In the first part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1860’s.
When we think about a ‘Vintage’ Champagne, we are not merely assessing the product of one particular year, but a whole host of stylistic factors, such as the ability to age well, the price-point, the availability and the prestige. In the latter half of the 19th century a handful of events would shape the way that Champagne, particularly Vintage, is still made and sold today, well over 100 years later.
The roots lie somewhere buried in the 1830’s, when science caught up with understanding the maximum sugar levels that a bottle of Champagne could withstand during fermentation. Losses due to a too-effervescent mix and the subsequent bottle explosion from the pressure build-up could affect as much as 20% of production in some years, which was obviously catastrophic for producers. Once science intervened and the process was understood, losses were reduced to levels of around just 2%, meaning prices could be stabilised and the availability of the product maximised. Skipping forward 20 or so years, youthful vintages such as the 1857 were soon jostling against celebrated ‘older’ years such as 1842 and 1846.
The next key step came courtesy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone who, in his hotly anticipated 1860 budget, made radical changes intended to strengthen the British economy. There were several prongs to his strategy, including reducing Government spending, but it very much hinged on removing the burdens on the working classes and stimulating economic growth. To do this he pledged to introduce free trade between other countries – crucially in this case, between Britain and France.
Circa 90% of inter-country duties were scrapped completely whilst the remaining few were fully revised. Duty on wine (and brandy) was reduced, but Champagne, not viewed as part of the daily life of the working classes, was singled out for a higher rate of tax. Whilst this additional duty realised a very inconsequential amount for the Chancellor, the seeds were sown to ensure that Champagne was viewed as a luxury product in a class of its own, and something saved for celebrations. It’s an image that continues to define it to this day.
Despite the strides in science, producers still hadn’t gotten to grips with outwitting Mother Nature and great years were still few and far between (the 1860’s only produced two vintages that were well rated; 1865 and 1868). The 1868 Vintage was also a landmark year as it was the first time that many houses shipped Champagne as a ‘dry’ wine, in the style close to what we now consider normal. As a bit of background, Champagne at this point contained very high levels of sugar and, whilst these sugars were the cause of the bursting bottles mentioned above, it was also its saviour as the high levels of sweetness would cover up the raw taste of youth. Due to the volatility of the bottles, they needed to be produced, shipped and drunk quickly and there was no time for ageing them, or indeed, improving them.
A few experimental ‘dry’ bottles had been produced once sugar levels had been understood and, as early as 1848, Perrier Jouét reluctantly agreed to supply a cache of their 1846 to a determined merchant. The drier taste proved to be somewhat ahead of its time, falling foul of the London set and leaving the merchant who requested the consignment having to drink it all himself (he apparently enjoyed every bottle!). It didn’t deter him, and despite several knock-backs from Roederer and Pommery he continued to push the idea. By the mid 1870’s the so-called ‘cult of candy’ had all but died out completely and, as fashion changed and the new dry style was considered an improvement and step-up in quality, Champagne houses and shippers were actually able to put their prices up.
Sales of Vintage Champagne would start to improve dramatically from this point as producers could now utilise much more of their overall production and feed whatever demand came their way. Merchants were also happy to take on larger consignments as they were no longer under pressure to sell whatever they had as quickly as possible. This growing volume also allowed the Champagne houses to build up their own stocks and reserves which, now there was no sugar covering the shortfalls of youth, would allow them to start realising the potential of storing and ageing a wine for several years in the cellars. This allowed the bottles to gain complexity from time on their lees (yeast), and be presented to the customer when they were ready to drink, not when they were desperate to sell.
The birth of what we now consider Champagne had arrived.
I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.