The Wine Blog

Celebration Libation

December 30, 2010

As we prepare to toast to a new year, there is one addition to wine that we all covet: bubbles.   But why?  As it turns out, the luxury status that Champagne has attained is the byproduct of a few savvy marketing techniques that date back hundreds of years.

The purposeful addition of bubbles into a bottle of wine is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of fermented grapes.  Although still wines from Champagne were served during the coronation ceremonies of French kings (which took place in Reims, within Champagne) dating back to medieval times, it wasn’t until the English scientist and physician Christopher Merrett, in 1662, published a paper detailing the use of “vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling.”  Dom Perignon, the famous Benedictine monk frequently credited with discovering Champagne, did not set foot in the region until 6 years after Merrett’s discovery and spent much of his efforts attempting to rid bottled wine of unpleasant bubbles.

Following the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the court of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans made the sparkling version of Champagne a favorite among the French nobility.  However, the production process was difficult to replicate until a technological breakthrough–stronger glass bottles– allowed the second fermentation stage to take place without the bottle rupturing.  As the formalization of the méthode champenoise made production of sparkling wine on a large scale profitable, this period saw the founding of many of today’s famous Champagne houses, including Krug (1843), Pommery (1858) and Bollinger (1829).

While Napoleon’s troops popped bottles of Champagne  the old fashioned way on the battlefield to celebrate victory, Champagne houses devoted considerable energy to creating a history and identity for their wine, associating it and themselves with nobility and royalty. Through advertising and packaging they sought to associate champagne with high luxury, festivities and rites of passage. Their efforts coincided with an emerging middle class that was looking for ways to spend its money on symbols of upward mobility.  They even made a concerted effort to target women, touting the wine’s favor with a Countess and using labels that were designed with images of romantic love and marriage as well as other special occasions that were deemed important to women, such as the baptism of a child.

As we all begrudgingly know, Champagne can’t be called Champagne if it isn’t from the designated growth region of Champagne, France.  The name “Champagne” is a protected designation of origin in the European Union and since a court ruling in 1985 the méthode champenoise cannot be depicted on bottling in the EU to designate the form of production unless it is from Champagne.  However, cava from Spain and most sparkling wine from the US are made in the same fashion.  Prosecco and Asti, from Italy, go through their second fermentation partially outside of the bottle, which is a less costly method and produces some quality bubbles at affordable prices.

So while we might think the boastful consumption of Champagne by our modern-day celebrities and rappers is a novel display of nobility, it all dates back to some savvy marketing tactics of Champagne houses in the 1800’s.  So raise your glass–in my case, of Sonoma sparkling wine– to the English for figuring it out, to the French for popularizing it, and to all those around the world who enjoy popping a cork to commemorate life’s many occasions to celebrate.

Don’t forget to rate your New Year’s Eve wines in your cellar, online or on your mobile app!

Special thanks to The Oxford Companion to Wine, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and A Short History of Wine.