champagneHappy Accidents in History

Far from being “invented” at once by a creative and eternally famous monk, Champagne was born quite by accident. Indeed, it was engineered more from a shift in global climate than any stroke of brilliance in 16th century renaissance Europe. It then took over a century for the idea catch hold.

Bubbles in wine were known to vintners long before they could reliably capture and preserve this phenomenon in the bottle. As a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, carbon dioxide is released in the liquid to provide a “sparkle.” In the Northern climates, cold weather sometimes arrives early after harvest, stopping fermentation before the sugar is used up. Warm weather in the spring often causes it to start up again, resulting in carbonated wine. The English imported wine in casks. They found also that adding sugar to tart, acidic wine would often soon cause it to sparkle and they developed a liking for it. English bottles were much stronger than those in France and not as inclined to burst when the pressure built.

In the mid-16th century, monks of the Abbey of St. Hilaire close to the Spanish border in Limoux developed a method of making sparkling wine almost 200 years before their rivals to the north. The method developed by the monks in Limoux is called methode ancestrale. In this process, the bottle is sealed before the fermentation is complete, which creates natural bubbles in the wine. Unfortunately, this process leaves too much yeast sediment trapped in the bottle. Developing a more sophisticated style, producers from the Champagne region invented methode champenoise, which yields a sparkling wine without the sediment. By law, only producers in the Champagne region can officially call their sparkling wine Champagne — just as only producers in the area surrounding Limoux can market their sparkling wine with the name Blanquette.

The area of Champagne benefited when the cathedral at Reims was chosen in 987 AD, as the coronation site for the French king Hugh Capet and establishing Reims as the spiritual capital of medieval France. In fact, 37 kings of France were crowned there between 816 and 1825. The monasteries in Champagne with the economic assistance of the crown, made wine production a serious venture until the French Revolution in 1789.

Prior to the late 1400’s, the Champagne region of France was in a neck and neck race with Burgundy to produce the finest wines for the French King. Because of its proximity to rivers that could easily reach Paris, it had the upper hand. But a dramatic climate shift moved through the Northern hemisphere in the 1490’s. Plummeting temperatures brought with them a shorter growing season that hit Champagne hard. Yeast that converted the sugar to alcohol stopped processing mid-season. When the spring came and the temperatures began to rise again the yeast began processing sugars for a second fermentation (bubbles!)

Dom Perignon

French royalty was repulsed by the new vintages coming out of the Champagne region and Burgundy picked up nearly all of Champagne’s market share. It would remain this way until the mid-1600’s when the Church sent in a specialist, Dom Perignon, to help recoup its investment in failing vineyards.

Dom Perignon pioneered techniques for bottling and managing the second fermentation, of harvesting grapes over multiple days and passes to obtain only the ripest grapes with each pass, and harvesting from multiple vineyards. The techniques pioneered by Dom Perignon are still in use today and form the foundation for the best bubbly found anywhere in the world.

Although the challenge of preventing bottles from exploding as the result of the internal pressure would fluster the French for many years to come (it is estimated that over half of the Champagne bottled exploded during shipment), the city of Reims in Champagne became an official innovator and supplier of the wine in 1728.

“Lions Comiques” like Leybourne were the heart throbs of the Victorian era. They had the same cult status as the boy bands of the 1990s. Known as ‘swells’ these singers dressed as fashionable, swaggering young men and sang songs about high life and drinking champagne.

The “Swell” Pop Stars of the 1800’s

Excerpts From PeoplePlayUK.org.uk

In 1866, the famous English entertainer and star of his day, George Leybourne (who called himself Champagne Charlie) began a career of making celebrity endorsements for Champagne.  The Champagne maker Moet commissioned him to write and perform songs extolling the virtues of Champagne, especially as a reflection of taste, affluence, and the good life. He also agreed to drink nothing but Champagne in public. Leybourne was seen as highly sophisticated and his image and efforts did much to establish Champagne as an important element in enhancing social status.  The trend making sparkling wine fashionable and hip brought forth the success of celebratory bubbles which continues today. 

“Lions Comiques” like Leybourne were the heart throbs of the Victorian era. They had the same cult status as the boy bands of the 1990s. Known as ‘swells’ these singers dressed as fashionable, swaggering young men and sang songs.  The most popular of these songs are well known by most people even today.  Which of these pop hits of the mid-1800’s can you name?

SONG 1 – You’ve heard this song thousands of times, especially in cartoons  

SONG 2 – One of the songs by George Leybourne that made him world famous

SONG 3 – Perhaps the most significant recorded song in history    

Recording 4 – Many people are aware of what Edison spoke into the first recording device, but did you know that rather than speaking a kid’s rhyme, he was actually speaking the lyrics of one of the top pop hits of the day?

The Great Vance

The Great Vance

Lounging in the Aq

Lounging in the Aq

George Leybourne was the most famous Lion Comique. He sang the song ‘Champagne Charlie’.  Leybourne’s greatest rival, The Great Vance, sang songs about fashionable places to be seen, including the Zoological Gardens. It was his song ‘Walking in the Zoo’ that popularized the word Zoo.  This is why we use the word “Zoo” today!   However, George Leybourne’s song ‘Lounging in the Aq’ failed to do the same for the word aquarium.

The other word you still use today?  “Swell”.   By the early 20th century, “Swell” was a curse word, derived from the unsavory lifestyles of the drunkard ‘swells’ of the Victorian era.  Eventually, anything enjoyable and part of the good life was just swell!  Alas, if you’re about to celebrate, do something swell and pop open a bottle of Champagne.

More information about Champagne can be found online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champagne_(wine) (Wikipedia)
http://www.champagne.us (The Office of Champagne, USA)

If you want to know more about the music halls of the 1800’s, begin with a fascinating tour at http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/music_hall_tour/default.php
http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/MusicHallIndex.htm

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