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The Origins Of Champagne

Champagne has long had a symbiotic relationship with its main export market across the English Channel. From the cultivation of effervescence and the development of strong verre anglais, to the evolution from dessert wine to dry apéritif, Nicholas Faith traces the history of an Anglo-French cultural exchange


Reims Cathedral, where Champagne was used for coronations from 1575.

Throughout their modern history, the English have been subject to fits of Puritanism. But unsurprisingly, once they are over, they bounce back. So, we can well imagine the relief and the reaction in 1660 when King Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, returned from exile after 12 years of severe Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard. Curiously, the creation of sparkling Champagne was one of the (albeit minor) elements in the history of what is called the Restoration period during the king's reign to 1685. This was a period of unbridled license, of wine, women, and song - indeed, new types of wines played an important role in the mores of the period.

The tone was set by the king himself, who enjoyed well-publicised relationships with a number of mistresses. The most important was probably Louise de Kerouaille, who for 15 years, until the king's death in 1685, enjoyed his favour; her son as made Duke of Richmond and she herself Duchess of Portsmouth and thus an ancestor, among many others, of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The French ambassador encouraged her to help influence the king, and the whole episode illustrates the importance of France and of Charles's close - and indeed treasonable - relationship with his cousin Louis XIV, who paid him a regular subsidy! France was for the English the model of a civilised society; and the model for what French civilisation represented was not the French ambassador but, rather, the Marquis Charles de St Evremond.

· A gourmet in exile ·

Although he refused to allow any of his works to be published during his lifetime, when he died in 1703, St Evremond was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Before his expulsion he had been a gourmet - a former member of the Ordre des Coteaux. This was an early example of a group of tiresome, finicky exquisites; and like many other groups since then, was simultaneously mocked and imitated. As a highly influential figure, the leading authority on French - and thus the smartest - fashion in every aspect of the life of the court and, indeed, of society in general, St Evremond proved an ideal ambassador for the wines of Champagne. In fact, he was more than that; there was no regular direct trade in wine between Champagne and Britain, so shipments - exclusively in cask - depended on personal contacts, which, of course, St Evremond was uniquely well-placed to provide. He also, incidentally, introduced the idea of the flute-shaped glass that is still widely used, his object being to appreciate the clarity and colour of the wine.

· When science met hedonism ·

It was as a well-connected gourmet, rather than as a man of letters, that he imported, in cask, the nonsparkling wines of Champagne to the elite of London's drinkers. During the last 40 years of the 17th century, it was they who created the market for some of the drinks that remain desirably superior beverages to this day. They included "Coniack” brandy, the wines of Jerez and Porto and, above all, claret matured in oak casks - and indeed sold in London in a tavern owned by the Pontac family, which owned the pioneering estate of Haut-Brion. But creating the conditions to provide fizz was another matter. Chemically, it is simple enough. In a cold climate - and remember that the latter half of the 17th century witnessed what has been described as a Little Ice Age - wine will not complete its fermentation before the winter cold blocks any further activity by the yeasts. As a result, they begin their work again the following spring, creating bubbles of carbon dioxide if the wines have already been bottled.

So, it required another aspect of Restoration London to lead to the creation of sparkling Champagne. For it was not merely hedonistic - it was also in the forefront of technical and scientific advances.

It was in December 1662 that a well-known doctor and scientist, Dr Christopher Merret, gave a now famous lecture, his "Observations” on wines, in which he described how to make them sparkle through the creation of bubbles of carbon dioxide in the bottle. As he put it: “Our wine coopers of later times use vast quantities of sugar & molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk [effervescent] & sparkling & to give them spirit as also to mend their bad tastes."

The idea of adding sugar and/or brandy to an alcoholic beverage to create a fizz, as proposed by the learned doctor, was no  novelty. By the 1660s, the idea of sparkling cider was well established. Sir Kenelm Digby - a notorious pirate, dilettante, swordsman, and dueler who, conveniently, owned an estate in a coal-producing region - was "also a keen experimenter with glass, oxygen, and carbon dioxide." In 1662, he was credited with the invention of the modern wine bottle, and his glass was known by the French as verre anglais.

