Champagne – ‘Vicious, Debauch’d, and Profane’.

c1800s and the 'high-life' of Champage.

Written by Edward Washington

**Champagne – capital ‘C’, is the region; champagne – lower case ‘c’, is the wine. I hope this allays any confusion.


It’s not hard to imagine some dashing young Parisian bourgeois, throwing deliriously debauched soirées and emptying his champagne bottle into the Punch bowl.  It seems the French took a taste for Champagne Punch in the early 1780s and Punch Á La Romaine (Roman Punch) would have certainly been a hit.  Roman Punch was also the 6th (of 11) courses served in the Titanic’s 1st Class cabins the evening the ocean liner severed itself an unwanted blowhole on a large chunk of ice and sank with most hands in 1912.

Punch Á La Romaine (Roman Punch)

Make a quart of lemon ice, and flavour it with a glass or two of each, of rum, brandy, champagne, and Maraschino; when it is frozen, to each quart take the whites of five eggs and whip them to a very strong froth; boil half a pound of sugar to the ball, and rub it with a spoon or spatula against the sides to grain it; when it turns white, mix it quickly with the whites of eggs, stir it lightly together, and add it to the ice; when cold, mix it well together, and serve it in glasses; less sugar must be used in the ice, so as to allow for that which is used in making the meringue.

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Adapted from Eleanor Parkinson (1844) The complete confectioner, pastry cook and baker.

In 1660 Charles II, the exiled English King, returned from France to England to kickstart the Restoration. He brought with him a penchant for the sparkling wines of Champagne and David Wondrich, the author of Punch, states; “as Charles entered London, the fountains literally flowed with wine”. Wondrich also characterised the new King’s court as “vicious, debauch’d, and profane” – but, says Wondrich, “being gentlemen they drank wine”.

Andre Simon, the English gastronomic historian who has written extensively on England’s wine trade wrote; “sparkling champagne; light, elegant and extravagant, was available in England in 1662 although shipped in small quantities”. So wine it was, and from Champagne most likely, that Charles and his haughty Courtiers would have been enjoying.

Despite such an early presence on the London market, some do tout the English as the true ‘inventors’ of the iconic wine. Christopher Merrett is often cited as the pioneer with his 1662 paper on sparkling wine production used as case in point. While his technical knowledge was certainly significant in understanding the process of a controlled secondary fermentation, the sparkling wines of Champagne (caused by a spontaneous secondary fermentation) were long known in England, so it is more plausible that Merrett helped evolved the category rather than having invented or defined it. Anyway, the real invention of champagne involved far more than an oenological technique – it took great industrial change, shifting economic markets and courage.

Ay, Champagne c1880

By the 1670s St Evremond, an exiled Frenchman, was spreading the fame of Champagne’s wines throughout London’s high society and his disciples would have been consuming, “greyish or yellowish effervescent wines” according to Simon. Evremond helped ensconce this wine within the dietary norm of England’s wealthiest circles and the appearance and acceptance of sparkling champagne in London is considerably important when researching when the wine took on its modern image. Once sparkling champagne was adopted by London’s social elite, not war or taxes could hold it back and in the years after the French Revolution the Champagne industry transformed and created the foundations of a modern wine economy based on a luxury product.

For much of history Champagne had been known for its still wines; simple, fruity and produced for domestic markets (like Paris). It competed with regions such as Burgundy for domestic trade and had an underwhelming presence on the international wine market. By the 18th century, the Champagne region was hurtling toward a new and exciting future and Thomas Brennan states in his study of Europe’s early modern wine trade: “The…’deliberate creation’ of sparkling champagne marked the birth of mass-scale commerce in France’s viticultural history and paved the social and economic rise of the world’s most iconic wine.” The French took the unknowns of spontaneous fermentation and banked it.

British East India Company men and women were cultured enough to appreciate the enlivening benefits of champagne. When it was procured it was not uncommon for them to stretch it into a Punch, and here we have an anecdotal recipe that might have served them well.

The Commander In-Chief

Pour one bottle of good French claret, one bottle of soda-water, one wine glass of curaçao and sugar to taste into a large bowl. Throw in 500g of broken ice half an hour before the drink is needed. When about to serve, add one bottle of Champagne, stir briskly and put into a glass jug and serve.

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*This Punch could be dedicated to the Indian born 1st Earl Frederick Roberts VC who was the British Army’s last Commander in Chief. Roberts retired in 1904, around the same time of the book’s first edition, so it’s plausible that he had earned the distinction. Other than that this punch might have been seen as a ‘chiefly drink’.

Adapted from C.C. Kohlhoff Indian Cookery and Domestic Recipes 2nd Edition, 1906

Le vin suprême; L’identité célébrée

Champaine, Champaigne or Champagne, as it’s been known, was born out of an economic opportunity that arose from potential disaster. The story begins in the mid 17th century when some Champagne wine makers began to focus on creating better quality wines from their grapes; this was a significant step because an underlying theme associated with champagne today is still quality. Winemakers moved away from the red, or dark coloured wines that they usually made and producing lighter, more delicate wines that tended to require more care once sold.

