From Vine to wine
From the earliest days of Christianity, before the Middle Ages, wine was consecrated and used to celebrate the Eucharist. The vineyards were then entirely in the hands of the monasteries. So it was that in 496 AD this traditional use of wine, combined with the particular location of the Champagne vineyards, secured Champagne’s place in history. On Christmas day that year, the Frankish warrior Clovis was baptised in Reims Cathedral and crowned the first king of France. The bishop who anointed Clovis was Saint Rémi, himself from a villa surrounded by vines not far from what is now Epernay. And the wines used in the Consecration were Champagne wines.
A few centuries later, Champagne established an eternal link to the French Crown when Joan I, Queen of Navarre and Countess of Champagne married Philip IV (‘The Fair’), King of France.
From 898 onwards, all of the French kings were crowned in Reims, the effective capital of the province of Champagne. Champagne wines are said to have flowed freely at the coronation banquets and were soon much prized for their taste and finesse. It became the practice to offer Champagne wines to any royal visitors to the region. Francis I, King of France, and Mary Queen of Scots both left Reims with several casks of the local wines. Louis XIV, was apparently presented with hundreds of pints of wine on the occasion of his coronation in Reims.
The 12th Century saw the wines’ reputation spread beyond national borders, their fame growing with every passing year.
By the 18th Century Champagne wines were so far established in the popular imagination that they were the only wines served at the Fête de la Fédération held on the Champs de Mars on 14 July 1790 to toast the outcome of the French Revolution.
Some years later, it was a love of Champagne that united the European powers at the Congress of Vienna, whatever their other differences might have been. Negotiations continued from September 1814 to June 1815 – nine months of wining and dining and ‘wits that sparkled like Champagne itself’.
Champagne wines have toasted the signing of several important treaties, including most recently the Treaty of Maastricht. They serve to mark historic moments far and wide – even in such exotic places as Tahiti. According to French novelist Pierre Loti, Queen Pomaré of Tahiti ordered several cases of Champagne to celebrate the consecration of a new pagan temple on her island.
Since the 19th Century, Champagne wines have been de rigueur at royal weddings and every other great ceremonial occasion. In 1889 and again in 1900, Champagne wines added to the magic of the universal exhibitions staged in Brussels and Paris. Their excellence remains unchallenged today, prized as the symbol of exceptional quality: no momentous event is complete without Champagne.
Ever since Clovis’ baptism in the 5th Century, Champagne wines have been the wines of choice for commemorating life’s precious moments. The world’s greatest ships, starting with the Great Britain in 1843 and including the France in 1960, were all christened with Champagne – not to mention generations of private sailing boats!
Concorde’s maiden flight was of course celebrated with Champagne, as was the linking of the French and English sections of the Channel Tunnel.
Champagne flowed on the ‘Roof of the World’ in 1931 when André Citroën’s Yellow Cruiser expedition reached the Karakoram Pass in Central Asia. Some 20 years later, Maurice Herzog and his team celebrated their conquest of Annapurna with Champagne – chilled to perfection in virgin powder snow. Twenty years later, Pierre Mazeaud cracked open a bottle of Champagne at the top of Everest. And following in the footsteps of the early aviators, Jean-Loup Chrétien, first non-Soviet cosmonaut to make a space flight aboard a Soviet spacecraft, called for a glass of Champagne within moments of touchdown.
Champagne the ‘wine of kings’ was Philippe d’Orléan’s last request as he sat in the Concièrgerie prison waiting to face the revolutionary tribunal.
Some years later, after Tsarist troops were defeated by Napoleon’s forces at Smolensk, the local gentry drowned their sorrows in Champagne, which was ‘delicious even if it was French’.
All over the world, heroes great and small celebrate their exploits with Champagne. The liberal spraying of Champagne has become a tradition on every motor-racing podium, showering winners and spectators alike with bubbles galore. In 1980, solo transatlantic rower Gérard d’Aboville cracked open a bottle of Champagne after 72 days at sea drinking nothing but water.
Kings, princes and nobles were the first to fall in love with Champagne wines – the first to praise them for their excellence and promote their reputation. One famous story concerns the meeting between 14th Century French king Charles VI and Wenceslas IV, King of Bohemia – a triumph of diplomacy they say, and all because of Champagne wines.
Frederick the Great in the 18th Century was so convinced of the ‘scientific’ difference between Champagne and other wines that he served it to all members of the Prussian Academy just so they could prove it.
At the Court of Versailles, Marie-Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour were both renowned for their love of Champagne. So too of course was the Regent, whose intimate suppers were all washed down with Champagne. Louis XV’s taste for Champagne is there for all to see in the ‘Déjeuner d’huîtres’ (oyster lunch), the Jean-François De Troy painting that he commissioned for his dining-room. Alexander I of Russia was one notorious consumer of Champagne who ordered up his very own cuvee, served in a clear ‘crystal’ bottle (Louis Roederer’s ‘Cristal’).
Nikita Khrushchev was as keen on Champagne as his imperialist predecessor. Edward VII King of England was just one in a long line of British monarchs who were great fans of Champagne.
Champagne wines cater to the tastes of every head of state, no matter what their political convictions might be.
‘The sparkling froth of this fresh wine is the dazzling image of us, the French’. The words are taken from a satirical work published by Voltaire in 1736. Frédéric Chopin would no doubt have agreed with him, admitting when he left for Mallorca with the love of his life, George Sand, that Champagne made him witty and even slightly mad. That other French literary heavyweight, Alexandre Dumas, admitted to placing a glass of Champagne beside his inkwell in the hope that it might inspire his pen to sparkle.
