Why we celebrate with champagne
With Valentine's Day around the corner many wine merchants like me will recommend that you open a bottle of bubbly with your loved one. After all, we should celebrate the good things in life. This got me thinking… whether champagne, prosecco, English sparkling wine, crémant or cava is your fizz of choice, why do we celebrate with champagne or sparkling wine? If you are a lover of Left Bank Bordeaux for example, why not open a bottle of that instead? When and why did this tradition for celebrating with bubbly begin?
Champagne is used to celebrate special occasions in many countries
Oscar Wilde is reported to have asked “Why do I drink Champagne for breakfast? Doesn’t everyone?” Well, as nice as that sounds, in fact most of us don't drink champagne for breakfast or even every day or every week.
Although in France, which still consumes about half of the champagne produced, it is common for a bottle to be opened just as you would open any other bottle of wine to have as an aperitif or with a meal, it is more commonly used to celebrate an event in the export markets of the UK and the USA (by far the biggest export markets), Japan, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Italy etc. And the celebrations for which champagne or sparkling wine is the preferred choice range from birthdays, anniversaries, the birth of a child, weddings, divorces (sometimes), job promotions, naming ships, sporting victories etc etc though I just don't get the practice of spraying champagne all over your fellow competitors at the end of a Formula 1 race - too much clearing up afterwards and too much champagne wasted!
The origins of Champagne
Wine has been produced in the Champagne region for many centuries but the original wines were not sparkling or white but light pink wines made mainly from Pinot Noir. The sparkle was actually created by accident. London had become a good market for French wines and the bottles of pink wines from Champagne, with sugar added to satisfy the British sweet tooth, would often burst from the pressure created by a second fermentation in the bottle as temperatures rose in the spring after the wine had been bottled.
It was the British who, with their coal resources that could fire hot furnaces, initially produced sturdier wine bottles to withstand better the pressure so that they could enjoy more of this bubby wine. However since some of those stronger bottles also exploded the now sparkling wines imported into London society became scarce and in demand. This demand which was not unnoticed and was replicated back across the Channel especially in the early 18th century.
Champagne as a luxury product
The scarcity of the sparkling champagne made it a luxury product throughout the 18th century, enjoyed only by those with the means to buy it. Only in the first half of the 19th century did champagne production improve sufficiently to make the final product more stable, consistently sparkling and more widespread. The widow Veuve Cliquot is renowned for her contribution to the improvements in the industry but one of the major breakthroughs came from a little-known pharmacist called André Francois who worked out a formula for the amount of sugar that could be added to the wine to promote a second fermentation without the bottles exploding.
After this many more champagne houses were established and the product became more widely available for several years though still largely a product for the aristocracy and the rich. There was further scarcity in the latter years of the 19th century thanks to the phylloxera louse that decimated vines throughout the world including in the Champagne region. This meant that other sparkling wines were developed and gained more of a hold in the market and this fuelled some fraudulent négotiants to pass off other wines as champagne sparking the Champagne Riots of 1911. I can quite understand rioting about champagne! But on a more serious note the outcome was the birth of laws requiring champagne's origins to be declared on labels and ultimately of the Champagne appellation in 1936.
Since the two World Wars, champagne production and the champagne market have grown massively but the wine still manages to maintain its reputation as a celebratory product and a luxury though certainly now much more accessible to people outside the aristocracy. This has largely been due to clever marketing by the champagne houses and by the champagne industry. The better or more canny (or both) champagne houses developed their names into brands. Advertising and celebrity endorsements, intended or otherwise, have helped some houses more than others but certainly boost champagne's general image as a luxury (and sometimes expensive) product.
And whilst champagne is generally more accessible, specific brands priced outside the pockets of the average person in the street have now become the luxury items only for consuming by the rich and famous - think Krug, Cristal and Armand de Brignac which Jay Z is associated with, even featuring it in some of his songs, and is believed to have invested in. In what is possibly the worst marketing ploy I have heard about in the wine trade, it is believed that a careless comment by someone at Cristal about rappers' association with their brand was the trigger for Armand de Brignac's subsequent success.
The price of champagne will sadly always keep it out of reach of most people for their "everyday" wine. What's for sure though is that champagne and other sparkling wines will remain the drinks of choice for celebrations for many years to come. The symbolism associated with opening bottle of bubbly helps make it special: the pop of the bottle creates excitement and the overflowing of the wine on opening (unless you are careful) suggests exuberance and extravagance. That Left Bank Bordeaux I alluded to at the beginning would undoubtedly be enjoyed but you would perhaps lose the sense of occasion without that pop of the champagne cork. Even the bubbles create a tingle of excitement - as Dom Pérignon is reputed to have said "Come quickly. I am tasting the stars!".
So whether it's the finest champagne, prosecco, English sparkling wine, cava or crémant, be sure to open a bottle of bubbly this February 14th - and on your birthday, at Christmas, on New Year's Eve - or even just as a little treat because you want to!
Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.