Champagne

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In keeping with my pre-birthday theme, today I thought we’d discuss a little bit about the history of Champagne and how it became the traditional celebratory beverage.

Now there are sparkling wines made all around the world today but to be called Champagne it must be made in a particular region of France and produced in a particular way.  There are hosts of rules and regulations that a wine must meet to be labeled Champagne: including what varieties of grapes are used.  In order to protect the economic interests in this region, a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for “true Champagne” has been produced.  I won’t go into them here, but everything from how and where the vineyard is planted to when and how the Champagne is bottled pretty much has a rule pertaining to it.

But what is the history of Champagne?  Contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine, though he did make important contributions to the production and quality of it.  The oldest recorded sparkling wine goes back to 1531 and a monastery called Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, where it is believed sparkling wine was invented by Benedictine Monks.  They achieved this miraculous invention by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation had ended, thus fermentation would continue in the bottle producing carbon dioxide, the gas that gives Champagne its bubbles.

Over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine could be used to create a second fermentation in the bottle, six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne.

In 1662, six years before Pérignon stepped foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers, Merret presented a paper at the Royal Society, in which he detailed what is now called méthode champenoise (the method used for making Champagne today).  Merret’s discoveries happened to also coincide with new technical developments of English glass-makers’ that allowed bottles to be produced that could withstand the required internal pressures during this secondary fermentation.  Before this development, if the wine started to ferment in the bottle, the glass would explode.  French glass-makers at this time could not produce bottles of the required quality or strength.  So we have the English to thank for this unique sparkling wine and not the French who, at the time, still considered bubbles in wine to be a flaw.

But why the popularity and the association with celebration?  The tradition of drinking champagne to mark celebrations originated in the royal courts of Europe prior to 1789, where this unique and expensive drink was viewed as a status symbol.  The French royalty loved the novelty of sparkling wine and it was said to have positive effects on women’s beauty and man’s wit.

It wasn’t until prohibition ended in the US, though, that Champagne really took off and became the celebratory drink we know it as today.  Two companies wanted to do something special to mark this event.  One was Anheuser-Busch, whose tale is for another time, and the other was Moët & Chandon, a Champagne company from France.

Moët & Chandon decided that they would create a new prestige cuvée that was released on December 5th to celebrate the end of prohibition.  A prestige cuvée is the name given to the best Champagnes a Champagne house produces.  Each Champagne house usually produces several, each with a different name, this one was named Dom Perignon.  Before this Champagne and the publicity it produced from photos in newspapers showing people drinking it in celebration to the end of prohibition, real Champagne was viewed as a drink only for the very wealthy and while Dom Perignon was still quite expensive, it changed the minds of the American people from Champagne being a drink of the wealthy to being a drink of celebration.  And thus began this old wine’s renaissance and how it became the beverage of choice for toasting, spraying, and pouring over people in celebration.

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