Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Champagne: The Truth Behind The Bubbles

by Josh Brown

When those fantastic examination results are confirmed, you and your family may celebrate with a bottle (or more) of champagne. Why is a rather mediocre sparkling wine the icon of rejoicing? Admittedly the bubbles are frivolous and fun but why specifically the sparkling wine from one region of France rather than the many others from across Europe and around the world? And why is champagne so commercially valued? A glass of the 'house' brand in the Savoy is £16 and the wine list runs to a bottle at well over £3000! Is it really worth it?

What do we  'know' about "champers"? It was invented in the Epernay region of northern France. It was perfected by a Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, who spent his life working on it. Famously, he once called his brother monks "Come quick, I have angels dancing on my tongue!". Counted among its many ardent fans was the brilliant Irish writer Oscar Wilde who was drunk on champagne when arrested in 1895. The 'proper' way to open a bottle is to hold the cork with a cloth and twist  the bottle. So accepted are these 'facts' that you will find them repeated every reputable wine guide including one in the PGS staff common room recently. Yet the truth is that these are all pure myth!

The true inventor of champagne
Sparkling wine was not invented by the French but by a seventeenth century English physicist, Christopher Merret, several decades before French vintners started to copy his recipe. Their master-stroke was to secure the worlds first 'denomination' order, a legal ban stopping any other region from calling its wine "Champagne". Two centuries later, this restriction became an EU law that stops other sparkling wine makers from even using the term "method champenois" (champagne method).

Dom Perignon did spend sixty years of his life working to perfect wine production. His achievement was to improve the quality of the local grapes which means he actually invented Pinot Noir still wine because his other preoccupation was a lifelong mission to get rid of the bubbles! So where did that call to his brothers come from? In the late nineteenth century, the champagne house named after him hired a leading art nouveau  painter to design an advertising poster. The result was a picture of a monk holding a glass. Below this was the infamous call. What is presented as French history is nothing more than an advertising slogan. Until recently, you could find this poster on any internet search engine set to images but now reversed SEO has made it extremely difficult to locate, presumably to protect the myth.  

So just how did champagne reach its elevated position as the world's choice for celebration? In the late nineteenth century, champagne sales went into free fall. Several bad summers damaged the harvest while sales were falling due to the popularity of "hock and seltzer - white wine with soda water, which we now call a "spritzer". It was hock and seltzer, not champagne, that was Wilde’s favourite tipple (he was drinking it when the police came to arrest him). As houses started to go out of business, the champagne industry knew it needed to take urgent action in the form of what we now call "sales promotion".

ulterior motive . . .
At the time, most sparkling wine was sold in restaurants, so the realisation was that sales would best be protected  through wine waiters. The solution was to place a small coin under the metal cap on top of the cork so that any sale meant a generous commission to the waiter. The only problem for wine waiters was to find a reason to push sparkling wine. As sparkling wine is different and fun; the obvious rationale was to present it as the drink for a special occasion. Waiters honed in on customer conversation and, if there was anything special happening (a birthday, anniversary, engagement, etc), they had a reason to recommend a different tipple. So it was that bubbly became linked to celebration.

The practice of holding the cork with a cloth and turning the bottle has nothing to do with serving the wine. It was designed to ensure the coin was not lost and the customer could not discover that the wine had been recommended for the commission. To this day, custom holds that a champagne cork is lucky and people save the cork from the bottle  at important celebrations like weddings. The tradition of inserting a coin into the cork for good fortune mimics the practice adopted by wine waiters to ensure all tips were shared. The cork truly was  lucky for London waiters who, in late nineteenth century London, were the highest-earning manual workers in the country.

The promotion, obviously, worked! Champagne is held as the ultimate wine and fetches prices well in excess of other wines and sparkling wine from other regions. Invention has become reality and all down to successful marketing.

One final interesting fact. The best selling Champagne house, Moet and Chandon earns almost as much from manufacturing Ginger Beer as it does from sparkling wine. Moet sell it in their distinctive bottles to theatre, film and television companies for actors to use in scenes where they drink Champagne. The National Theatre has two cellars, one with produce for the theatre bars and the other (the “Stage Cellar”) for use on stage stocked with tea bottled as beer and whiskey, water as gin and vodka, and hundreds of  Moet bottles full of ginger beer. 


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