In the vast tapestry of human history, certain figures and events have left an indelible mark on our traditions and celebrations. One such figure is Julius Caesar, whose influence extends beyond conquests to the very fabric of timekeeping. Before Caesar's calendar reforms, the pagans celebrated the vernal equinox, marking the transition from winter to spring with joyous festivities and spirited libations. The addition of January, named after the two-faced god Janus, by Caesar, brought about a synchronization of winter solstice celebrations, alcoholic revelry, and the commencement of a new year.
In the days preceding religious fervor, ceremonies heralded the winter solstice with exuberant festivities and libations. Around 1531, the Saint-Hilaire Benedictine Monks in Limoux, France, crafted the first sparkling wine—a precursor to the effervescent elixir that now graces our celebrations. This early spark would eventually evolve into the luxurious indulgence synonymous with joyous occasions. These wines were slightly cloudy as the dead yeast was trapped in the bottle and it was only slightly efflorescent. Reminiscent to Pet-Nats today. A side note here: In 1794, and Blanquette de Limoux had earned its place as a celebrated French wine. Among its aficionados was Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and a connoisseur of French wines. His admiration for Blanquette de Limoux marked the introduction of this sparkling delight to American shores, finding a coveted spot in his prestigious wine cellar.
As early as the 1620s, the English had been receiving still wine from Champagne as they wished to craft their own sparkling wines. The trouble they had, as did the French at the time, was the bottles would explode given the pressure created from the second fermentation. Inventor Sir Kenelm Digby (1633) invented a super-strength glass bottle called the Digby. The evolution of coal-fired glass, including further strengthening by the addition of manganese and iron for color, made it possible. The French didn’t use coal-fired glass until late in the century. This breakthrough paved the way for the development of vintage port, champagne, and other wines designed for aging. Digby's innovation transformed the fragile vessels of the past into robust containers, allowing wines to be kept free from oxygen and enhancing their aging potential. Also in England, the Royal Society in London was experimenting with how much sugar and/or molasses to add into the bottle for a particular targeted amount of sparkling wine. This was documented on December 17, 1662, by Christopher Merret.
Dom Pierre Perignon arrived at the Abbey in Hautvillers, in Champagne, in 1668. He is credited with several quality advancements in winemaking processes. Instructions for the process are included in documentation dating back to 1662, six years before the monk arrived at the Abbey. Perignon’s efforts were directed toward trying to avoid refermentation in the bottle, not to encourage it. Refermentation was not new to the period, and was basically considered a fault. Even though the traditional method of sparkling wine production was not an invention of Dom Perignon, there were undoubtedly numerous contributions to the wine industry made by Perignon. Frere Pierre, Dom Perignon's immediate successor, documented many of Perignon's accomplishments, including producing a white wine from red grapes, inventing the original coquard press used in Champagne, blending (assemblage) wine from different vineyards to produce a superior cuvee, experimentation with English glass (coal-fired, more resilient than the wood-fired glass typically used in France at the time) and re-introducing the cork in Champagne as a viable closure for wine bottles, to name a few. Dom Perignon died in 1715, at the age of 77, and is buried at the Abbey.
Overly lavishness dates back to the 16th century, with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Queen’s two favorite things associated with romance were her flowers and her chocolates. Flowered wallpaper, fresh flowers, paper flowers, and unique perfumes. As for chocolate, she began each day with a hot cup of chocolate. Such a luxury is only available to a queen. Marie has a slice of the story as to why we have chocolates at Valentine’s day. As for the bubbly, Marie enjoyed partying, with music, dancing, a bit of gambling, which all included Champagne. King Louis XVI originally commissioned a porcelain bowl to be made in the shape of the breast of his wife, but the glass maker cleverly developed the champagne coupe instead. It became a status symbol, if you were able to hold the coupe and not spill any of the liquid.
Celebrating the arrival of this new year took root across Europe, then was brought by European settlers to the Americas. By 1800, it was common to remain awake until midnight, when church bells tolled and firearms fired. In some cities, it became tradition to roam from house to house, with the full expectation you’d be invited in for a drink. Doing so spanned the social ladder: American residents from George Washington to FDR traditionally opened the doors of the White House to anyone dressed decently and with a letter of introduction, feting them with midnight punch and snacks. Elsewhere, servants and slaves would pound on doors and demand midnight drinks.
