Have you ever wondered why we sip the bubbly on New Year’s Eve?
The answer dates back about 1,500 years – long before you could simply buy wine online – and it involves science, geographic location, and a quirky French law.
King Clovis I ruled northern France late in the fifth century. According to legend, the king promised his wife Clotilde that he would convert to Catholicism if he won a particular battle. He made good on that promise and, after winning the battle, traveled to city of Reims for baptism.
In the centuries that followed, kings would travel to Reims for the coronation ceremony. The tradition became so popular that workers built a great cathedral in the city, which was in the heart of France’s Champagne region. After the ceremony, kings would linger in Reims to partake in the local wines.
Life was very different in the Middle Ages. You could not buy wine online as you can today – since it was available only in heavy casks, transportation of spirits was limited. Producers would harvest the grapes, ferment them for a few weeks then export them in the autumn and winter. Back then, consumers tended to drink the wine within a year of production, almost immediately after the yeast converted the grape sugars into alcohol.
Wines were not quite the same back then either, as all wine was “still” and none sparkled. Consumers would open the barrels before the wine had a chance to become effervescent.
In the earliest days of trade between France and with other nations, barrels of wine would sometimes sit until spring, when consumers would open the barrels to find the wine had turned “fizzy.” This effervescence occurred because the yeast fermenting the wine would go dormant during the cold of winter. The yeast would then “wake up” in the spring and ravenously gobble up the grape sugars left in the wine.
As yeast ferments the sugars in grape juice, it creates alcohol. It also creates carbon dioxide, the stuff that provides carbonation in soda pop. Seal the fermentation action inside a closed container, such as a wine barrel, the carbon dioxide infuses into the liquid to form sparkling wine.
While this process can occur anywhere in the world, the region of Champagne had some special advantages. Its wine-producing cities and towns were located on rivers during an era when merchants shipped goods primarily by water to all parts of the world. Wine merchants continued to ship their goods to the French court but also expanded wine shipments to England and Holland, which were too far north to grow their own grapes.
The famous monk Dom Perignon greatly improved the quality of the vineyards at his abbey and therefore improved the overall quality of the wine. Demand increased drastically as word about the quality of wine spread. To keep up with demand, Perignon started packaging the wine in bottles, which held the effervescence quite a bit longer than wine from a barrel. He also figured out how to use cork to stopper the bottle.
King Louis XV was a big fan of champagne so he decreed that only wine makers from Champagne could ship their wares in bottles; all others had to store their wine in barrels. Because bottles are much easier to manage and sell, wine makers could peddle bottles of expensive bubbly to affluent merchants and private consumers – lower class consumers could only get wine from a barrel.
The highbrow heritage of champagne spills into modern day festivities, often reserved for only the most extraordinary celebrations. Even though you can buy wine online at any time and drink fizzy champagne any time of the year, chances are good that you drink only champagne on New Year’s Eve. This year, when you buy wine online for your New Year’s Eve party, thank King Clovis for making good on that promise to his wife.