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past & present: champagne

by Amy Azzarito

Image above: Illustration by Julia Rothman

Madame de Pompadour once said, “Champagne is the only drink that leaves a woman still beautiful after drinking it.” As Louis XV’s royal mistress, she must have known a thing or two about beauty. So here’s to many a glass of champagne in the New Year and if you’re stuck for a conversation topic while the bottle is making the rounds, here’s a quick little history of everyone’s favorite celebratory drink! For this final 2010 Past & Present, the “Present” was a group project that is coming up at 1pm — a super easy champagne glass craft! Oh and don’t forget to save your champagne cages for Amy M.’s miniature bistro chair! So let’s get into champagne – first let’s get the boring stuff out of the way  – Yes, technically Champagne is only produced in the region of Champagne, France (many countries have signed a trade agreement not to use the term champagne) – and Champagne is also the region where the production of the bubbly stuff was first refined.

Image above: Champagne coupe and champagne flute, both from the V&A museum

Champagne is one of the most difficult wines to make — and it’s not just taming the bubbles — all wines start to bubble the moment the wine is pressed and when the yeasts on the skin come in contact with the sugar in the juice. In colder wine-growing regions, the yeasts are dormant during the winter and reactivate during the spring. Fizzy wine was a big no-no until the 17th century. Dom Pérignon, who is frequently credited with inventing champagne, actually worked tirelessly to eliminate those embarrassing bubbles from his wines. What Dom Pérignon did contribute to the evolution of champagne was an understanding of the art of blending. Rather than make single-vineyard wines, as was the norm, Dom Pérignon used grapes from different parcels owned by the abbey or given as tithes from local farmers.

Image above: Champagne coupe by Emile Gallé (1846–1904) from Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Eighteenth-century Europeans began to appreciate the effervescent wine (a result of winemakers learning how to harness the bubbles, and contemporary doctors’ beliefs that the sparkling wine was healthier). But only a few producers were able to satisfy the champagne craving. Not only was champagne difficult to make, but it was also dangerous. The sparkling wine was so unpredictable that cellar workers wore heavy iron masks that resembled a baseball catcher’s mask to prevent injury from the spontaneously bursting bottles, but even with the masks, lost eyes and scarred hands were common liabilities.

Image above: Jean-François de Troy (1679–1752); Le déjeuner d’huîtres, 1734

The painting above of a post-hunt oyster lunch by de Troy demonstrates just how early the drinking of champagne was linked to celebration. This painting, commissioned for Louis XV’s private dining room, was the first time that champagne had ever been depicted in a painting, and if you look closely, you can see the cork mid-air. The man who opened the bottle is still holding the knife that was used to cut the string that held the cork in place. In these early days of champagne, glasses were drunk in a big gulp and then turned over in a bowl to allow the sediment to drain out — each “gulp was served in a new glass.” (Lots and lots of dishes!)

CLICK HERE for more about champagne + books to read if you want to learn more!

Image above: Storage of champagne bottles in the cellars of Veuve Clicquot, Reims, via Wikimedia Commons

So that sediment issue was a pretty big one, and it wasn’t solved until the 19th century — by a woman. Lets hear it for the girls! (Sorry couldn’t resist!) Newly widowed with a three-year-old daughter, Nicole Barbe persuaded her father-in-law, Monsieur Clicquot, to allow her to give the family wine business a go, rather than shutting it down. She must have been very persuasive because he agreed, and Nicole renamed the company Veuve (meaning widow) Clicquot and focused the vineyards efforts on champagne. She is credited with solving the sediment problem when, as the story goes, she lugged her kitchen table down to the cellar and cut holes in it so that the bottles could be inserted at a slant. The slant would be gradually increased and the bottles rotated until they were nearly upside down, at which point, the cork would be pulled and the sediment would shoot out first, leaving most of the bubbles intact. A new cork would be reinserted and the champagne sold. The principles behind this method — called remuage — are still used today.

Image above: Philip Webb (1831–1915) design for champagne glasses from the V&A

Once you didn’t have to worry about all that sediment, you could begin to think more about the serving vessel. Champagne was the drink of nobility, and one surefire quality of French nobility was that they had no qualms about advertising their status. The nobility drank champagne out of flutes, while the clergy used large wine glasses, and everyone else drank champagne from ordinary wine glasses.

Images above, from left: La jatte-téton from the Sevres Museum and George Bacchus & Sons made in 1849–1851 from the V&A

The rounder saucer-shaped glass, the champagne coupe, gained popularity in the 1840s. The champagne coupe is often claimed to have been modeled on Marie Antoinette’s breast. Here’s how that story took hold: When Louis XVI built Marie Antoinette a dairy at Versailles, Sevres created a set of porcelain dishes for the dinner parties to be held at the dairy. One of the items in the set was a jatte-teton, a breast-shaped cup with an articulated nipple mounted on the tripod stand. The inspiration for this piece was the Greek mastos cup. Whatever its relationship to Marie Antoinette’s breast, the coupe was the vessel of choice for late 19th-century champagne drinkers.

The champagne coupe would later become the glassware of choice in many a black-and-white movie. The advantage of the coupe is that it allows you to fully smell the champagne. The disadvantage is that the bubbles tend to escape more quickly. (I love the coupe, and my personal feeling is that drinking a bit faster easily solves the problem of disappearing bubbles!) And the tug-of-war between coupe or flute continues today.

Fact to Know

  • When setting the table, place the champagne glass to the right of the water glass when champagne is the only wine served with the meal. If the champagne is meant to accompany another course (appetizer or dessert), then the glass is placed on the table in order of use (from The Art of the Table).

Books to Read

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