It was Napoléon who supposedly said: “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” In the time after the French Revolution leading into the French Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Napoleonic Hussar Calvary would travel the countryside and often would find themselves in Champagne, France. Hussars are members of a European light-cavalry unit used for scouting. The Hussars were modeled on the 15th-century Hungarian light-horse corps with their red coat uniform and carry a rounded sword. The townspeople would toss them bottles and the Hussars would want to open the bottles as quickly as they could. Without messing with the cages and wrappers, the officers would unsheathe their sabers, and still astride their horses, lop the tops off the bottles. The art of Sabarage was born from this.
The officers particularly liked to get to a small village in Riems which was in Champagne to the house of a beautiful, young widow. Her husband, Francois, in life, had owned many businesses, one of which was a Champagne house. In Francois’s death, the widow harangued her father-in-law for control. Now, Madam Barbe-Nicole was the coveted catch amongst the officers being this wealthy heiress. It was thought that she loved to party and entertained many of the soldiers. For politics or for self-interest, it could not be determined. But Veuve (widow) Clicquot was never impressed enough by any of their antics to remarry. Instead, she went on to become a very successful businesswoman in a male-dominated profession.
Veuve Clicquot was a visionary; she introduced several groundbreaking innovations that revolutionized the industry. Notably, she pioneered the development of the riddling rack around 1816, mechanizing the process of clarifying Champagne by removing sediment. This innovation led to the refinement of the remuage technique, enabling a clearer and more refined Champagne, by gradually turning and tilting bottles to concentrate sediment in the neck. Veuve Clicquot also played a crucial role in popularizing and perfecting the production of rosé Champagne, experimenting with blending red and white wines for consistency and quality. Additionally, she contributed to the widespread use of cork closures, recognizing their effectiveness in preserving effervescence and flavors. Beyond technical advancements, Veuve Clicquot's commitment to quality control and her strategic branding efforts, including the distinctive orange-yellow label, solidified her legacy as a trailblazer in Champagne production, setting enduring standards for excellence and recognition in the industry. As production was streamlined, the price of champagne declined, and Champagne was marketed to the newly minted middle class. It wasn’t cheap, but it was affordable for special occasions. Champagne’s production skyrocketed from 300,000 to 20 million bottles per year between 1800 and 1850.
The 19th century witnessed a series of technological advancements that shaped the production of champagne. Adolphe Jacquesson's wire cage in 1844, and Louis Pasteur's biological understanding of fermentation in 1857, enhanced both the quality and safety of champagne production. Armand Walfart's 1884 degorgement method further refined the process.
The journey continues into the heart of the 20th century, where the bustling metropolis of New York City served as the epicenter of an evolving champagne culture. Café Martin, a renowned restaurant run by two French brothers, emerged as a haven for champagne enthusiasts. While French cuisine took center stage, the brothers sprinkled Oriental, Russian, and Italian dishes onto their menus, creating a culinary fusion that mirrored the diverse cultural fabric of the city. The Café Martin experience was not just about food; it was a spectacle, a place to see and be seen. The restaurant boasted a staggering sixty-nine varieties of champagne on its after-theater menu from 1903, making it a haven for those seeking the finest bubbles.
We set the stage again. Julias Ceasar promoted a celebration at the New Year, the 1800s we were primed to stay up late and watch that new year come in, Marie Antoinette taught us to lavish ourselves, Veuve Clicquot made it affordable, and now the match is lit. Champagne was aggressively promoted at late-night suppers and celebrations, with New Year's Eve standing out as a pinnacle of champagne-centric festivities. Restaurants often displayed "Champagne only" signs after 9 pm on New Year's Eve, ensuring that the effervescent elixir took center stage in the revelry.
Waiters at establishments like Café Martin saved champagne corks, not just for tradition, but also for a practical reason—to receive kickbacks from wine importers for each bottle sold. Major holidays, especially New Year's Eve, became a barometer for measuring the success of champagne sales. Newspapers reported the quantity of champagne sold at leading restaurants and hotels, turning the celebration into a societal event.
As the 20th century progressed, the prominence of champagne continued to soar. The year 1904 marked a significant milestone with the inception of the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration, just a mile north on Broadway. The iconic Ball Drop, which began in 1907, added a new layer of grandeur to the festivities, solidifying New Year's Eve as a globally recognized moment for champagne celebrations.