Crucially, the bottles - and their stoppers - had to be strong enough to withstand the additional pressure provided by the carbon dioxide, reckoned then at three times normal atmospheric pressure - in today's Champagnes, it is six times! In fact, as Professor Henri Enjalbert rightly reminds us in his authoritative Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin (Bordas; Paris, 1975), Italian technology was being exploited:


Dom Perignon statue, Epernay, Champagne Region, France

"Italian immigrants had introduced Venetian techniques into England at the beginning of the 17th century. To save what remained of the country's woodlands [the wood from their oaks, required when building ships for the country's ever more important navy], a royal edict of 1614 had orbidden burning wood in glass-making furnaces. New factories were immediately built using coal [which provided a hotter and more reliable source of heat]. They enjoyed the greater success because between 1650 and 1660 the privileges of the master glass-makers were suppressed. The models of bottles with stout bodies and long necks - the type used by Dom Pérignon - was defined in 1662 in a permit granted to Henry Holden and John Golenet, who mass-produced them… By the end of the 17th century the glass-makers provided all the containers and stoppers needed for maturing and distributing wines."

It was the ability of Britishmade bottles to withstand the additional pressure created by the carbon dioxide that provides the key to the arrival, creation, or invention (however you may like to describe it) of the new reality of sparkling Champagne.

· Brisk British business ·

It was the ability of British-made bottles to withstand the additional pressure created by the carbon dioxide that provides the key to the arrival, creation, or invention (however you may like to describe it) of the new reality of sparkling Champagne.

Within a couple of years, the fashionable satirical poet Samuel Butler was referring to "brisk" - that is, sparkling - "champaign." Britain's upper-class drinkers have always been careless in their spelling: Cognac could be Coniack, Château Margaux referred to as Margoose, while the new drink could also be spelled "campaign," "champaign," "champaigne," "shampain," or "champain." To this day, one can hear the cry for a glass of "shampoo" or simply "fizz" in London's smarter men's clubs. Apart from its scarcity, the only barrier – though a major one - retarding the universal success of the wine was that it was French, since for most of the time between 1678 and 1715 Britain was at war with Louis XIV’s France. As a result, it was considered an unpatriotic drink by comparison with Port, which came from Britain’s ally Portugal.

Nevertheless, sparkling Champagne, however it was spelled, remained fashionable, and it quickly, and perhaps inevitably, gained its long-lasting reputation as a superior aphrodisiac. This is not as absurd as it sounds. The alcohol in ordinary wine is not released until it reaches the stomach. But Champagne and other sparkling wines are different. The moment the wine comes into contact with the (relatively) rough surfaces that line our mouth, the resulting friction causes the carbonic acid gas suspended in the wine to force its way out in the form of a bubble - and each of these bubbles carries with it a drop of alcohol. The effect is disguised by the tingling of the fizz, but it is real enough. As the French saying has it, Chaque fois qu'un bouchon de Champagne saute, une femme se met à rire ("Every time a Champagne cork pops, a woman starts to laugh").

As soon as it arrived on the market, even in very limited quantities, Champagne was regarded purely and simply as an aid to seduction, or at least as a unique combination of freshness, joy, vivacity - a recognition of freedom from the constraints of everyday life. Indeed, it is only over the past 20 or 30 years that the Champenois have started to try to define it as a distinguished wine in its own right.

