Friday, August 31, 2007

The Widow, Champagne and the Regency

Because Liz Fenwick enjoyed the other entries, and my daughter reminded me that I had promised to do champagne, plus I am enjoying researching something unconnected with my current wip, this blog is on champagne. My current wip's reasearch is more on coal mining and railways which is exciting in its own way.
In the 18th century, Moet and other champagne pioneers wooed the kings and princes of Europe. Champagne became the drink of choice. catherine the Great drank it with young officers, Louis XVI rank it beofre the guillotine and Napoleon adored it. It was also ruinously expensive and unreliable. Hazardous to store and notoriously difficult. The corks were held on by string and one never knew until the string was cut if one would be showered in froth or be greeted by a dark murky liquid.
Then as now, to drink an excellent bottle of champagne with bubbles in full froth is to be hooked for life. Vingtage champage from one of the great champagne houses is a treat. The bubbles are different -- they come up in waves and the taste sublime.
The person who was most responsible for changing champagne from a very expensive drink for the very wealthy indeed to one that is synoumous with celebrations was one Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin aka The Widow. When her husband died in 1805, leaving her at age 27 with a baby daughter and a small champagne house, the Widow set about transforming an industry. She did not target the British who remained loyal to their fortified wines until about mid century but the Russians. During the Russian occupation of the region, the officers often exacted tribute in the form of champagne. But the Widow willing gave her stores and was know to say that Today they drink, tomorrow they pay.
When the Russians departed France in 1814, even though French export was still forbidden, the Widow loaded a ship with her top salesman -- Mr Brohne and all her remaining stores of champagne ( the wonderful 1811 vintage -- year of Halley's comet) and sent it to Koenigberg.It arrived on 3 July and the French ban had just been lifted. The one ship had the only champagne for 500 miles, and the Russians wanted to celbrate their victory and were willing to pay for the priviledge.
The champagne the Widow and others were making was far sweeter than today. Before shipping, she removed the sediment and replaced it with wine, sugar and brandy. think Asti Spumante rather than today's vintage champagne. Today's brut (or dry) champagne came about in 1848, when the London wine merchant Brunes tasted Perrier-Jouet BEFORE the sugar/brandy syrup was added. The British has always preferred (and continue to prefer a drier champagne to the French)
At this stage, it is mainly served as a dessert wine. The coupe glass was not moulded on Marie Antoinette's breast but was invented in 1840. It was when champagne was served iced cold -- like a sorbet. As a side note -- Marie Antoinette's breasts were used as a model for four detailed Severes porcelian bowls that adourned the Queen's Diary temple at le Petit Trianon. Only one remains. The best way to drink champagne is in a flute as then one gets the full effect of the bubbles.
It was the Widow's art of clearing champage of the sediment that was one of her great contributions to the champagne technology. Basically, the bottles were stored downward, and the sediment flew out first and then could be topped up -- thus less of the fizz was lost. It is in 1814 that the first modern bottles of champage were born. Up to 1821, the Widow kept her secret but hten she had to bring in others to help with her business. Industrial espionage undoubtably played a part.
One of the great problems was still the explosions. In 1828, 80% of the bottles burst. To go into a champgne cellar without a wire mask was to take your life in your hands! The Industrial revolution played its part in making better bottles but eventually they discovered how methode champenoise actually worked and were better able to regulate the fermintation in the bottle.
The first recorded use of champagne with horse racing in England is 1828 with the running of the Champagne Stakes.


Unknown said...

Again fascinating.....also the Russian still like their own champagne sweeter than we do but it is quite drinkable :-) What's your favourite - mine's Pol Roger

Unknown said...

YAY!! These have been great blog posts... I have tried Russian Champagne and it was AWFUL! *shudders* Was produced not far from Chernobyl and we think it was radioactive.

I am a fan of Veuve Cliquot. Although I never turn down *happy juice* as I call it. Every bubble a smile for your tongue.

Mmm and champagne cocktails! Bellinis, Kir Royales (especially in New York yum yum) and also having champagne with Archers in it on a summers evening.

Michelle Styles said...

As long as people are enjoying it.. there are a few more posts I can do.

My favourite methode champenoise is Hanns Kornell -- a California sparkling wine made by the same methods as vintage champagne, including mis en bottielle. You can tell champagne that was mis en bottielle as there is often a mark on the bottom of the botttle to show how much to turn it. (It was one of the first winemakers I toured after I could legally drink!)

My favourite champagne is probably Moet et Chandon. But really I am not picky.

A bottle of good champagne is a wonderful addition to any celebration.