Have you ever wondered why we celebrate special events with champagne or sparkling wines? Let’s try and explain.
When the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon (1638–1715) made his first batch of wine, he was not trying to make fizzy wine; it was supposed to have been still and he actually tried to get rid of the bubbles. Had he succeeded, we may not have champagne as we know it today. There’s some debate as to whether or not Dom Perignon actually invented champagne, with some claiming that it was first produced by a 17th-century Englishman, Dr. Christopher Merret, a doctor from Gloucester.
The French regent, Philip, Duke of Orléans, adopted champagne wholeheartedly and it was a feature of his lavish parties. It became a symbol of the hedonism of the French court, but it was the British aristocrats who took to champagne and its fizz like ducks to water. It had been introduced to London by the Marquis de St-Evremond in the 1660s. By the 19th century champagne had become a popular luxury item.
Since the early years of the 18th century, when champagne was drunk by the aristocracy in the French court, it has been equated with celebrations and luxury.
By 1900, production of champagne had soared and 30 million bottles were exported. Because of its expense, not everyone could afford a bottle of bubbly. Champagne is only produced in the Champagne region of France, but cheaper sparkling wines are now produced in wine-making regions throughout the world.
Prosecco, extremely popular in the UK at the moment, is made in north-eastern Italy. It’s definitely a sparkling wine, but it can’t be called champagne. Then there’s Cava from Catalonia, Saumur from the Loire valley, Espumante from Portugal and Asti, from Italy. Sparkling wines are also produced in the Americas and can be labelled champagne as the DOC appellation that covers Europe doesn’t cover the US. That’s because the US didn’t ratify the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which signalled the end of the First World War. At the time the US was struggling with Prohibition so it was ignored as a wine or champagne drinking market.
The hedonistic image of champagne continued into the 20th century as Hollywood stars, such as Marilyn Monroe famously bathed in it, believing that the bubbles were good for her skin. It seems that the Cadogan Hotel in London is now offering guests the chance to have a champagne bath.
You might be asking yourself why champagne is so expensive. The answer is simple: it’s produced by the “Methode Champenoise,” which is a lengthy method. First, it’s fermented in steel barrels and then undergoes a second fermentation in the champagne bottle. This second fermentation produces champagne’s fizz. Because the process of production is labour-intensive, the cost of champagne is high. Presumably that’s why sparkling wines have come into their own, not everyone can afford to splash out on a bottle of champagne.
So basically, we celebrate with champagne because we all like a touch of class, or should we say luxury?