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Historical note by Benoît MUSSET - History Ph.D
Lecturer in modern history at the University of Maine, 11 September 2009.
Effervescence is an effect that has always been observed in wines. The first recorded mention is found in an Egyptian papyrus document dated 23 October 522 AD. Secondary fermentation in spring – the process that produces the bubbles in wine – is listed in this document among the factors that make wines unfit for sale. In other words, sparkling wines were considered flawed. 1
The literature of Medieval Europe refers to secondary fermentation, without really linking it to any wine in particular. In the Jeu de saint Nicolas (c.1200), northern Frenchman Jehan Bodel portrays characters tasting wines in an inn. Commenting on an anonymous sparkling wine, one of them says: ‘See how it devours its bubbles, how it sparkles, shimmers and bounces. Let it settle for a moment on the top of the tongue, and you will find this an extraordinary wine to be sure.’ 2
Some wines however, were known to have a natural tendency to sparkle – why, how and when was another story. Epernay wine, for instance, is described in a poem dating from 1320 as ‘sparkling on the tongue, clear, brilliant, strong, fine and fresh.’ 3 But it was not only Champagne wines that sparkled. So too did Burgundy wines, as shown in this list of wines compiled by a French physician in 1571:
Wine that sparkle in the glass
Such as the good wines of Tonnerre,
Chably, Aix [Ay], Beaune and Reims,
That folk of good health do drink
Throughout the cantons of France,
Are filled with such excellence,
And such vigorous spirit to the body do bring
That they are beyond price,
But they do withal need to be cut with water. 4
So sparkling wines were known to exist, but not greatly sought-after 5. As a precaution, they were usually cut with water, prompting the following censorious critique from an Italian physician (translated into French in 1572): ‘the way they leap about in the glass makes them an ideal drink for the dead.’ 6
The arrival of sparkling Champagne wines in the period 1670-1690 therefore marked an entirely new departure. Not only were they the first-ever sparkling wines to be tied to a specific region, but they also pioneered a very specific winemaking technique.
The English of course had already written a paper describing how to make a wine sparkle. Submitted to the Royal Society of London on 17 December 1662, it recommends adding sugar to finished wine shortly before serving. The actual winemaking process however remained unchanged, and the process could be applied to any wine.
The English Restoration dramatist Sir George Etherege is the first to mention sparkling Champagne wines, in his comedy of manners, The Man of Mode (1676). Within just a few years, Champagne wines were all the rage in England, with the French following close behind in the 1700s. 7 Nothing titillated the senses like popping a bottle of bubbly, though price remained beyond the reach of the common man. Making Champagne was a tricky and expensive business. The wine required more than six months’ barrel storage prior to bottling in spring, and a further rest period lasting until autumn. The build-up of effervescence depended on their being enough sugar left in the wine by spring to kick-start secondary fermentation. Around 1710, there were fewer than 10,000 bottles of Champagne sold every year 8.
The problem was that Champagne producers had no idea how secondary fermentation worked. It often failed due to lack of residual sugar or, more likely still, the bottle exploded in the process. In fact, it took from the 18th to the 19th century for producers to get things right, eventually developing the methods that are still used today: cork stoppers, fastened with wire (originally hemp string); reinforced glass bottles; variable bottling date depending on year; the addition of sugar to the bottled wine; improved storage/aging conditions in cellars with naturally stable temperatures; elimination of sediment through disgorgement (from the 1780s-1790s onwards).
In the 1700s, sparkling (mousseux) Champagne wine was the only one of its kind. In 1701, Antoine Furetière defined ‘mousseux’ as follows in his Dictionnaire Universel: ‘only said of Champagne wine that develops mousse.’ 9 Towards the end of the century, Burgundian notable Edmé Beguillet (certainly no friend of Champagne) refers to the region’s monopolistic hold on sparkling-wine technology. Writing in 1770, he describes Champagne as ‘the only industry capable of bringing previously non-existent wines out of obscurity, and bestowing reputation on a previously unknown product.’ 10
By the 1790s and 1800s, Champagne technology had in fact spread to other vineyards: Arbois (attested in 1792) and various places in Switzerland. In 1833, English author Cyrus Redding lists several regions in France that made sparkling wines: Die, Saint-Péray (Ardèche), Limoux, Anjou and Belfort. He also refers to Italian and German sparkling wines. 11 By the late 19th Century, the list had grown to include Russia, Hungary, Spain and the USA. 12 But the fact that the French terms ‘champagnisation’ and ‘méthode champenoise’ were appropriated by other vineyards from the 1830s onwards serves to remind us of where the wine and its techniques did actually originate.
