Before you fill your cellar with your favourite fizz ahead of the festive season, discover the origins of – and alternatives to – Champagne, and why we have women to thank for the bubbles we enjoy today.
The birth of Champagne
Sipping on a glass of Dom Pérignon, consider the Benedictine monk behind it – the architect of the ‘traditional method’ of Champagne we know today, made via a second fermentation in the bottle. Dom Pierre Pérignon pioneered the initial production of modern Champagne in the 1690s, famously calling out, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” as he did so.
Although widely credited with ‘inventing’ Champagne, Dom Pérignon was pipped to the post by the English physician and scientist, Christopher Merrett, whose recipe for ‘sparkling’ wine had been in circulation for a few decades already.
Champagne’s bubbles were initially seen as a fault – King Louis XIV, who almost exclusively drank wines from the Champagne region, was not a fan of fizz. However, the English had a taste for it and by the mid-17th century, England’s coal-fired ovens created glass strong enough to contain the pressure of those precious bubbles.
To impress your party guests this Christmas, casually drop in this sparkling pre-dinner anecdote, “We could say that the English created the recipe for Champagne and the French perfected it.”
Follow up with another fact that, after the death of King Louis XIV in 1715, the popularity of sparkling wine from the French region of Champagne grew, championed by the new royal court. The rest, you could say, is history. Ruinart, the first Champagne house, founded in 1729, was followed by Moët & Chandon in 1743.
The heroines of Champagne
From the early 19th and into the 20th century, a group of ‘merry widows’ were running the most notable Champagne houses, their inherited income providing the means and power to become Champagne’s movers and shakers. From seeking out new markets – whether that be Madame Veuve Clicquot marketing her wine to Russia or Louise Pommery to England – women were at the heart of nurturing Champagne into the global phenomenon we know today.
The pioneering Veuve Clicquot also invented the riddling process to streamline production and create clear wines. Lily Bollinger travelled extensively to promote her wine while Louise Pommery and Veuve Laurent-Perrier created new styles of Champagne, moving away from the sweeter expressions to the popular brut (very dry) and zero-dosage (no added sugar) styles of today.
The world of sparkling wine evolves
Champagne may have started our obsession with all things effervescent, however it’s one of a variety of sparkling wines created across the world. Within France, ask for Crémant and you’ll find a quality alternative to Champagne, without the price tag. Found across eight appellations, sparklers from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire are among the country’s most expressive.
You may be surprised to learn that Italy produces the world’s highest volume of sparkling wine, ahead of France. Modelled after Champagne, Franciacorta and Trentodoc feature similar grape varieties and methodology, and are the premium versions of sparkling wine in Italy. With a history comparable to Champagne, Prosecco dates to the mid-1700s. For a more complex epitome of its style, seek out DOCG Prosecco.
While the Spanish have had their own traditional method of sparkling wines since the late 19th century, with Catalonia as the heart of Cava, the Germans are also known for their love of homegrown sparkling wine, consuming up to four and a half bottles each of Sekt annually. No wonder only small amounts are exported.
Our globe-hopping tour also takes in the ‘new worlds’ of South Africa, USA, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and beyond, each with their own sparkling version, typically with a riper fruit profile on the palate.
In the last 20 years we’ve seen an explosion of sparkling wines created in England, made in the same way and with the same grapes as Champagne, offering a slightly crisper palate with an acidic backbone of English apple notes.
When visiting the colourful and varied bars and restaurants at Rocco Forte Hotels, ask our team of expert Sommeliers for their recommendations of regional sparkling wines or Champagnes and enhance your festive celebrations.