is a nineteenth-century marketing myth, and the origins of the world’s most luxurious drink derive from a combination of accidental discovery, and – to my French mother’s undoubted horror – the ingenuity of the English.

Champagne is not a specific type of wine, it’s actually a French wine-producing region – Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco are fairly similar drinks – and medieval champagnes were still in nature and greyish in colour, rather than lightly sparkling whites. Though well respected at the time, they didn’t match the exalted reputation of Bordeaux’s superior offerings, but because they were grown in close proximity to the king-crowning cathedral of Reims, Champagne’s winegrowers could at least rely on royal patronage. Okay, so champagne’s origins were decent but not spectacular, but can we assume it became the first ever sparkling wine? Nope, that honour went to the Blanquette de Limoux produced in 1531 by the Benedictine monks of St Hilaire, not far from the southern fortress city of Carcassonne. And no, Dom Perignon didn’t learn his craft there either, that’s just one of the several mini-myths compacted into the ‘drinking the stars’ propaganda campaign. Pardonne-moi, maman!

In truth, the bubbles currently effervescing in our glass were actually the bane of Dom Perignon’s life, and the reason he hated them was because they were a symptom of failure in the manufacturing process. Sparkling champagne was an infuriating anomaly – to him, it was le vin du diable (the Devil’s wine) – but we now know that it wasn’t Satanic meddling to blame, but instead a quirk of organic chemistry. The northerly Champagne region succumbs to chilly winters, and the yearly frosts were temporarily pausing the yeast-based chemical reaction that turns sugar into alcohol, meaning the fermentation process, thought to be finished by autumn, was actually biding its time. When the new vintage was bottled in March, the summer sunshine reactivated the dormant yeasts, producing a sudden surge of carbon dioxide inside the bottle, and therefore bubbles.

But, it gets worse. Due to the poor quality of French glass-making, this internal pressure caused some of the bottles to explode, which was a costly and embarrassing disaster for Dom Perignon, and also forced those entering the cellars to wear protective padding and an iron face-mask, to stop them being blinded. Those bottles that didn’t shatter – perhaps because the oiled hemp rag, or wood stopper, placed in the top wasn’t airtight – were hurriedly shipped off to customers in France, but, more importantly, also found their way into England. When it arrived off the boat, the champagne was often re-bottled by the English to ensure its longer lifespan, but their bottles were produced in hotter furnaces that burned sea-coal instead of wood, resulting in tougher glass. Crucially, they also preferred airtight cork stoppers instead of rags, meaning something novel soon occurred – the gently effervescent wine became increasingly fizzy, as the gas pushed against the tougher walls of its glass and cork prison.

With bubbles being a symptom of poor quality control, you might think the English would have reacted stroppily to being sold dodgy goods by their on/off enemies, but the sparkles were greeted as a thrilling novelty in King Charles II’s party-mad Blighty. Dom Perignon was certainly dedicated to improving the quality of wine production, and had successfully produced a still white wine from red grapes, and was experimenting with blended grape varieties, but at no point was he expecting overseas orders to flood in for the Devil’s wine. However, before long, his refined French clientele also began requesting bubbly champers, and the puzzled monk was forced to adapt.

By the time Dom Perignon died in 1715, his vineyards were producing both still and sparkling wines, but it was the latter which was poured into the Duc D’Orleans’ cup when he became Regent of France in that same year. This was the launch-point, the moment when champagne first won celebrity acclaim, and soon upwardly mobile merchants began sniffing out business opportunities in the sparkle trade. Nicolas Ruinart, the nephew of Dom Perignon’s close friend, Dom Thierry Ruinart, established the first champagne marque in 1729, and was followed in 1743 by an enterprising wool-dealer called Claude Moët who somehow snared King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour as a loyal customer. Her proclamation that: ‘champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman looking beautiful after drinking it’ was the kind of incredible PR that you just couldn’t buy in the eighteenth century. As other merchants eagerly leapt into the bubble-biz, it became clear that a small aristocratic market would not support all these new wineries. Champagne would have to broaden its customer demographic.

Having finally discovered the secret of toughened glass and corks, champagne growers could ship their wine to far-flung places without the bottles spontaneously exploding like badly wired grenades. By the end of the century, champagne was gliding down the elegant gullets of Tsar Peter the Great and America’s own republican superhero George Washington. It was suddenly the drink of power, elegance and luxury, but people didn’t have to be a monarch to slurp it. Indeed, nineteenth-century advertising campaigns cunningly traded on the perceived opulence, yet carefully aimed their product at the rising middle classes. That said, some marques were forever out of reach – Cristal, produced by Louis Roederer, was bottled exclusively for the Tsars of Russia, and remained unavailable to the hoi polloi until the end of the Second World War.

Tonight, we are not enjoying Cristal – it’s still affordable only to rappers and footballers – but when we sauntered down the supermarket alcohol isle, hunting for a bottle, we were able to choose from a broad range. The once sweet grey wine of medieval France is now available as the saccharine doux and demi-sec, or the dry sec and brut, or even the über-dry extra-brut. And, of course, there are those made from white grapes (blancs de blancs), those from red (blancs de noirs), the alluringly pink rosés, and the esteemed cuvée de prestige made predominantly from a single year’s vintage. But one unchangeable thing that clearly defines champers is its fizziness. Bubbles are to champagne what headbands are to 1980s stadium rock – the defining, thrilling essence without which the experience becomes immediately disappointing.

So, with glasses charged, let’s drink to the birthday girl and get
the evening under way.

Thanks for reading! To learn more fun historical trivia about your daily life, click the book covers below.