The Fizzy Facts of Champagne’s Past

Known as ‘holy water’ and revered as the drink of kings, this distinctive sparkling wine has a fascinating backstory.

It’s a well-known and much-loved annual ritual. Shout out a countdown as the last seconds of the old year tick away. Share hugs with family and friends, maybe a midnight kiss with someone special. Strike up the familiar strains of “Auld Lang Syne” for a sing-along, and pop! Let’s all raise a glass – here’s to new beginnings.

Champagne provides the exclamation point on New Year’s Eve. But how did this traditional toast get its start? And who invented champagne?

More on the first question in a bit, but the short answer to the second question is: The French. They pioneered the beverage and helped make it popular. So popular, in fact, that the term “champagne” is often applied to any sparkling wine.

But technically, only those from France’s northeast province of Champagne, an area which boasts 76,000 acres of vineyards, can be marketed as champagne. This designation is taken seriously and was legally established in 1891.

In addition, only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varieties can be used in champagne. But, historically speaking, the French were not the first to plant grapes in the region. Surprise, surprise, it was the Romans – making yet another cameo in a “Barside Wisdom” story – who originally cultivated these vines.

Monastic winemakers, including a fellow called Dom Perignon whose name might sound familiar, developed the bubbly beverage over time. A milestone occurred in 987, when Hugh Capet was crowned king of France. His coronation was held in the Champagne region, and at the celebratory banquets, local wines greatly impressed visiting monarchs.

Afterward, European aristocrats became increasingly obsessed with champagne. It was soon a favorite at court celebrations and reportedly King Louis XIV’s drink of choice. There were, however, some unpleasant consequences.

The high demand drove up costs exponentially, and royal adoration also made red wines from Burgundy less desirable. This competitive friction fueled jealousy and a 130-year-long feud between the two winemaking regions, which nearly sparked civil war on multiple occasions.

All the while, champagne was being refined. Bottles had a troubling tendency to explode, as glass of the period was not consistently strong enough to withstand the wine’s substantial carbonated pressure. This unseemly problem was eventually solved when the English developed stouter glass.

Our friend Dom Perignon further advanced the cause by turning to corks (rather than wooden plugs) to seal the bottles. He also mastered the chemical balance of champagne, yielding a tastier and longer-lasting product.

Successively, these improvements brought down costs and increased availability. Then, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, societal customs underwent rapid change. Winemakers began marketing champagne more broadly, and although many people could not afford to drink it as table wine, they began to purchase it for special occasions.

The “holy water” of champagne, as opposed to actual holy water, soon became associated with weddings, baptisms and christenings. Around the same time, New Year’s Eve shifted to become more of a secular holiday. The link was established, and champagne’s position as a celebratory beverage was not isolated to France. 

Its use spread throughout Europe and grew in popularity in America. Numerous countries started making their own versions of sparkling wine, with tweaks to the flavor profile. The English tend to prefer theirs dry, for example, while Americans generally like it a bit sweeter.

So, as you pop a cork at midnight, please take a moment to reflect on the history of this unique beverage. Once a bottle-bursting soaker of aristocrats and near-cause for civil war – now a fizzy essential for your new year’s toast. Cheers!