Why is champagne still synonymous with celebration? This isn’t the first time someone has wondered what makes the champagne ritual such a global phenomenon. So why is it that the biggest celebrations in our lives, all around the world, are toasted with a glass of champagne? This sacrosanct beverage, once poured into its fragile, graceful crystal pitcher, sparkles with a thousand shining golden stars and all the secrets of life are whispered in the murmur of its bubbles. And even if the straight-laced author of these unappreciative lines has never sampled a drop, this detective’s question is still worth asking if only to understand this worldwide social phenomenon.
From Papin the damned to Dom Pérignon the blessed.
John Lennon once said: “French rock is like English wine!” Despite our patriotism, it’s difficult to find a counterpart to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Cream or Deep Purple on the French scene at the supposed era of this scathing assertion. Apart from a few rare, but unclassable exceptions, rock was never our strong suit, except when it comes to the ridiculous, pedantic overkill. And while English “wine” may be considered an immense oenological farce, we must nevertheless give up the belief that the famous sparkling wine was invented in Champagne.
The Britisher, traitorous and shifty as soon as it’s time to steal the limelight and claim the honour of great discoveries, invented a technique allowing wine to make bubbles in the 16th century, a century before Dom Pérignon discovered champagne by divine miracle or stroke of luck. Beyond the techniques to make wine bubbly, we also owe the invention of the reinforced bottle neck, the cork and safe bottling techniques to the English… but not a single bottle of good wine to drink! Anyone would think that these folks are thrice-cursed by Bacchus. If it isn’t adopted by the masses and seen as useful for everyone, an innovation is nothing but a lovely idea with no future.
Papin knew this well. Denis Papin died a vagrant in a London slum, despite having invented the machine that “lifts water with the force of fire”. Oh, if only he’d been content with watering the gardens for the king in Prussia! By creating the first steam engine, Watt and Boulton (once more Brits!), admirably demonstrated to him that genius alone was not enough and that an invention, no matter what it was, had to be transformed as part of a practical, everyday evolution. As such, iron didn’t replace flint until it had clearly demonstrated its superiority. So, the British invented bubbles in cheap wine and the French made a fine wine out of them, a divine, blessed vintage.
Champagne: the region that baptises kings.
In Rome, the French capital in Augustus’s time, people knew how to appreciate good wine from the Gauls. The Champagne region had its vineyards like everyone else. Long after the breaking of his vase at Soissons, King Clovis was baptised in Reims, in the midst of the great Champagne vineyards whose fairly good vin gris rosé served as a liturgical beverage at significant ritual occasions. So, the banquet for the Frankish king’s baptism was toasted with consecrated wine. This would be underhandedly remembered later during the French Revolution when it came time to get rid of the influential Catholic episcopacy, the shadowy inventor of this beverage from the time of Saint Rémi and the monk Dom Pérignon.
The aroma of Champagne, the wine of sanctity.
Champagne’s vinification techniques, such as they are, have been imbued with a whiff of sanctity since the time when grape blending started improving vintage quality. As we said before with so much magical mystery, Champagne’s wine distinguished itself from sparkling English plonk thanks to the ingenuity of the monks and abbots in the eponymous region.
People could only produce and sell champagne in a glass flask and not a cask, simply because of often-explosive chemical reactions. Yet, to limit fraud and facilitate taxation, an edict from the king of France forbade direct sales in bottles. A special exception still allowed the naturally-carbonated beverage to be distributed in its opaque glass container, but in regulated quantities. The price of this “little vin gris rosé from the mountains and rivers” swelled and its scarcity on the market helped propel it to pride of place on the list of luxury products affordable only for the well-spread tables at royal courts.
A revolution, a supreme being, a bubbly drink.
During the French Revolution, which should have been a killjoy, this sparkling beverage provided a doubly-vengeful method to both appropriate wine that had been the exclusive domain of crowned heads and to gain freedom from the century’s-long tutelage of the holy Catholic Church kicked out of the State. Robespierre, father of the revolutionary terror, felt it necessary to create a new liturgy and forget the infamous servitude of the past. In the very pious France of the 18th century, a change in divinity was essential. A new “supreme being” was created, a sort of glorified reflection of the “everyman” that needed to be worshipped in the new temples of Reason.
Mass would be celebrated with a wine that had previously been considered the rarest since only kings and queens drank it… From this vinicultural mystique, they preserved the rarity and luxury that confirmed more than ever the sacred nature of this beverage rendered doubly-sanctified by the Holy Spirit and the ability to reason. There was even a symbolic re-enactment of baptism: by pouring libations of wine on the industrial and architectural footings of major worksite foundations, by smashing a glass bottle of the precious nectar on the hull of big ships. In an act of questionable allusion, they even went so far as to project a desire for supra-phallic domination by decapitating the corked head of the famous vintage with a sabre, anointing all the good and cheerful faces in the area with a powerful spray, incapable of fully understanding the libidinous significance of this festive gesture in their drunken stupor.
The perfect recipe for selling champagne: skill and creativity.
These days, any celebration worthy of the name cannot go without champagne. Even the old, dashing “Corsican” in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter confirmed this. Champagne – half sparkling wine, half luxury cider – will forever stand out from even the best Bordeaux, even though in the eyes of retired or expiring oenologists, it’s only “a little table wine that got lucky enough to be found by the right people”.
To calm the furious horde come to impale me on a grand brut magnum, we can simply say that over the centuries champagne has greatly benefited from the unique and exceptional creative intelligence of producers in the region who quickly and cleverly learned how to use and abuse powerful marketing formulas, the likes of which would have compelled Steve Jobs to become a champagne producer/seller, instead of a silicon apple merchant, had he known about them.
Napoleon has the last word.
Voltaire, Madame Pompadour, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Pushkin, Orson Welles, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Cocteau… We can no longer keep track of the famous people who have declared champagne their favourite beverage and a worthy accompaniment to special occasions. Napoleon, the illustrious and reviled conqueror of the English and the rest of Europe, best summarised the social phenomenon of champagne in a way that does more justice than the current long-winded and pretentious babbling, or even than a more serious and less phoney study could: