Have you ever wondered how the eponymous sparkling wine of Champagne became one of the most exclusive beverages in the world? Nowadays it’s used to toast the New Year, christen ships and douse victorious sport champions. It will also welcome you when you step aboard the hotel barge Panache when for your cruise through the Champagne region with European Waterways. It was not always the case, however, that the drink was associated with luxury and celebration.
Beating the Burgundians
At the turn of the 2nd century, wine from Champagne was strikingly different from the fizzing, golden liquid we know and love today. The Champenois were jealous of the flavoursome red wines that were being produced in neighbouring Burgundy, but were unable to create a red of the same calibre themselves, producing only acidic, pale imitations.
They had to grapple with a northerly climate, which prevented the grapes from fully ripening, as well as cold winters which paused the fermentation process in cellars until warmer weather in springtime started it again. However, fermentation produces carbon dioxide and CO2 would build in the weak early wine bottles, causing explosions in the cellars.
Dom Pérignon’s Developments
Those bottles that did survive the fermentation process contained bubbles, a cause for great embarrassment to the medieval Champenois. Although the French turned their noses up at the carbonated wine, the British were rather partial to this delicious fizzy tipple.
Dom Pérignon, the 17th century Benedictine monk whose name is synonymous with quality Champagne, revolutionised the production process to make it more reliable (with less chance of exploding!). Although he is credited with the invention of sparkling wine, he actually went to great lengths to prevent the second fermentation.
When the demand for Champagne increased among the English and French nobility, the Champenois winemakers were forced to foster the fizz. However, this was still a capricious process prone to explosions, making the drink rare and exclusive.
Moët’s Savvy Marketing
The rise of the world’s most famous Champagne houses in the 19th century – such as Krug, Bollinger and Pommery – saw the popularity of the sparkling wine rise and rise. However, it was the sustained marketing campaign of luxury brand Moët & Chandon that gained the drink an association with celebration. Their promotion of the drink as a status symbol helped to make it synonymous with the finer things in life.
So as you glide sedately along the River Marne aboard Panache through Champagne’s peaceful vineyards, raise a glass to the 1,000-year history of one of France’s most iconic wines.