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Why Champagne should thank England

‘Come quickly, I’m tasting the stars!’ said our French friend Dom Pérignon, who is often credited with inventing champagne. The truth however, is a little less ‘romantic French’ and a lot more to do with England and geeky scientists. Not that they would like to brag about it...

A diamond in the rough

Vines have been planted in Champagne since Roman times and for centuries were used by monks to produce sacrificial wine. Later, these monks would wistfully look across to their neighbours in Burgundy, never quite managing to make still wines that came close to the Burgundian dream; they could not get their grapes ripe enough and the results were a bit thin and acidic in comparison. What they hadn’t realised yet however, is that it was these less desirable qualities in their still wines that made them the perfect base for creating what would eventually become ‘champagne’ as we know and love it today.

Whoops! Accidental bubbles and big explosions

A form of sparkling wine created initially by accident, had already existed for centuries around the world. This would be made by bottling a wine before it had finished fermenting, thus producing bubbles, but also … pressure. Glass bottles tended to explode during the process; it wasn’t exactly the greatest method. The first documented sparkling wine deliberately made in this style came from southern France in 1531 and is still known as ‘Blanquette de Limoux’: an ancestral style of fizz that is traditionally cloudy. Crucially though, this ‘méthode rurale’ is not the same method that used in Champagne today.

English geekiness wins out

In 1662, more than one hundred years after the documentation of Blanquette de Limoux, a paper was presented at the Royal Society in London by an English scientist and physician called Christopher Merret. Entitled ‘Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines’, this paper described in detail the winemaking process that we now call the ‘champagne method’, where a sugary liquid is added to a still wine to create a second fermentation and therefore, bubbles. This paper was submitted six years before the monk Dom Pérignon even arrived at his abbey in Hautvillers.

Merret’s finding coincided with another huge development for sparkling wine by another Englishman. Diplomat Kenelm Digby solved the problem of exploding glass by creating a thick, opaque bottle that could stand the internal pressure of sparkling wine. As French glassmakers at the time did not have the tools to create bottles with enough strength, the English would ship barrels of wine over from the Champagne region and bottle it themselves, using Merret’s method.

While the perfect working method for fine fizz had been defined in England using wine from Champagne, it still took around two hundred years for the Champenois to adopt Merret’s ‘proto-type’, champagne method. Now that the method has been tried, tested and perfected pretty much, it’s safe to say that the creation of champagne as we know it, was truly a European collaboration.

Moët & Chandon’s Pavillion at the French-British Exhibition in London, 1908. @Archives Moët & Chandon

The Brits’ love affair with champagne

The British have always had a love affair with champagne, even before the French did, some might say, thanks to the courts of England and their extravagant parties in the 17th Century with still wine from champagne being made into sparkling. Almost unbelievably, at that time, the Champenois still preferred their wines still.

Nowadays, the British consume more champagne than anywhere else after France and it’s a drink that while premium, still manages to be the celebratory beverage of choice at every level of society. The monarchy was quick to acquire a taste for champagne. The oldest shipment of Veuve Clicquot champagne direct to a British sovereign found to-date in the House’s archives is dated 1868. The wine was ordered for Queen Victoria. Famous French houses hold the prestigious Royal Warrants, such as Krug (who received its first Royal Warrant in 1903), Veuve Clicquot (in 1905) and Moët & Chandon (in 1905).

First shipment of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin champagne to Queen Victoria. Letter to Maison Veuve Clicquot from J. J. Kanne, Her Majesty’s Overseas Diary Secretary, ordering 100 bottles of champagne for Queen Victoria.
Luzern, 29 August 1868. ©Archives Veuve Clicquot

In fact, England loves the bubbles so much that they are now making their own, using the same grapes and methods as champagne on their very similar soils. English Fizz? Can that be good? You may well ask, but actually climate change may play a role by bringing a warmer weather up north. It’s doing so well in fact, that some Champagne houses have started to make their own wines in England. Watch this space to see who else follows suit…

In the meantime, when you next open a bottle of Krug,  Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon, check out the Royal Warrant. A hint: on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot it’s on the front neck and on a bottle of Moët, you should look at the back.

Letter dated 19 February 1876 to Maison Veuve Clicquot by J. J. Kanne, Her Majesty’s Overseas Diary Secretary, ordering two baskets of Veuve Clicquot champagne for Queen Victoria delivered to the Duke of Edinburgh’s palace in Coburg, Germany. ©Archives Veuve Clicquot
©Archives Moët & Chandon
1953: In honour of the coronation of Elizabeth II, Moët & Chandon created a special vintage: Coronation Cuvée Vintage 1943. The neck-band label is similar to the one used for the Coronation Cuvée dedicated to Edward VII when he was crowned in 1902. © Moët & Chandon
1985: Certificate stating Maison Clicquot as official supplier of the Royal Court of England. @Archives Veuve Clicquot