Champagne history image 1

Champagne history

Words by Simon Difford

Reliable production of champagne only became possible at the end of the 17th century. Before this time, the glass available was not strong enough to withstand the high pressures within a bottle of champagne (equivalent to the pressure of a double-decker bus tyre). Many bottles exploded in the cellars, leading champagne to sometime be called 'devil's wine'.

Cold winter temperatures prematurely halted fermentation in the regions cellars, leaving dormant yeast cells which would (literally) burst into life with the warmth of spring, start fermenting so releasing carbon dioxide gas, causing sufficient pressure to make the bottle explode.

Suitable bottles and corks were first available in Britain where coal-fired glass making led to great strides in bottle making. Sparkling wine was first produced in London around 1665 while French sparkling wine production did not commence until the very end of that century.

Although production of sparkling wines in Champagne is comparatively recent, still wines have been made there since the 15th century, when the Pinot Noir grape was first introduced into the region to produce light red wines.

As so often in the world of drink, early advances in champagne are attributed to a monk. In this case, one 17th century cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon, who was actually working to stop what were supposed to still wine becoming bubbly and worse, exploding.

Dom Pérignon learnt which wines would re-ferment after being bottled. He also realised that harvesting should take place in the cool of early morning rather than in hot sunny afternoons and the importance of gently pressing the grapes as soon after picking as possible. Although Dom Pérignon is famously credited with "inventing" champagne, the truth is, he was one of many influences which resulted in the creation of what we know today as champagne.