Quality considerations aside, a timeline based on documentary evidence clearly shows that Champagne is the first ever sparkling wine to have been made on a regular basis by producers in a specific region. And that region is Champagne.
1 BRUN (Jean-Pierre), Le vin et l’huile dans la Méditerranée antique. Viticulture, oléiculture et procédés de fabrication (Wine and oil in the ancient Mediterranean. Viticulture, olive farming and production methods), Paris, Errance, 2003, p.77.
2 BODEL (Jehan), Le Jeu de saint Nicolas (St Nicolas’ game), v. 642-762, modern French translation by M. Mezghani-Manal, cited in ARGOD-DUTARD (Françoise), Voyage au pays du vin. Histoire, anthologie, dictionnaire (Journey into wine country. History, anthology and dictionary), Paris, Robert Laffont, 2007, p.381.
3 DEVROEY (Jean-Pierre), L’éclair d’un Bonheur (The glimmer of happiness), Paris, La Manufacture, 1989, p.103. modern French translation of Dit des trois dames de Paris (Tale of the three ladies of Paris), by Watriquet de Couvin.
4 DU FOUR DE LA CRESPELIERE, Commentaire en vers sur l’école de Salerne, contenant les moyens de se passer de médecin, de vivre longtemps en santé (A tale in verse about the school of Salerno, stating how to live a long and healthy life without doctors), Paris, 1571, 714p.
5 The theory asserting that sparkling wines were ‘invented’ in Limoux in the 1530s is not supported by available historical date. The first mention of ‘blanquette de Limoux’ is found in the accounts of a certain Sire D’Arques dating back to 1544. Included among his purchases were ‘two bottles of blanquette’ – a term referring exclusively to the grape from which the wine was made, not a sparkling wine. Sparkling wines are not mentioned anywhere in viticultural literature (nor indeed in travel accounts) until the early 19th Century. GAVIGNAUD-FONTAINE (Geneviève), LARGUIER (Gilbert), Le vin en Languedoc et en Roussillon. De la tradition aux mondialisations, XVIe-XXIe siècle (Wine in the Languedoc and the Roussillon regions. From tradition to globalization, 16-21st centuries), Perpignan, Trabucaire, 2007, p.26-27.
6 Secrets de la vraye agriculture […]. Traduit en français de l’italien de messire Augustin Gallo par François de Belleforest, comingeois (French translation of Augustin Gallo’s original text in Italian, by François de Belleforest Comingeois), Paris, 1572, p.86. Modern French translation.
7 ‘Then sparkling Champaign, puts an end to their reign, it quickly recovers Poor languishing Lovers;’ ETHERDGE (George), The Man of Mode, London, 1676. Edited by A. Norman Jeffares, Restoration Comedy, London, 1974, t. 1, p.591 (act IV, scene 1).
8 MUSSET (Benoît), Vignobles de Champagne et vins mousseux. Histoire d’un mariage de raison (Champagne vineyards and sparkling wines. History of a marriage of reason) (1650-1830), Paris, Fayard, 2008, 792 p.
9 Quoted by GANDILHON (René), La Naissance du Champagne (The birth of Champagne), Paris, Hachette, 1968, p.176.
10 BEGUILLET (Edme), OEnologie ou discours sur la méthode de faire le vin et de cultiver les vignes, (Oenology, or discourse on the method of making wine and cultivating the vine) Dijon, 1770, p.30.
11 REDDING (Cyrus), A History and Description of Modern Wines, London, 1833, 407 p.
12 MOREAU-BERILLON (Camille), Au pays du Champagne. Le vignoble, le vin, (Champagne country. Its vineyards and wine), Reims, 1924, p.141 and following.