Beyond the Bottle, History & Champagne
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
The world of wine and history are heavily intertwined; so many legendary beverages we choose to imbibe have equally legendary and fascinating historical notes. Champagne is at the forefront of those beverages. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite and join me in an exploration of four iconic examples – Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Cristal, and Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill.
Dom Perignon is oft credited with saying “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” and inventing champagne. It was a wine made naturally in the region due to the colder temperatures for years prior and was seen as either a great delicacy (as the French Royalty did) or faulty wine as the producer was hoping for still wine. The bottles often exploded due to the six atmospheres of pressure in every bottle and were a dangerously precarious treat. The British loved the wines and in fact, were deeply tied to the creation of Champagne. Five years before Dom Perignon announced that he was tasting the stars, a member of the British Royal Society had written a paper about wines going through secondary fermentation (what we now call the Champagne Method) and it was an energy crisis during the reign of King James 1st that led to the creation of bottles sturdy enough to safely hold these possibly explosive wines. The Tudors had essentially used up all the old growth English Oak for their navy – understandably so as England often had to protect itself from its numerous enemies on the continent, such as the Spanish. England’s glassblowers also used these old oaks for fuel and when King James was told of the dire situation, he made it illegal for these trees to be used for anything other than military needs. Known throughout Europe for the quality of their glass, the glassblowers had to maintain their business levels and looked to coal. It was considered a dirty energy source then due to the smoke and for that reason, they preferred the oak. However, once there was no other option – they were forced to turn to coal. Surprisingly, the coal proved to provide a higher burn temperature and created glass that was much stronger and became the key to keeping the bottles from exploding. For many years, they were the sole suppliers of bottles for Champagne. Even though the myth of Dom Perignon’s invention is but a myth, the champagne named after him is a perennial classic – the wine is always vintage – only the best years are released.
Veuve Clicquot. Most of us know that robust gold-yellow color – the inspiration of that color is the yolk of a Breton egg. The mastermind behind this branding? Veuve (widow) Cliquot – Barbe- Nicole Ponsardin. Francois, her husband, was part of a family that owned a wine business and wanted to expand...much to his father’s concern. The young couple set to work on it and sadly within six years of marriage – Francois passed. A widow with a young son in Reims, this 27-year- old woman took control of her future, and unknowingly, that of Champagne. Her father-in-law wished to close the expanded part of the business but was convinced to keep it open when Veuve Clicquot offered to risk her inheritance to keep it going. He relented and the rest is history. Veuve Cliquot was a brilliant strategist and marketing genius – she knew that her wine had to be the favorite of the Royalty – any Royalty. She sent ships carrying her 1811 vintage out as far as Amsterdam during the Napoleanic war to wait for it to finish. As soon as it was, she sent her wines in and beat all other competitors. Tsar Alexander became her biggest fan and proclaimed that he would drink no other champagne. This marketing coup paid off, and soon, she was one of the most sought-after producers for Royalty and those wishing to drink like Royalty. To keep up with increased demand, she also invented the riddling rack to help rid the wine of the dead yeast from the secondary fermentation. Once done by hand, by pouring wine from one bottle to another - it was extremely labor intensive and kept production levels down. Her invention of the riddling table – made from bed frames – proved to be a brilliant move. The two-bed frames were leaned up to form a shape like a tent and the bottles were rested neck down in little holes. Those manning this station could twist the bottle in the spot, coaxing the dead yeast out of the liquid. Her competitors were flummoxed with her increased production and the secret behind it and to her credit, her employees never released the secret. To honor her contribution to Champagne, she is the only person to be allowed to have their visage on the capsule of a Champagne bottle. Today, it is one of the largest Champagne producers with numerous styles produced.
Speaking of Tsars. . .this brings us to Cristal. Tsar Alexander II, the nephew of Tsar Alexander I, was a fan of the wines from Roederer and personally asked the house to create a wine that was the best of the best – unavailable to anyone else. As the House owned its vineyards – it could pick out its best parcels and control production for what would become the first “prestige Cuvee”. There were a few asks from the Tsar – a clear glass so that he could see if any poison had been added, gold on the label to denote that it is the best of the best, and a flat punt (the indentation at the bottom of the bottle) to ensure that there wasn’t a hidden incendiary device. Produced exclusively for the Tsars until 1917, Roederer continued to make this wine for personal consumption but didn’t release it commercially until the end of WWII, 1945. It still honors it’s history with it’s signature packaging – a flat punt and clear bottle.
Speaking of the end of WWII, 1945 provided another icon in Champagne – Sir Winston Churchill. Known for his love of fermented beverages and going bankrupt twice because of this, it is no surprise that there is a Champagne connection. Long a lover of champagne, he took a keen liking to the wines of Pol Roger after tasting the 1928 vintage at a luncheon with Odette Pol Roger to celebrate the liberation of Paris. Known at the time for their more decadent pinot noir led blends, it soon became his Champagne of choice - he had the wine bottled in English Imperial pints and sent to his home regularly – choosing that size bottle over the 750ml to appease his eagle-eyed wife, Clementine. Upon his death in 1964, the house put black mourning badges on all bottles sent to the UK and did so until the early 90s
. And in 1984, they released the first vintage of Sir Winston Churchill Cuvee, the 1975 vintage. It was released on the 40th anniversary of D-Day as a fitting tribute. This Cuvee is only produced in the best years and made from grapes planted in Grand Cru vineyards from the time of Winston Churchill’s era. Always Pinot Noir dominated as that was Churchill’s preference, it features a darker label with a mourning band as the background. An iconic wine if you can find it and an utter treat to experience.
Four iconic Champagne houses and four stories intertwine with history. Who knew that the Tudors would have helped the future Champagne industry by needing to order more and more naval vessels and thus depleting the major fuel source needed for making bottles? Modern marketing and strategy skills were displayed by a keenly intelligent widow who helped to establish Champagne as an international beverage. The iconic Tsars and their iconic wine, remain one of my favorite stories to tell guests unfamiliar with why the bottles look the way it does, and Sir Winston Churchill – an absolute icon of military strategy, historic writing, and I dare say – historic drinking ability. Treat yourself to these wines and drink a bit of history. . .