It’s a strange thing, time, and what I find remarkable is this is the one and only time that nearly every man women and child is watching the time at exactly the same time. The anticipation builds with a mad search for the right thing to wear the right place to wear it, and the right person to kiss at the stroke of midnight. We all count down to that special moment when all is new again; that time when the world for a brief moment will be truly happy. And what of course is the only libation worthy of such a moment?

Champagne!  It’s become a superstition. There are those who are afraid that if they don’t bless the New Year with a glass of the bubbly, the year will be cursed.

Early bottle used for champagne For centuries Champagne has sat upon the thrown in the kingdom of wine. Sparkling wines were introduced in France in 1535. It was in the beginning of the 1700’s that a young scientist named Christopher Merrett discovered the process of secondary fermentation of wine to effect carbonation. The result is that Champagne is a sparkling wine produced in the bottle. The Champagne was a success, but the bottling process was a nightmare. The glass was too thin and the corks were too weak to handle the pressure. It was not unusual for pressure in the bottles to cause “spontaneous explosions”. Workers in the cellars wore protective masks similar to catcher’s masks. Critics of the new sparkling wines called it “The Devils Wine’.

In the year 1730, Dom Perignon entered the scene. Dom was a monk in the Abby of Hautvillers. His superiors assigned him the job of getting rid of those evil bubbles. Instead Dom Perignon, who loved the bubbly himself, perfected the bottles by thickening the glass and redesigned the cork. He also developed the idea of placing a metal collar around the lip of the bottle to secure the cork. Dom so loved these evil bubbles he designed glasses that caused the bubbles to last longer. The process known as bubbles is called

“Heterogeneous nucleation”. I’m sure Dom was unaware of this term but he did discover that the bubbles lasted longer when poured in old glasses filled with scratches. Dom Perignon was a dedicated man, one can only imagine the years of sacrifice and devotion he put into his mastering of champagne.

The shape of the cork can tell the age of the champagne, if it remains in the shape of a mushroom instead of returning to a cylindrical shape it has aged properly.

Champagne makers realized they needed to market there wines to the masses and began aggressive campaigns. In 1789 artists began creating beautiful labels with portraits of Marie Antoinette and others of the autocracy. Champagne was the drink of which gave the peasants their only taste of nobility.

Movies and sports have altered Champagne etiquette. The loud pop of he cork and pouring it every where is considered uncouth. The first time the bottle was popped and poured on the crowd at a sporting event was in 1967 at the 24 hour auto race of LeMans by Dan Gurney the victor of the race, he was handed a bottle of champagne and promptly popped it open and poured it on the crowd. He gave the bottle to a photographer who turned it into a lamp. Since then it has become a tradition to break open a bottle and spray it over the victors of events. The proper way to open the bottle is by placing a cloth over the cork and tilting the bottle at a 45 degree angle then twisting it off never spilling a drop.

Napoleon’s men had an interesting way of opening bottles called Le Sabrage. They would hold the bottle in one hand and by running the blunt side of the sword along the seam of the bottle they would in a quick slice remove the top of the bottle. Then they let the gush of champagne wash out particles of glass. After pouring in glasses they held it up to the light to be sure no glass remained in the glass, and drank. I do not advise this technique.

The most popular brand in this country is Brute. The qualities are vast as are the cost. Expensive champagne is not necessary for that once a year good luck toast, those you chose to share the moment with provide the quality of the experience. As fun as it is to welcome the New Year with a lot of Champagne, it is wise not to over indulge. This is beautifully stated in a letter written to Lord Chesterfield to his son in 1747.

“Were I to begin the world again with the experience I now have of it, I would lead a life of real, not imaginary pleasures. I would enjoy the pleasures of the table, and of wine; but stop short of the pains inseparably annexed to an excess of either.”

This is the classic Champagne Cocktail first introduced in New York City in the 1800’s.

Champagne Cocktail

  • One sugar cube
  • Angostura bitters
  • Champagne

Soak the sugar cube in a splash of Angostura bitters and place in the bottom of a tall Champagne flute glass. Slowly fill the glass with Champagne, garnish with a lemon twist.

Enjoy!

To reach Crystal Hayes e-mail Crystalhayes@peak.org