France-Champagne, Pierre Bonnard, 1889-91. (The Art Institute of Chicago, CC0, 1991.218).
Instead of reflecting on what has possibly been the most fraught year in recent memory, I thought I’d instead look ahead and wish you all the best for 2021 – may your new year be full of sparkle and happiness!
1. The first mentions of vineyards in the Champagne area of France were at the end of the fifth century CE – though there was no specific champagne wine until the seventeenth century. Previously, the wines had been light pink and there were no bubbles in sight.
2. Though now thought of as special, the sparkling wine made in Champagne was originally thought of as inferior, unpredictable and unstable – the bubbles were thought of as a sign the wine had gone bad. In fact, even after it gained popularity, due to most people thinking it was inferior and the unstable bottling process, only a few thousand bottles were produced every year during the eighteenth century – and up to half of them would break!
3. The magic bubbles in champagne come from a second fermentation inside the bottle – but these could also cause plenty of explosions in wine cellars. This is why champagne bottles are now thicker and have a little snare on top of the cork – these safety measures were introduced by Dom Pérignon (1638-1715), a Benedictine monk who was cellar master at an abbey near Épernay.
4. Champagne gained popularity in the second half of the seventeenth century – the Marquis de Sillery and Marquis de St-Évremond took it to the court of Versailles.
5. The English began drinking champagne after it was introduced to London in 1662 by the very same Marquis de St-Évremond who had taken it to Versailles – he had now been banished from France, and had taken the sparkling wine with him. This was probably the first ‘true’ champagne, as we might recognise today!
6. The very earliest known mentions of champagne in English Literature were from Samuel Pepys, Dean Swift and Sir George Etheridge.
7. Madame Clicquot solved problems to do with the in-bottle fermentation process in 1815: previously, there had been clouds of dead yeast left behind with no easy way to get it out of the bottle. She had the bottles turned upside down so the yeast could settle, the dead part was then submerged in icy water to freeze it. It could then be easily removed and then recorked.
8. Napoleon was a huge fan of champagne, visiting the estates of Moët in Épernay many times. The Moët Imperiale champagne was named for him and Napoleon actually gave Jean-Remy Moët (grandson of the champagne house’s founder) the prestigious medal of the Legion d’honneur.
9. Napoleon also took champagne to Russia with him when he marched upon Moscow in 1812. It then became really popular amongst the Russian aristocracy – meaning that upon the revolution in 1917, the champagne market in Russia collapsed and caused a huge blow to the sales of champagne at the beginning of the twentieth century.
10. Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region in France can be called Champagne – this is a legal right that was established by the 1891 Treaty of Madrid and later reasserted by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is now protected by the EU!
- Mental Floss, ‘A Brief History of Champagne’. Read it here.
- Comité-Champagne, ‘A History of Champagne’. Read it here.
- Nate Barksdale, ‘Champagne: A Bubbly History’, History. Read it here.
- Moët & Chandon, ‘Success & Glamour’. Read it here.
- Veuve Clicquot, ‘Madame Clicquot’. Read it here.
- Jancis Robinson & Julia Harding, ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine: 4th Edition’. 2015 (p261-2).