Why We Celebrate With Champagne

Lord Byron believed it was the only beverage a woman should drink in public. Lily Bollinger claimed she drank it only when alone or in company. And in "The Seven Year Itch," Marilyn Monroe melted Tom Ewell’s libido by dunking potato chips in it.

For centuries, champagne has reigned as the libation of choice for celebrations and momentous occasions. How has it maintained its aura of sophistication and joy for so long? Like many great inventions, champagne owes its celebrity to a combination of accident, luck and good public relations.

The Drink of Kings
When France’s Hugh Capet chose the cathedral of Reims for his coronation in 987, he started a tradition that would last as long as the monarchy itself. Each coronation at Reims became an opportunity to put the lavishness and sophistication of the royal court on full display, as well as the foods of the surrounding Champagne countryside.

Unfortunately, Champagne was too far north to produce the rich, fully ripened grapes the southern provinces did. Local wines were notoriously thin, pale and somewhat bitter. Worse, cold winters interrupted the fermentation process, creating unwelcome bubbles in the blend. Flawed though the wine was, people began to profess a fondness for the fizzy stuff, associating it with festivity and the splendor of newly crowned kings.

Dom Pérignon and the Court of Versailles
As a matter of pride, the vintners of Champagne strove to improve their product. In the late 17th century, a monk near Reims took charge of his monastery’s vineyards and wine production. One of the legendary Dom Pérignon’s goals was to produce a marketable white wine and eliminate the bubbles that often caused bottles to explode. Though he never succeeded in getting rid of the fizz, Pérignon vastly improved the monastery’s wine by improving the quality of the grapes, and his bottling techniques reduced the risk of exploding bottles.

It was a contemporary of Pérignon’s, Louis XIV, who popularized champagne throughout France. After first tasting the beverage at his coronation in 1654, he rarely drank anything else. Louis’ well-known love of luxury and opulence made champagne not just the drink of Reims but the drink of Versailles. Louis XV, the Sun King’s successor, decreed that only wines from Champagne could be shipped in bottles, giving another boost to the drink’s reputation as something especially desirable.

To the Victor Goes the Champagne
Capitalizing on champagne’s royal associations, the house of Veuve Clicquot streamlined the production process and exported large quantities of champagne to the royal courts of England and Europe. Wherever shipping was impeded by wars or border disputes, bottles were smuggled in. The danger and scarcity, of course, only made people more eager to drink the stuff.

After Napoleon’s defeat, Russia occupied the Champagne region with an eye to emptying its wine cellars. As her reserves of champagne were carried off, the widow Clicquot took a philosophical view of the looting, saying, "Today they drink. Tomorrow they will pay." Her observation proved true. From the fall of Napoleon through the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was the second largest importer of champagne in the world.

Champagne’s heritage of glamour, luxury and victory is as alluring today as it was centuries ago. It’s the beverage like no other, the libation we drink to mark special occasions, special achievements and moments of joy. It costs too much to become commonplace, but not enough to be unaffordable. And, let’s face it, the bubbles are fun.

This New Years, when you hoist a toast to the New Year, you will be joining an elite crowd who use champagne to mark special occasions of all kinds.

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