A short history of Champagne’s decadent reputation.
No other sound is more intrinsically linked with the notion of celebration than the pop of a sparkling wine cork, the result of a happy burst of carbon dioxide eager to escape entrapment. Throughout my life, that noise has served as a precursor to jovial glass clinks, wide grins and — often — an epic dinner. Birthdays, New Year’s Eve, reuniting with a long-lost friend: many choose to commemorate significant occasions with a chilled bottle of bubbly.
Sometimes crisp and clean, other times bready and rich, bubbles are like a pat on the back, a reward doled out occasionally and tied to the fleeting sense of everything in the world is perfect at this very moment.
I love sparkling wine, and more specifically I love Champagne. So much so that I choose bubbles as my everyday drink. Often as an aperitif before dinner, sometimes throughout a meal and I’ve even been known to cap an evening with one final flute. On airlines, at events, on the sofa watching Breaking Bad in the comfort of my own home — there’s no wrong time to sip a sparkler.
Out of all types of bubbly wine produced worldwide, the most famous— and famously pricey —comes from France’s Champagne region, an area in the country’s northeast that’s credited with first creating the wine. But how in the world has a monk’s failed attempt at making still wine during the 17th century become the ongoing beverage symbol of success for all, from kings and queens to Jay Z and Beyonce?
It seems as though people are catching on to Champagne as an everyday thing. Just look at the rapper-turned- entrepreneur — if he’s not at the club spraying Cristal in the air, he’s buying up a full-on Champagne Chateaux. About two years ago, Jay Z snapped up Armand de Brignac, one of the region’s oldest Chateaux known for its blinged-out bottles at superman prices (the cheapest bottle starts at $300, which means $1000 or more at any nightlife-type haunt).
(Photograph by Seth Browarnik/World Red Eye)
“I’d argue that Champagne has been, and still is, the quintessential drink of decadence and celebration,” declares Grant Reynolds, partner and Champagne enthusiast at New York City’s Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones, two eateries respected for their fine wine lists. “Champagne is one of the oldest luxury brands in the beverage world.”
First produced by Benedictine monks (a fact that, early on, tied fizzy wines to the monarchy, then to kings), sparkling wine was the result of traditional winemaking gone awry. Because of Champagne’s cool climate, cold weather halted the juice’s primary fermentation, with active yeasts becoming temporarily dormant. In the spring, when warmer weather arrived, the yeasts would awaken and re-ferment the wine a second time, forming bubbles.
Champagne wines were quickly embraced by England’s upper class (English wine bottles proved sturdier than French, so winemakers shipped wine barrels there to be bottled) before they became tied to nobility. Later, Champenoise winemakers were eager to prove that their juice was on par with other celebrated French wine regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, so “[w]inemakers would covet political figures, high society members, and celebrities” to advertise these wines, explains Ariel Arce, beverage director at Riddling Widow, a Champagne-dedicated bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. “What better promotion than kings and queens and oligarchs to champion your product?”
Beyond an early celebrity factor, Champagne carries a long reputation as a less wallet-friendly refreshment (although in today’s market affordable Champagnes do exist), that is a direct result of its production process. “There are so many [wine-producing] regulations in Champagne, but a lot of them boil down to time, which is probably the most important element in the price factor,” explains Arce. “A bottle of Champagne, on minimum, takes about two and a half years to get to your dinner table, or bath tub, or backyard.”
So, it’s easier to justify spending big bucks on bubbles when special occasions arise — whether that means celebrating a Super Bowl win, a college graduation or marriage.
Whether you reside in Tokyo, Paris or a tiny city without a splashy reputation, bubbles stand for the same thing: celebration. In fact, the beverage has become so synonymous with living the good life — whether it’s reclining on a first class flight or yachting in Cannes — that a single sip offers any imbiber the taste of luxury.
Today, in a modern, more technologically advanced world, we’ve figured out ways to make wine sparkling through simplified methods that are less laborious, and therefore less costly, than the classic methode Champenoise. Which means that present-day winemakers can sell great bubbles at affordable prices, making some of those bottles fit for everyday imbibing. But what’s most interesting here is that despite quality sparkling wine now being within the reach of more consumers, the beverage continues to carry the same haute cachet as always.
A TIMELINE OF POP
1700: Champagne is born.
1808: Champagne takes on a symbolic importance in Johann von Goethe’s timeless classic, Faust.
1866: Moët hires entertainer George Leybourne as an early ambassador of sorts.
1928: Alfred Hitchcock releases a silent film called Champagne.
1965: James Bond (Sean Connery) drinks Dom in Thunderball.
1974: Queen releases Killer Queen, in which lead singer Freddie Mercury sings “She Keeps Moët et Chandon in her pretty cabinet.”
1986: The Beastie Boys sing about Moët on Licensed to Ill.
1992: Champagne makes a cameo in the 90’s grunge classic, Wayne’s World, when Cassandra says, “I don’t believe I’ve ever had French Champagne before…”
1994: The Notorious B.I.G. raps about Champagne on mega hits Juicy and Big Poppa.
2012: Moët & Chandon hires tennis champ Roger Federer as their global ambassador.
2013: Moët & Chandon partners with the glitzy remake of The Great Gatsby to advertise in the party-filled film.
2014: Jay Z buys Armand de Brignac.
2016: Winc revives the fabled California sparkling wine, Finke’s Widow.