Well off English buyers often bottled these still or ‘creaming’ wines as a means of protecting their investment, and by doing so preserved the effervescent qualities. Bottling wine was a serious investment for a French wine maker at this time and wouldn’t really take hold in France until the near close of the 18th century, so for the time being it was left to the British buyers to do so.

Moet & Chanson c1900s - Femininity was a marketing coup for the champagne industry

While the late 1600s did see a niche acceptance of sparkling champagne throughout the English upper class, by early in the 1700s the Champagne region was under economic stress. A succession of poor vintages certainly contributed, but the worrying practise of over planting inferior vines (to produce more volume) had greatly damaged the region’s reputation. “The vine regions, once the best in Champagne, have become the most miserable,” lamented one resident in the 1730s when trying to take his wine to market.

In the face of loosing their livelihood more producers turned toward creating better quality wine on a smaller scale and directing sales to more niche markets; this evolved their previously simple market strategy for a more clinical and complicated one, completely altering the way the region traded. By 1779 their efforts returned Champagne economic prosperity, and in that year Christie’s London salehouse noted: “red champagne, achieving phenomenal prices, well over double the best claret – [they have] a dazzling reputation amongst the fashionable society of both France and England‘.

Back on track with quality, Champagne was to experience downturn in the domestic wine market off the back of prosperity in the south of France. Dramatic improvements to Europe’s transport infrastructure allowed regions to transport goods farther afield, and the south, afforded a better vine-growing climate and experiencing a viticultural boom, began to out-muscle Champagne’s growers in the domestic still-wine market. By the close of the 18th century it has been suggested that domestic trade in ‘ordinary wines from the Marne region’ had all but collapsed.

Despite being priced out of this market, Champagne’s reputation as a producer of exceptional quality wines – both still and sparkling – remained intact. 18th century records from Moët & Chandon attest to the popularity of both styles and in 1780, “Vin de Champagne, of good quality, and definitely not sparkling,” was ordered by one English customer – an indication of both consumer fashion and regional reputation. Only years later however the same firm was bottling over 50,000 bottles of sparkling wine for other customers; something that proved to be financially worthwhile.

The essential item on the table for any occasion or excuse - c1890

Estate bottling of sparkling champagne marked a significant turning point in product packaging, the price it could command and the way that it was sold. Until the mid 1700s wine was mostly sold to tavern owners and merchants in barrel, who would hope to on-sell it as quickly as possible. Wealthy off-premise consumers would also buy barrel wine and bottle it themselves to prevent spoilage.

This was a common practice among London’s elite as they had access to high quality glass bottles – another reason for the English claiming they ‘invented’ champagne. For a French producer bottling wine was a very serious business decision and one that came with heavy financial investment and risk. ‘If the wine foams then half the bottles break,’ noted one grower from Aÿ in 1734; ‘Breakages this year have been extreme,’ said another in 1746, ‘of the 600 bottles produced only 250 have survived.‘ Bottles were far more profitable than barrelled wine yet French wine brokers were not initially captivated by this market trade due to the on-going success of their barrel wine trade. However, as the number of sales increased so did their interest and by the mid 18th century bottled wines had become a financially significant part of the Champagne wine economy. By 1750 roughly 12 per cent of Champagne’s total sales came from bottled wine, equal to about 33 percent of the region’s total sales.

1788 and all that – Post revolutionary adoration

The true invention of champagne coincided with the creation of a ‘champagne ideology’, and by 1800 champagne – light, extravagant and exhilarating – was firmly knitted within the social fabric of celebration. It was now so central an adjunct to the post-revolutionary bourgeois lifestyle that historian Kolleen Guy states; “it oiled the wheels of social life” and that its demise could have threatened the very fabric of social order. Within 100 years of the revolution one couldn’t: “open a railway, launch a vessel, inaugurate a public office, [or] entertain a distinguished foreigner without the aid of champagne,” according to one other social commentator – for the French champagne was la possession suprême, and for the wealthy it was the only wine that mattered.

In the post-revolutionary world champagne benefited from the newly established bourgeois class: moneyed and aristocratic, they came with their own set of exclusive social customs. The négociants responsible for selling champagne cleverly placed it in the hands of this new social elite and it soon became the most necessary social identifier bar none. Champagne could transcend cultural differences, meaning that it offered the international bourgeois ‘a shared social cohesion’ through wine. It became the international currency for high culture and sophistication.

