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There’s something deceptively timeless about raising a toast over a glass of champagne (or some other form of sparkling white wine). It’s easy to imagine that “bubbly” has always been associated with festive occasions, and especially with wealth and ostentation. But the history of champagne reveals otherwise.
The drink is surprisingly modern– as are the industry and the traditions that surround it. And like so many inventions, its development is largely a product of three elements: experimentation, cultural change, and luck.
It all started as an (effervescent) accident.
The French region of Champagne has been producing wines for hundreds of years, and vineyards have been present there since at least the Gallo-Roman era.
Lying in close reach of Burgundy, Champagne attempted to rival its more prestigious winemaking neighbor. Champenois vintners produced pale, pink-hued, still wines made primarily from Pinot Noir grapes.
But these were generally thinner, weaker and more acidic than prized counterparts in Burgundy. And the region’s northerly geographic positioning created some problems that, let’s say, bubbled up during cold snaps.
Chilly winters had the pesky tendency to interrupt the fermentation process, leaving undigested sugars and yeasts in wine bottles to form carbon dioxide– then explode.
Those bottles that withstood the pressure contained an accidental quality: effervescent bubbles that started to gain favor with French royalty during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
In 1715, the Duc d’Orléans began serving locally produced “vin mousseux” (sparkling wine) at his court in Paris’ Palais Royal, entertaining wealthy and famous guests with a drink that was generally only accessible to the high aristocracy. Its popularity exploded among Parisian elites.
But sparkling wine remained an accidental novelty item. And in pre-Industrial Revolution France, most winemakers still frowned upon it and sought to eliminate those pesky bubbles.
Nevertheless, the drink’s embrace by wealthy and royal connoisseurs who wished to flaunt their access to a rare product– including in Paris and outside France– would lead one step closer to champagne becoming as deliberately-made luxury good.
By the 18th century, now-famous houses such as Moët & Chandon, Taittinger and Louis Roederer opened their doors in the Champagne region. They competed to supply royal banquets, fashionable aristocratic parties and the like.
From unwelcome to coveted: An English taste for bubbles drives the technique
Still wines from the champagne region (often referred to as clairets) had already gained popularity among wealthy and powerful Londoners starting in around 1661. Dukes and other royal figures ordered cases of such wines from Champagne to complement their growing collections.
Some of these, of course, had bubbles due to accidental carbon dioxide production from the unfermented sugars left in the bottles.
While back in Champagne, effervescent wines were still generally seen as faulty, the English sang their praises and sought knowledge on how to reproduce them.
Many historians maintain that it was the English– and not French monk Dom Pérignon– who invented the thick glass champagne bottle and cork during the early 17th century (see more on Pérignon’s contributions below).
Using cork imported from Portugal to stop heavier glass containers, and fortifying wines with sugar, molasses and spices, the English were reportedly the first to successfully bottle sparkling wine in a way that prevented explosions. British scientist Christopher Merret presented his findings on such advances in a paper for the London Royal Society in 1662.
And there’s evidence that sparkling wines may have been deliberately produced in Britain even before Champagne secured a reputation for vin mousseux.
In any case, growing affection and demand for bubbly among England’s aristocracy during the 18th century certainly sped the industry toward becoming what it is today.
The now-coveted bubbles filled the courts of England and soon spread around Europe, paving the way toward the systematic production of champagnes during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.
Dom Pérignon didn’t invent champagne– but helped to perfect wine production techniques.
Many short histories of bubbly credit the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon– whose name is synonymous with a brand favored by Hollywood glitterati types– with the invention of champagne.
But this is misleading at best, if not outright false. For years, the winemaking monk who served as cellar master at the Hautvilliers Abbey did everything he could to remove bubbles from his painstakingly produced cuvées.
The same process that is now used to make champagne and other sparkling wines– and that leads to bubbles– was considered undesirable by Perignon. He thus tried to avoid using it, and also moved away from using white grapes for the wines then produced in the region, since these were more likely to produce bubbles.
The myth of the monk inventing champagne (and the distinctive corked bottles that are still used today) was promoted by a 19th century successor at the Abbey, Dom Groussard. His aim? Probably to raise the profile of the vineyards at Hautvilliers at a time when sparkling wines were gaining worldwide attention.
Later, the champagne industry itself spread the myth of Dom Pérignon to create a sense of mystique around the region and the product. Et voilà–it seems to have worked.
A late-nineteenth-century image of the monk exclaiming “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” in response to first tasting his own sparkling wine graced a print ad for the domain.
It claimed to directly quote Dom Perignon on the day when he supposedly invented champagne, in August 1693. But as one writer in Wired notes, it’s almost certainly an apocryphal tale, rather than one grounded in historical fact.
Nevertheless, the famed monk did contribute to perfecting the winemaking process. His turn to the use of a blend of red wine grapes carefully separated from the skins, eschewing the use of white grapes, was a major development for the region and later the successful production of champagnes.
His painstaking rules around pruning, fermentation and grape blends would also be seminal in the eventual development of the champagne industry.
And his early efforts to avoid excess bottle pressure from leftover sugars would, of course, help others invent the corked and particularly shaped bottles used for sparkling wines.
Most early champagnes were loaded with sugar, catering to tastes of the time.
Most of the better champagnes produced today are not especially sweet, unlike sparkling whites such as Italian Prosecco which are often cloying. The finest champagnes tend to bear the label “Brut” or “Extra-Brut”, which signifies very little sugar in the finished product.
