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In last week’s column, I explored the evolution of Champagne as it became one of the most refined and cherished wines in the world. Several readers inquired to learn more about the origins of this elixir.
I penned a column several years ago tracing the early history of Champagne. I’ve decided to reprise that column to provide further insights into the origins of Champagne.
Historically referred to as the wine of kings and the king of wines, Champagne has a storied and checkered past, often as much by happenstance as by astute winemaking. It has become a fabled, preferred beverage for celebratory occasions and as a symbol of good fortune and happiness.
The history of the Champagne region is replete with tales of regal royal dinners and nights of debauchery – all attributable to the allure (and alcohol content) of Champagne. Even in war, Champagne was held in high regard and copious amounts were consumed. When Napoleon reigned as the emperor of France, he was obsessed with Champagne. “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate; and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.”
Often overlooked or shrouded in intrigue, the historical backdrop to its popularity is worthy of mention.
The Romans traveled through this region, in northeastern France, east of Paris, before the time of Christ. Its proximity to Paris, and England, provided an advantage over other French wine regions, in spite of the fact that regions, such as Burgundy, produced higher quality wines.
The birth of the French nation was celebrated in the heart of Champagne – the Reims Cathedral – in the fifth century. The region flourished as a still wine producer for centuries.
However, the wines were not of high quality, but rather of high alcohol and great quantity for a number of reasons.
The northern climate was not conducive to warm weather or long growing seasons. Hence, the wines were thin and austere. Worse, after the grapes were harvested and fermented, the early onset of winter prematurely halted the full fermentation of the wines, leaving residual sugar and yeast when the wines were subsequently bottled. By the time these partially fermented wines were sold into the retail market, the weather warmed, which triggered a second fermentation, creating an effervescence that dismayed the French producers and their customers. After all, their goal was to produce still wines.
But not the British customers. Distributors purchased barrels of the still wines to defray costs and bottled the wines themselves for onward sale to consumers, adding sugar to enhance the taste. British nobility and royalty developed an affinity for the sweet, bubbly style. But the wines were inconsistent at best. Worse, the built-up pressure in the bottles caused many to explode.
Enter Christopher Merret, a British scientist. In 1662, he posited that the natural (and added) sugars in the partially fermented bottles created the carbon dioxide-induced bubbles. The British began experimenting with methods to improve the wines during bottling. It is believed the British distributors were producing the modern-day version (Méthode Champenois) shortly thereafter.
At this time, back in Champagne, a Benedictine monk had been tasked with finding a way of improving the still wines being produced by his monastery. After numerous attempts to improve the poor quality and remove the bubbles, he gave up. Instead, the monk, Dom Perignon, decided to cater to the British desire for the intentional bubbly style. Using the techniques he had initially developed to reduce the bubbles, he created a superior bubbly product, which was very successful and later greatly emulated.
Therein lies the irony of modern Champagne. While Dom Perignon was painstakingly seeking to prevent the bubbles in Champagne, the British were busy enhancing them. Rather than being the widely believed father of the Champagne style, the good monk was rather the father of the refinement of Champagne.
Since the breakthroughs of the British and the French in the 17th century, Champagne’s popularity has continued to grow in sales and esteem. In 2022, 326 million bottles were shipped across the globe, receiving high accolades for their quality, complexity and finesse. A far cry from its feeble beginnings.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.