The word ‘champagne’ is often loosely used to describe all sparkling wines. Though this is a mark of its popularity, Champagne legally only refers to wine that is grown from grapes in the Champagne region of France. These fortified wines represent a significant scientific advancement in the production of wines, bringing about the use of secondary fermentation as a technique, and bubbles as an enjoyable component of drinks. Today, Champagne has also become an intrinsic part of celebrations and milestone events in one’s life. But how exactly did Champagne become popular? Who even invented Champagne? The history of this popular drink is shrouded in much debate and disagreement, and this article traces its past to discuss the true origins of this bubbly juice.
The English and French are Fighting Again
The French Version
There are two contrasting accounts of who exactly discovered Champagne and when. For the longest time, it had been taken for granted that a French monk from the Abbey of HautVillers named Dom Perignon had invented Champagne in the year 1693. As a cellar master of the abbey, Perignon was responsible for all things wine in the institution, and he faced one critical issue that nobody seemed to be able to solve. This was the process of secondary fermentation that was taking place in the wine bottle with the help of wild yeasts. The buildup of carbon dioxide and bubbles from this process was causing bottles to explode, and one bottle bursting could set off a domino effect engulfing the entire cellar.
In an accidental event, Perignon tasted this wine, and it is said that he immediately remarked, “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”. This story, recounted in the letters of intellectuals of the same age, was quickly assumed as gospel, and Perignon became the father of Champagne. However, the emergence of more research has put several, if not all elements of this story into doubt. Some have claimed that the Abbey never even sold sparkling wine and that Perignon, far from being a wine revolutionary, did not really make any significant contributions to the industry at all. An acute lack of evidence prevents us from making any definite conclusions.
The Other Version
There is a growing consensus today that it was in fact the English who discovered sparkling wine. They received tons of barrels of the drink through shipments across the Channel, bottling them for storage. A naturalist named Christian Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society detailing how English winemakers had been bubbling wine at least 30 years before Perignon. However, the earliest recorded sparkling wine goes all the way back to 1531, achieved by bottling the wine before the first fermentation ended. These accounts, as well as the increased scrutiny on the long-accepted French account, highlight the difficulties of pinpointing a specific date and person who invented Champagne or sparkling wine.
Many have cited the Restoration in the latter half of the 17th century as the event that made all products from France fashionable and luxurious. The King of England at the time, Charles II, had been exiled in France and had retained many of the French tastes, including that for Champagne, on his return. The King of France too popularised the drink by serving it regularly in his royal courts. These events, along with the unquestioned acceptance of the Dom Perignon narrative when it first came up have contributed to the image that genuine sparkling wine comes from France. But as this article has attempted to show, the true history of this bubbly juice remains a mystery needing to be solved.