As France’s northernmost vineyard, this was also a region within easy reach of northern European countries and most particularly Flanders where Champagne’s pale (clairet) wines were a favourite with local connoisseurs.
By the 17th century, Champagne wines had gained a reputation rivalled only by Burgundy, sparking a famous quarrel between Louis XIV’s physicians as to which of the two to prescribe for their Liege’s acid indigestion. His Majesty himself had a clear preference for Champagne wines, never mind that they were paler than their Burgundy counterparts and that the prevailing taste was for deeply coloured purple wines.
It was around this time that two things happened that forever changed the face of Champagne production. The first was the discovery that slow, gentle pressing made it possible to produce white wine from black grapes. The second was an acute timber shortage across the Channel in England that forced British glassmakers to switch to coal-fired furnaces – a desperate measure certainly, but that resulted in much tougher glass. So it was that in England at least, bottles previously reserved for serving wine were now also used for wine storage.
Champagne was a case in point. Shipped to England in casks, the wine would be bottled on arrival effectively trapping the bubbles produced by second fermentation. Not so in Champagne, where the same wines quickly went flat due to the porosity of the cask. In both cases, primary fermentation would typically stop in winter when the weather turned cold before resuming in spring producing bubbles of carbon dioxide. But in the case of the cask wine the Champagne quickly went flat, in sharp contrast to its lightly effervescent bottled counterpart across the Channel – a “brisk” wine, to quote Samuel Butler, which became the favourite tipple of the British nobility.
The Champagne Houses rose to the occasion by creating wines with bubbles, proceeding largely by trial and error at first since nobody really understood where the bubbles came from.
And there you have it. Champagne began life as a wine specially made by wine merchants (the Champagne Houses) to suit the tastes of a particular clientele – proof of a business acumen that remains just as strong today. The 18th and 19th centuries saw globetrotting Champagne salesmen venture far and wide exploring the likes and dislikes of different nationalities and adjusting the sweetness levels of Champagne accordingly – typically, very sweet (and very cold) for the Russians, very dry for the English.