But in the early days, champagne was often loaded with sugar to accommodate tastes of the time. Sometimes, the ample addition of sugar allowed producers to mask issues with fermentation or subpar raw ingredients.
According to many historians, consumers in Scandinavia and Russia preferred their bubbly positively cloying, while German, French and American counterparts favored champagnes of a moderate sweetness.
Meanwhile, English consumers tended to favor a much drier champagne style– containing only around 22-26 grams of sugar compared to a whopping 250-330 grams in bottles exported to Russia.
Perhaps because British enthusiasm for champagne was such a driving force in the industry’s evolution, dry and extra-dry styles gradually gained in popularity. Eventually, they became the rule rather than the exception.
You can still find demi-sec (semi-sweet) champagnes to this day, although many winemakers consider them suspect. They’ve seen a new surge in popularity in recent years, however, perhaps once again due in part to shifting English tastes.
After all (and this is admittedly speculation on my part), Prosecco has practically become the national drink of Britain (after ale, of course). The much-less- expensive Italian cousin to champagne is accessible and democratic, making it easier to drink freely.
It’s also pleasing to palates that prefer a milder, sweeter sparkling wine. And most bottles sold in supermarkets and served in pubs tend to be quite sweet.
(Full disclosure: I generally dislike Prosecco owing to its tendency to cloy, although you can find some excellent Brut and “Extra Brut” examples these days).
Sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region can’t claim the name.
Speaking of Prosecco: While many people use the term “champagne” to refer to any sparkling white or rosé wine (produced in France or otherwise), from a legal and technical standpoint this is incorrect.
In reality, only sparkling wines produced under strictly controlled conditions within the region of the same name can claim the “champagne” status.
Why is this the case? For one, as with so many of its products, France strictly regulates the production of champagne, tying it narrowly to the terroirs (geographical area) and traditional methods developed in the region it’s named after.
How to tell if a bottle of champagne is authentic?
When you buy a bottle of champagne, make sure you see a label reading “AOC” somewhere on the label. This stands for “Appellation d’origine controlée” and guarantees that the wine has been produced in line with strictly controlled regulations.
For one, only certain grape varietals may be used to make champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier.
Following in the tradition of the meticulous monk Dom Perignon, pruning methods are tightly regulated. Champagne makers must adhere to the “Champenois method” (méthode champenois) of vinification, which involves secondary fermentation in the bottle. Yields are also strictly limited to ensure better quality.
The value of a good French “crémant”
That said, some of France’s best sparkling wines are produced elsewhere. In our house, you’re far more likely to find a good bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant de Loire than you are champagne. The dry, pleasingly effervescent whites and rosés from Alsace and Limoux can also be wonderful.
I am as much a fan of a good crémant (the term alludes to the drink’s foamy, creamy head), especially since the high-quality varieties tend to be far less expensive than champagnes. They’re also made using the méthode champenoise described above.
Other good varieties to watch for from France include Clairette de Die and Blanquette de Limoux.
Some of the oldest cellars in Champagne are housed in underground chalk tunnels dating to the 3rd century.
While champagne is itself a relatively recent invention, the area where it’s produced has a history stretching back hundreds of years.
Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, is really formed of two cities: the one above ground, and the one below. It boasts an extensive network of chalk galleries, or crayeres, that date to the early medieval period and initially serve as quarries.
The advent of the champagne industry in the 18th century saw the quarries repurposed as caves (cellars). Used to age and store bottles, they offer ideal humidity and temperature levels. They also happen to be fascinating from an archaeological and historic standpoint.
2015: Champagne’s cellars become a UNESCO site
This is so much the case that UNESCO listed them as a World Heritage site in 2015, alongside the region’s hillside vineyards and champagne houses themselves.
The Saint-Nicaise Hill in Reims is a particularly important site. It’s in the winding chalk tunnels below that champagne makers including Pommery, G.H. Martel, Ruinart, Veuve-Cliquot, and Charles Heidsieck established their cellars. Many can be toured today (see just below).
Veuve-Cliquot’s caves are the longest, while Ruinart lays claim over the tallest crayeres, rising 50ft high. Ruinart’s are also some of the oldest, dating to 1729.
In Epernay, the grandiose street known as “Avenue de Champagne” forms another important zone for some of the region’s renowned producers, and is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Beneath its tony mansions lie more extensive networks of chalk cellars. It’s one of the world’s most expensive streets from a real estate standpoint, for reasons that are probably obvious.
Touring the champagne cellars in Reims & Epernay
Reims makes an excellent and easy day trip from Paris by high-speed (TGV) train. You can get there in under an hour, in some cases. Nearby Epernay is easily accessible by car, taxi or guided coach tours.
From Pommery to Ruinart, Bollinger to Veuve-Cliquot, numerous champagne makers offer tours of their extensive underground caves. Most tours include a guided tasting of one or more cuvées (blends or batches) from the house in question.
Make sure to pay a visit to some of the smaller, family-owned cellars in addition to the global heavyweights. Not only will you be supporting independent wineries; you’ll also taste some more unusual, refined sparkling wines that don’t necessarily conform to globalized tastes.
I particularly recommend the Domaine Jacques Selosse and Pré en Bulles. The latter is one of the rare makers to use biodynamic production techniques, and their small onsite museum in the village of Trépail uses robotic puppets to tell the engaging story of champagne history.
For an excellent overview of some of the best cellars and champagne makers to visit in Reims, see this feature over at Mary Anne’s France. For tours of small and large cellars in nearby Epernay, see this page.