Salud! Prost! Na zdrowie! Nothing says “Cheers” like Champagne
In 2020, 15 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in the U.S. It’s good we’re all keeping hydrated, but you can’t live by H2O alone. Sometimes, only an ice cold beer will do. Or perhaps a perfect martini. And when it’s time to really mark an occasion, there’s nothing like a BIT OF BUBBLY. Sparkling wines, such as prosecco, cava, and sekt, make things merrier, but nothing signals a celebration quite like champagne.
Champagne seems as utterly French as the baguette and brie. And while true champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, it was the English who first embraced effervescence. Decades before the 17th-century Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon revived the vineyards and cellars of the Abbey of Hautvillers—and was later incorrectly credited with creating champagne—winemakers on Shakespeare’s “scepter’d isle” were working to keep the fizz in the bottle. In 1662, physician and scientist Christopher Merret delivered a paper to the Royal Society discussing the practice of adding sugar to wine to generate a second fermentation that produced a “drink brisk and sparkling.” But it would be 200 years before vintners had this down to a science and were truly able to replicate bubbly on a large scale.
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While there is no proof that Dom Pérignon ever produced a sparkling wine (his other talents, such as blending grapes, are not in dispute), it was the French who standardized the processes that allowed champagne to become the drink we know today. One of the more renowned advances was first developed by Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin, who took charge of her husband’s champagne concern when he died in 1805. During the wine’s second fermentation, dead yeast cells form an unwanted sediment. Traditionally, this was removed by transferring the wine from one bottle to another.
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Then the widow Clicquot took her kitchen table to the cellar and cut slots into it to hold the bottles upside down, allowing the sediment to work its way into the neck of the bottle. Several years later, she turned to cellar master Antoine Mueller to refine the technique, known as riddling. Still in use today—although some champagne houses have automated the system—the process calls for placing bottles in a rack at a 45 degree angle and increasing the angle over a matter of days while also giving each bottle a little twist. Once the procedure is complete, the neck of the bottle is dipped in a freezing solution and the plug of sediment is propelled out by the force of carbon dioxide. (The pressure inside the bottle in your fridge is nearly three times that of the tires on your car.)
Because the kings of France were crowned in the Champagne city of Rheims, the sparkling wine of the region quickly assumed a regal association. Peter the Great was a fan, too. But with the technology to produce ever greater quantities of the wine (from 600,000 bottles early in the 19th century to 20 million by the 1880s) and a rising middle class eager to sip it, corks began popping far from Court. Champagne evolved, too, from being a very sweet libation usually poured at the end of a meal, to one that could be enjoyed as an apéritif, as well. When new printing techniques made posters all the rage in the 1890s, Champagne houses got onboard, hiring the likes of Pierre Bonnard, Alfons Mucha, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to create alluring images to promote their product. In 1902, the art nouveau artist Émile Gallé designed a bottle for Perrier-Jouët, adorned with an eye-appealing garland of Japanese anemone blossoms outlined in gold.
From the Belle Époque well into the 20th century, champagne retained an air of extravagance, if not naughtiness. In the ’20s and ’30s, Hollywood films were awash in partiers throwing back the bubbly, often in the wide, shallow glass known as a coupe, shaped, legend has it, on the breast of Marie Antoinette. In the 1960s, novelist and wine writer Alec Waugh wrote, “I have noticed it has become the mode in certain London clubs to serve champagne in silver tankards, so that one’s fellow members' attention is not called to one’s relative affluence.”
In some quarters, champagne has been deemed more a marker of social status than a wine worthy of profound consideration. In The Vintner’s Art, noted wine writer Hugh Johnson and his co-author, James Halliday, observed that while the best vintages can stand alongside the finest still wines, fundamentally, champagne is a drink of a different order. Where a connoisseur of a great burgundy “might savor the bouquet for minutes before taking a sip...even rare and old Champagne will seldom be treated like this.” Comic novelist Kingsley Amis once noted that some drinkers claimed the best time for champagne is 11:30am, partnered with a dry biscuit. “Which leaves plenty of time,” he asserted, “to sneak out to the bar for a real drink.” But for every person who finds champagne a bit of a snotty nip, or somehow insipid compared to “real wine,” there are plenty who cannot resist its charms, happy imbibers who feel—as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”