French author Léon Daudet once described an intellectual sparring match between writers Maurice Barrès and Etienne Mallarmé – with Champagne as the arbiter. Great musicians were equally impressed by Champagne, whether Beethoven who waxed lyrical about it or Richard Wagner who said it was ‘the only thing that revived his taste for life’, reconciling him with France after the Tannhauser debacle in Paris.
Champagne also features in the works of several early 20th Century painters: Utrillo, for instance; also Manet in his ‘Bar at the Folies Bergère’ and ‘Chez le Père Lathuile’ (1879), a painting of two lovers seated at a table sharing a glass of Champagne.
Bubbly has always graced the tables of the glitterati – for some, going without Champagne is simply not an option.
Marlène Dietrich wrote in her memoirs that she loved Champagne because ‘it makes you feel like it’s Sunday and better days are just around the corner’. Greta Garbo acquired her taste for Champagne and luxury in general while playing a Russian woman on a visit to Paris in the film ‘Ninotchka’. Other big-screen heroines who loved Champagne include Audrey Hepburn, Jeanne Moreau, Marilyn Monroe and Juliette Binoche. French actor-singers Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier both sang the praises of Champagne. So too did Jacques Higelin and Serge Gainsbourg.
Pushkin, Henry Miller. Hemingway, Zola, Balzac, Maupassant, Colette, Françoise Sagan, John Le Carré, Frédéric Dard, 007-creator Ian Fleming … these were among the writers whose words brought Champagne to life. American enfant terrible Truman Capote said there was nothing like a glass of Champagne to laugh at death. We are told that Maurice’s Leblanc’s famed gentleman-thief-turned-detective character, Arsène Lupin, only ever drank his Champagne Extra Dry.
Amélie Nothomb is one of Champagne’s greatest fans – entire pages of her novels are devoted to it.
By the late 17th Century, as Champagne makers gradually came to grips with the process of effervescence, the monks lost their traditional hold on production and Champagne became the wine of choice for festive occasions.
Its mischievous lightness struck exactly the right chord with the free-thinking libertines of the 18th century. The ladies of the time, wrote the Regent’s wife, just loved the way the cork came jumping out of the bottle!
Champagne flowed like water at the French Court – whether dining-in at the Palais-Royal or eating al fresco with Madame de Pompadour (whose expenditure on Champagne says it all).
At least 1,800 bottles of Champagne were consumed in the course of the masked ball held in the Hôtel de Ville in 1739. Casanova would have approved: he said in his memoirs that Champagne was essential to pursue his sexual conquests.
By the early 19th century, the Champagne Houses were busy creating new outlets for Champagne – braving the perils of land and sea to woo the American and Russian markets … In Europe, the first to be bitten by the Champagne bug were the English. Champagne became a favourite at the English court under the Regency, considered a ‘must’ by arbiters of fashion Beau Brummell and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Alexander I of Russia was so keen on Champagne that in September 1815 he organised a four-day Champagne banquet for 300 guests. The occasion was a grand military parade at Vertus (Champagne) and the chef was celebrated French cook Marie-Antoine Carême.
Within just a few years, Champagne had made an entrance on the coast of California and in New York. By the early 20th century it was all set to take the world by storm. Champagne became the last word in chic entertaining: partying in style meant partying with Champagne.
The late 19th century saw major developments in transportation, especially the rail system, which catered to the growing demand for Champagne. Bubbly, or ‘Champ’ as it was known in the fashionable Paris watering-holes on the Grands Boulevards, was now the drink of the moment. They drank it at the Café Anglais and they drank it at the Tour d’Argent. They drank it at the Jockey Club and they drank it at the Taverne Olympia. They refused to drink anything else.
From the 1870s onwards, coinciding with the end of the Franco-Prussian war, Champagne became increasingly democratised. French playwright Feydeau and the composer Offenbach both mention Champagne in their works. So too does Strauss, in his operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’ (‘the curse of human dryness/is banished by his highness/Champagne the first’). Likewise Verdi in La Traviata (Alfredo and Violetta raise a glass to Champagne in the first act). As the Roaring Twenties spread to Europe, the jet setters of the time were game for anything – on condition that it included Champagne. Orders flowed in from Paris, Deauville and Biarritz; from Monte-Carlo, for the children’s hospital charity party ‘Le bal des Petits Lits Blancs’ (ball of tiny white beds); from French dandy and playboy Boni de Castellane, for the soirées in his pink marble extravaganza on the Avenue des Bois; from Princesse Murat for her fashionable parties; and from the countess de Clermont-Tonnerre, whose ‘Persian Balls’ would go down in history – over-the-top decor, hundreds of lavishly disguised guests and, to top it all, real elephants and horses and real fountains flowing with Champagne!
In May 1945, Champagne was of course the only choice to celebrate when General Eisenhower obtained Germany’s unconditional surrender??? at his HQ in Reims. And what a celebration it was! Since the early 20th Century, Champagne wines have grown to be the mark of success. No wine symbolizes the pleasures of conviviality better than sparkling Champagne.
Champagne is the wine people turn to for celebration, regardless of their race, religion or creed. Champagne flowed at the Shah of Iran’s Persepolis celebrations in 1971 to commemorate 2500 years of Iranian monarchy; at the Bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution; at the inaugural FIFA World Cup 98 celebrations.
Champagne is also a major sponsor of film festivals and other cultural and sporting events. Champagne is how we celebrate life’s finest moments. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, New Year’s Eve – whatever the celebration, it has to be Champagne.