· A mess of alcoholic bubbles ·

Meanwhile, Dom Pierre Pérignon, the procureur (all-powerful administrator) of the Abbey of Hautvillers for nearly 50 years after his appointment in 1668, was revolutionising the wine itself, most notably by succeeding in making white wine from black grapes and by blending wines from different coteaux. Indeed, he was the pioneer in producing the still wines we know today. But there was nothing he, his rivals and successors, and sophisticated wine drinkers in general disliked so much as the mere thought of sparkling Champagne. For more than a hundred years after it arrived in France in  the late 17th century, it was universally considered as mere flotte - a mess of alcoholic bubbles fit only for the most degraded company. By the end of the 17th century, French glass-makers were producing strong Englishtype bottles in the Argonne, east of Champagne. But this did not help the reputation of sparkling Champagne; in 1697, no less a personage than Madame de Sévigne efers to sparkling Champagne as Le Vin de Diable. It is no coincidence that it first became fashionable as a drink favoured by Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the notoriously louche regent for the infant Louis XV after 1715.

Until the late 19th century, Champagne remained primarily a dessert wine, heavily sweetened both before and after the second fermentation and often strengthened with a little brandy as well. Its present role as a relatively dry aperitif owes much, if not everything, to the British drinker and the merchants who supplied him.

The British thirst for Champagne remained an important factor in the trade as it ceased to be artisanal and became a modern industry. Production increased markedly after 1840, when a modest chemist at Châlonsen - Champagne, a Monsieur François, devised a system for measuring the amount of sugar in the bottle, so that producers, by regulating the dose, could dramatically reduce the level of breakage - until then the casse could account for up to one third of production. Yet until the late 19th century, Champagne remained primarily a dessert wine, heavily sweetened both before and after the second fermentation and often strengthened with a little brandyas well. It was served almost exclusively at the end of any meal that was at all pretentious, above all at official events that concluded with interminable speeches by notables de province (or notables anywhere else in the world, for that matter). But its transformation into its present role as a relatively dry aperitif owes much, if not everything, to the British drinker and the merchants who supplied him.

· The dry revolution ·

It was in 1848 that a British merchant, one Mr Byrne, tasted the 1846 Perrier-Jouët without any added sugar at all. He liked it, but neither he nor Monsieur Perrier could convert English buyers from the strong, rich wines to which they were accustomed. Nevertheless, the Champagne sold in Britain gradually became drier, and the 1865 vintage produced by a newcomer, Georges Goulet, sold by a merchant in Yorkshire, proved to be a landmark success. A similar wine from Ayala captured the attention, and the thirst, of the fashionable crowd of students at Oxford surrounding the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, and even hesitant drinkers were finally converted by the 1874 vintage offered by Madame Pommery. Dry Champagne was a real revolution, a firm statement by the Champenois that their wines were good enough not to require the heavy disguise of syrups and the additives that had been needed previously. Incidentally, the wine also established the new-fangled idea of single-vintage Champagnes - further proof to the English that it could be considered a proper drink along with claret and Vintage Port.

In many ways, the British - or at least the country's upper classes - have remained to some degree the arbiters of taste in Champagne. The czars may have continued to savour the then ultra-sweet Cristal from Louis Roederer, but the British royal family remained addicted to Krug; after 1945, King George VI asked the firm to replenish supplies of his favourite 1928 vintage, stocks of which had run down during World War II. Their aristocratic subjects tended to prefer Bollinger, though Sir Winston Churchill was persuaded by Odette Pol Roger to enjoy "Imperial pints” of Pol Roger, which now offers a suitably robust prestige cuvée named for him. The always affluent bankers in the City of London were, however, partial to Veuve Clicquot, inevitably ordered as “a bottle of the Widow."

One final contribution was made by the English. In the depths of the depression of the early 1930s, an English journalist, Lawrence Venn, was advising the Champenois on how to improve the marketing of their wines in Britain. He suggested that the trade could be revived by creating a new luxury Champagne and naming it for the sacred figure of Dom Pérignon. Virtually all those present thought the idea was ridiculous, but the legendary Robert-Jean de Vogüé of Moët & Chandon immediately appreciated the possibilities it would open up and transformed it into a brand that now sells a few million bottles every year. In Anglo-Saxon countries, it is invariably, and perhaps inevitably, referred to simply as Dompers. Perhaps the British still have not learned to take sparkling Champagne entirely seriously.

This article first appeared in a longer version in The World of Fine Wine www.worldoffinewine.com