The defense of Champage during WW1 showcased the will of the French to overcome the odds of war - here a German soldier is 'hit' by Champagne stubborness

In Europe’s emerging, and competitive, fine wine market brand awareness was paramount and 19th century consumers responded overwhelmingly to brands they recognised. Guy asserts that in the unsettled years of post-revolutionary Europe; “brand names offered consumers a sense of continuity”. A recognised brand assured the consumer they were still part of a civilised society; “the timeless tradition of champagne [was] reassurance that one was upholding the highest standards of social intercourse”. Négociants used savvy marketing techniques to engage consumers and they also sought out the highest end of the market. In 1809 Irénée Möet, advised his company; “when you arrive in a commercial city, find out who holds the finest table, sees the most people…and keeps a grande house-use all your industry to make their acquaintance”.

Tastings were common, public spectacle was encouraged and many Champagne houses developed the ‘Veuve‘ syndrome; a tenuous association with a deceased (and often fictitious) woman who gave the product a paternal side that consumers liked. Mercier Champagne dragged the largest champagne barrel ever made (20,000kg) from Reims to Paris in 1889 sensationalising the Parisian newspapers. The company demolished houses, ruined bridges and built new roads to do so, yet the spectacle was a coup. Savvy firms used calculated imagery and language to communicate with the consumer and labels often associated the product with significant events – life’s ‘milestone’ moments; Fiancé and Baby champagne, was for celebrating such occasions; Bouquet of the Bride champagne – with suggestions of when to toast; Athletic champagne for the active and Amour champagne – the only wine worthy for your loved one. Serious or frivolous, no event was out of reach for a champagne association.

Sexualised images (tame by today’s standards) were common, and alluring women were often depicted in close association with the feminine looking champagne bottle. Labels often displayed crowns of the royal families who purchased that particular brand. Imbibing celebrities were also listed on the bottle and such was the power of champagne that these celebrities (both regal and social) found their reputation benefited equally from the association.

Happiness, excess and enjoyment - Champagne provided it all.

Still, individual champagne houses were primarily working hard to highlight the quality of their own product – promoting a shared regionality was slow to come. From the 1860s, with the popularity of the region’s unique wine spreading, champagne producers began to place more emphasis on having the word ‘Champagne’ on the bottle, as well as promoting an identifiable Champagne region. This was, in part, a reaction to fake products claiming the name, and the need to give worldwide consumers certainty.

While promoting regionality and quality was initially the domain of the négociants (who were working to maintain their livelihood) their efforts were bolstered in 1882 when a number of prominent Champagne firms united as the Syndicate du commerce de vins de Champagne. The Syndicate focused on defining regional heritage, product authenticity and both geographical and production definitions. While the Syndicate was exclusive to large champagne firms all champagne producers benefited from its lobbying. This marks a significant step toward a defined ‘invention’ of champagne, as the style was now promoted as a regional speciality by a centralised and organised body.

One of the most effective marketing techniques that the Syndicate supported in the 19th century was the creation of Champagne’s glorious historical past in Dom Pérignon. In the 1600s Pérignon had worked very hard to stop his wine from sparkling, but by the 20th century he was thought of as the industry’s pioneer. While historically ratified as the most advanced wine blender of his time, the notion of Pérignon inventing champagne is simply a well oiled marketing ploy, too good to disbelieve. Following the 1789 revolution, Dom Grossard of Hautvillers Abbey, sought to highlight the great achievements of his church. In a letter to the Mayor of Aÿ he claimed: ‘it was the celebrated Pérignon who found the secret of making white sparkling wine’, and over the next century Pérignon’s legend grew.

Stocks of Champagne being evacuated from the region ahead of the German advance c1914

The Syndicate du Commerce promoted Pérignon’s story at the Paris Exposition in 1889, and an illustrated story of Perignon’s achievements was printed on flyers so that tourists could walk away with a souvenir of the ‘champagne histories’. In 1896 the Syndicate produced Le Vin de Champagne in which they declared that Pérignon discovered the wine by following ‘ancient traditions’. This champagne history did wonders for promoting the region and the wine, and without the Syndicate’s centralised efforts the invention of a ‘champagne ideology’ would have been left to the individual – and isolated – champagne firms.

By the 20th century champagne was without equal and the industry entrepreneurs had learned that to sell their wine they should sell an ideology. What they sold was so successful that during the French belle epoch and British Edwardian period, the public consumption of champagne came to no longer accurately represented one’s socio-economic status. Champagne firms diversified their product allowing more people into the ‘champagne circle’ and while the price fell for admittance, new consumer markets swelled the industry’s belt.

On the eve of the First World War the champagne industry – once on the verge of economic and commercial collapse – was as buoyant as the effervescent wine it produced. Of its rise to glory Brennan states: “The regional appellation, ‘champagne’, represented not simply a wine – but, more importantly, a community of producers that contributed to the glory of the French nation”. Prosperity would succumb once again however, this time to the rigors of war; and in 1914 the most valuable wine region in the world was laid to waste.

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