We often speak, perhaps erroneously, about how important the invention of champagne was for the wine world.
But the term “invention” should be nuanced, as it is not quite precise. In reality, the French monk Dom Perignon simply “discovered” that wine produced bubbles in the bottle during a second fermentation . This happened at the Abbey of Hautvillers in Reims (France) during the 17th century.
And I say this because there is historical evidence that already by the 3rd century BC, the Romans had discovered this type of wine; they knew it by the name of vinum titilium (“wine that tickles”). In The Aeneid, Virgil described it as spumantem, and later, in the 15th century, the English coopers used large amounts of sugar and molasses in some of their wines to make them more energetic and “bubbly”.
In any case, we have to recognize the cleverness of the hardworking Dom Perignon, who perfected a technique known as the methode champenois. We should also credit his audacious ability to select the right variety of grapes, and his ingenuity in creating a conical plug held with a loop to prevent the wine from shooting out of the bottle during the second fermentation.
Over time, this exciting and refreshing drink was coveted like a divine elixir by a growing number of noble and aristocratic consumers, since champagne has always been the most expensive wine in the world.
The famous Marquise de Pompadour, a favorite of King Louis XV, was known for her sensuality and beauty. Her extravagant soupers (dinner parties) were the hot ticket in 18th century Paris. Large quantities of champagne and oysters were served in these eagerly awaited gatherings. She used to go around proclaiming that this was the only wine that turned women into beauties after drinking it.
One evening, while she listened to music at her private apartments in Versailles, a famous glass maker presented her with a plaster cast, which faithfully reproduced the indentation created by one of her breasts. This suggestive gesture was the birth of the round champagne glass used for centuries throughout the world, which nowadays has been replaced by tall, narrow flutes that better retain the bubbles and the flavor.
King Fredrick of Prussia loved the bubbly so much that he regularly sent ships to France to bring back countless cases full of champagne bottles, and Peter I, Tsar of Russia drank it as nobody else could, without control, and in amounts only a Russian could tolerate.
The literary spirit reveals its inexpugnable creative labyrinths through champagne. It is said that Alexandre Dumas could not write without the company of a good bottle next to his desk, and Marcel Proust wrote his novels accompanied by bubbles that stimulated his precious prose to hitherto unsuspected limits.
The newspapers of the time commented that, in the theater box he had reserved at the Dresden Opera House, the composer Richard Wagner found comfort in champagne when his opera Tannhausser flopped at its premiere, and it is known that the romantic and sensitive Frédéric Chopin was better able to love his muse George Sand, when he had a bucket full of ice and two bottles of the best champagne close by.
The painter Toulouse Lautrec was always grateful when any of the dancers from the Moulin Rouge in Paris brought him a glass of champagne while he drew his sketches, especially when the Absinthe made his mouth dry up.
The beautiful and troubled Marilyn Monroe used to bathe in delicate champagne bubbles to keep her skin smooth and youthful, and the American soldiers who secured “Eagle’s Nest”, a fortress in the Bavarian Alps, during WWII, discovered that Adolf Hitler kept a loot where he had, among other wines, thousands of bottles of champagne of the best brands and vintages.
So many stories have been created around it that it would be impossible to tell them all!
What remains clear is that champagne is the wine de rigueur in all kinds of special celebrations. It is also present at the christening of brand new ships (if the bottle does not brake as it hits the hull, it is considered a bad omen. Titanic’s bottle remained intact after a violent clash and had to be broken manually).
Currently many parts of the world produce exceptionally good sparkling wines (California, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Italy…) but it is also true that the glamour and drama of the French champagne is hard to beat.
We can all close our eyes and remember a happy moment of our lives, shared with a glass of champagne in our hands. And although it is increasingly consumed to accompany meals, for many people it is still a very special moment when a bottle is uncorked, because it celebrates the joy of life, the illusion of sharing, and the dream of feeling surrounded by people we love.
For me champagne is the closest thing to a spiritual drink, one that provides pleasure and joy with a delicate effervescence that rekindles feelings, memories, and happy moments, and transmits the work, care and love that goes behind each of the bottles containing this amazing, wonderful and enduring beverage. ■