Wine has been made in the Champagne region since Roman times, but the sparkling white wine we know today was not developed until centuries later. Here’s how the wine we know and love today—which has become a fixture at holidays and special celebrations—came to be…
Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling Champagne; rather, its “fizzy quality” was an accident of nature. The region originally produced red wines in the fall which were left to settle over the winter. As Champagne is one of the coolest wine producing regions in the world, winter temperatures had a tendency to halt fermentation before all the grape sugar was converted to alcohol. Then, in the spring, the wines warmed up and fermentation “restarted” producing carbon dioxide gas which was trapped in the wine. The fizzy, foaming wine that resulted was considered defective by local winemakers. It also could be quite dangerous as the pressure of the trapped carbon dioxide gas frequently shattered bottles.
In the second half of the 17th century, winemakers such as Dom Pérignon worked to refine production techniques and improve the quality of the region’s wines. Early sparkling Champagne was quite different from the wine we associate with the region today; it was a cloudy, frothy, pinkish, heavily sweetened wine.
Wines from the region started to gain in popularity in the second half of the 17th century when they were introduced to the Court of Versailles by Marquis de Sillery (a large landowner in the Champagne region), and to London society by the exiled Marquis de Saint-Évremond. British glassmakers developed stronger bottles, and sparkling champagne became particularly popular with powerful and wealthy members of British society.
In the first part of the 18th century, Philippe, Duc de Orléans (who was Regent of France) started serving sparkling Champagne at nightly suppers he hosted at the Palais Royal in Paris. The scandalous behavior at the dinners (attributed by some to the wine) was the cause of much gossip, further increasing the wine’s fame and popularity. Despite this, most of the wine produced by the region was still, and the majority of it was red. This was because many considered sparkling wine to be inferior to still wine, and production challenges made it difficult to produce sparkling Champagne in large quantities—many of the bottles in a shipment routinely exploded.
The modern Champagne industry was not established until the 19th century when many technical and production obstacles were overcome making large scale production of the sparkling wine we know today possible. Several of today’s famous Champagne houses were founded during this period. During the second half of the century, the taste of Champagne also evolved as winemakers, who had been producing very sweet Champagne, started to produce the “drier” versions we know today. This change increased the variety of occasions when the wine was consumed by making it possible to enjoy it with a more diverse range of food, and as an apéritif.