Who put the bubbles in Champagne?

Exploding bottles, English scientists, and wealthy widows all played important parts in the centuries-long evolution of France’s iconic sparkling wine.

By Braden Phillips
Published 30 Dec 2022, 10:33 GMT
Toast of the town
New York printmaker Louis Prang produced this lithograph in 1890, when Champagne was still a relatively new luxury import from France.
Photograph by Fine Art, Getty Images

Popping corks and fizzing bubbles are the signature sounds of Champagne, perhaps the most popular drink to ever come out of France. Associated with wealth, glamour, and good times, this sparkling white wine can be found at celebrations of all kinds, from boisterous New Year’s Eve parties to intimate dinners for two.

While fizzy wines are made all over the world, to be called “Champagne” the wine’s grapes must hail from the Champagne region of France, and the wine must be made using the méthode champenoise to create the signature bubbles. Stemware was designed to highlight the appearance of these bubbles. Tall slender flutes and sophisticated coupes showed off the sparkles created by the method.

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the French elite acquired a taste for sparkling Champagne in fancy flutes, like these French glasses from the 18th century.
Photograph by Album and RMN-Grand Palais

Wine is made by fermentation, when yeast converts the sugars in grapes into alcohol. The chemical reaction produces carbon dioxide, which is allowed to dissipate when making a still wine. To make a bubbly one, vintners employ a second fermentation inside the bottle, which traps the gas within. When a bottle of sparkling wine is opened, it’s the escape of the carbon dioxide gas that produces the distinctive “Pop!” as well as the beverage’s tiny bubbles.

“Pinning down a date for Champagne’s first bubble is one of those silly academic crusades, as [naturally occurring] fizzy wine has been around for as long as wine itself,” said David White, author of But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine. A place with a deep, rich history of winemaking, Champagne’s viticulture goes back 2,000 years. Romans planted vines there around 57 B.C., and they gave the area its name: Campania, Land of Plains. These early wines were meant to be still, and it would be centuries before Champagne became synonymous with sparkling wine.

By the Middle Ages the abbeys and priories of Champagne were producing light-bodied reds that won many admirers. Philip Augustus, France’s ruler from 1180 to 1223, would only serve wine from Champagne’s Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. Champagne’s capital, Reims, traditionally hosted royal coronations, which featured local wines. At the coronation of Louis XIII in 1610, only the wines of Champagne were served.

These lands are France’s northern-most wine-growing region, and its cold winters could interrupt fermentation. When temperatures warmed, the process would restart, and gas would be produced in the bottle. Sometimes it would turn the wine fizzy, but it could also cause glass bottles to explode.

Birth of the bubbles

The question, then, is who was the first to intentionally make sparkling wine? To White and other experts, the answer lies in England. Champagne wines were shipped there in casks. Upon arrival, the wines were transferred from casks into thick glass bottles with cork stoppers where a secondary fermentation could happen. If it did, the bubbly wine delighted English drinkers, who began working out how to make the fizzy stuff themselves.

In 1662, in a paper delivered to the Royal Society, Dr. Christopher Merret stated, “Our wine-coopers of recent times use vast quantities of Sugar Molasses to all sorts of wines to make them brisk and sparkling.” This description is the first documented use of deliberately adding sugars to wine in a sealed bottle, the technique that became the basis of Champagne production.

A bronze statue of Dom Pérignon stands in Épernay. The monk did not invent Champagne in the 1690s. This legend originated in the 1820s when Dom Grossard, one of Dom Pérignon’s successors at the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, falsely attributed it to the 17th-century cellar master
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

A few years after Merret submitted his paper, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, would become the cellar master of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. Later, in the 19th century, he would be falsely credited as Champagne’s inventor when in reality he was the first to blend different grapes to create lighter, more complex still white wines. Far from being the inventor of fizzy wine in the region, he may have even worked to get rid of bubbles in Champagne wines.

The growing English taste for fizz began to catch on with the French aristocracy even though Champagne production was technically demanding—in 1710 fewer than 10,000 bottles were sold. In 1715, after the death of Louis XIV, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, became regent until Louis XV came of age. His parties famously featured sparkling wine. The oldest winery in Champagne dedicated exclusively to sparkling wines, Ruinart, opened in 1729. In the 1730s Voltaire’s poem “The Man of the World” captured the bubbly’s growing appeal:

Serve me with wine, whose mighty force 
Makes the cork from the bottle fly 
Like lightning darting from the sky.

Champagne’s popularity steadily spread from France and England to other markets. The advance to world domination began in full force during the 19th century, with French widows leading the charge. In the early 19th century, married women had little independence, but widows could own property and businesses. A small group of women who took over Champagne labels from their deceased husbands transformed them from modest operations into today’s most recognisable houses.

This 1735 painting by Jean-François de Troy shows the French aristocratic craze for Champagne and oyster dinners.
Photograph by René-Gabriel Ojéda, RMN-Grand Palais

Foremost among these women is Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known today as Madame Clicquot, or Veuve (Widow) Clicquot. Her husband died in 1805, and she struggled to revive their sinking wine business amid the widespread upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). But war, she realised, could be turned to her economic advantage. As the conflict drew to a close, she anticipated demand for Clicquot wines in Russia, whose troops had occupied Champagne and developed a taste for its wines. Defying French trade blockades, she shipped her Champagne to Russia, where it found great acclaim.

Madame Clicquot is probably best known for her innovative solution to a problem that had bedevilled Champagne makers for centuries: how to remove the sediment formed after secondary fermentation. If left inside the bottle, this layer would make the wine cloudy and unappealing. Vintners would remove it by transferring wine from one bottle to another, which was a labour-intensive and wasteful process.

Madame Clicquot designed a rack to store wine upside down during secondary fermentation, so the sediment would collect in the neck of the bottles. By pulling the corks on these bottles, the layer was easy to remove with little loss of fluid. This technique, called remuage (or riddling), is still used today. For Clicquot, it also accelerated production to meet rising demand and outpace competitors.

A worker removes sediment from bottles of Champagne in the cellars of Moët & Chandon in 1961. The process is known as riddling.
Photograph by Keystone-France, Getty Images

In the 1860s another Champagne widow, Louise Pommery, created a sparkling wine using less sugar. Dry rather than sweet, Pommery Champagnes relied on better quality grapes and took longer to produce, so they were more expensive to make. Economically, Pommery took a risk, but it proved to be a shrewd move in an international market. Pommery looked to Britain, already awash with sweet wines such as port, Madeira, and sherry, and whose consumers were looking for something new. Pommery’s brut style of Champagne won over Victorian England and soon the rest of the world. It remains one of the most popular styles of Champagne today.

Champagne’s geographical location has made it a battleground whenever France has been invaded from the east. For centuries, conflicts rampaged over the Land of Plains, led by the Romans, the Goths, and Attila the Hun. Later, the Hundred Years’ and Thirty Years’ Wars had huge impacts on the region. One of the most devastating events inflicted on Champagne was World War I, when more than 40 percent of the region’s vineyards were destroyed. During the conflict, residents in the heavily bombed city of Reims sought shelter in wine cellars. With most local men fighting in the French Army, the tasks of gathering grapes and processing wine fell mostly to women, who emerged from the cellars by night to pick grapes and keep basic production alive.

In World War II Champagne was again occupied by the Germans, but the vineyards survived relatively intact. Winston Churchill (who some say consumed 42,000 bottles of Champagne in his lifetime) told his colleagues at the height of the war: “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”


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