Extract: Fizz! by Anthony Rose

10 November 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Uncategorized, Wine and spirits

A short history of the bubble beyond Champagne
According to the historian Benoît Musset, the first recorded mention of spark­ling wine is found in an Egyptian papyrus document dated AD 522. Sparkling wines were considered flawed, and secondary fermentation in spring is listed as one of the factors making wines unfit for sale. In the 1201 miracle play Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Jehan Bodel portrays characters in an inn, with one commenting: ‘see how it devours its bubbles, how it sparkles, shimmers and bounces’. Épernay wine is described in a 1320 poem by Watriquet de Couvin as ‘sparkling on the tongue, clear, quivering, strong, fine and fresh’. In Limoux in France’s south-west, the Benedictine monks of the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire mentioned the distribution of Blanquette de Limoux in cork-stoppered flasks in 1531 (although the 1544 accounts of the Sire d’Arques referred to the grape variety rather than a sparkling wine as such).

Champagne’s pre-eminence as a sparkling wine region in the eighteenth century provoked envy and inspired competition. Seeing that Champagne had stolen a sparkling march on burgundy, the Dijon agronomist, Edme Beguillet, describes Champagne, in 1770, as ‘the only industry capable of bringing previously non-existent wines out of obscurity, and bestowing reputation on a previously unknown product.’ In 1845, the champenois had become so concerned at imitations that a lawsuit brought by a group of Champagne houses resulted in the French Cour de Cassation banning the use of the name Champagne as a generic label for French sparkling wines. Cyrus Redding listed Die, Saint-Péray, Limoux, Anjou and Belfort among French regions making fizz in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the late 1800s, the roster had expanded beyond French borders to include Italy, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Australia and the USA. Mass production was helped by the introduction of the moulded bottle in 1882.

Australia’s first serious attempts at sparkling wine began in the late 1840s when Edward Cory and William Burnett showed their ‘champagnes’ at the Hunter Valley Vignerons Association, following which New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were soon to get in on the act. By the 1880s, French winemaker Auguste d’Argent of the Victorian Champagne Company, was making ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Charles Pierlot was brought out by the sparkling wine pioneer Hans Irvine from Pommery and Greno Champagne in 1890. Mark Twain observed the Australian weakness for ‘champagne’ and visited the extensive cellars at Great Western In 1895. Another Frenchman, Edmond Mazure, made sparkling ‘burgundy’ at Auldana near Adelaide in the early 1890s, subsequently producing an array of sparkling wines under the La Perouse label in the 1910s.

Sparkling wine production was already sufficiently established in America by the mid-nineteenth century for the wine merchant T. G. Shaw, writing in 1864, to conclude: ‘The most important vineyards are those of Ohio, Missouri and Indiana, but the most celebrated is in Cincinnati’. In 1842, Nicholas Longworth, a Cincinnati lawyer, produced sparkling Catawba after a batch of wine accidentally went through a second fermentation. He became rich enough to bring in winemaking savoir-faire and technology from Champagne, but alas, the first Frenchman to arrive drowned in the Ohio River, while the second lost 42,000 out of 50,000 bottles in one season to burst bottles. Third time lucky, a M. Fournier arrived in 1852 and Longworth was soon producing 100,000 bottles a year. Longworth sent a case to the abolitionist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who described it as having ‘a taste more divine, more dulcet, delicious and dreamy [than Champagne].’

While the first New York ‘champagne’ was made in 1865 by Joseph Masson, who called it sparkling Catawba, he and his brother Jules made a cuvée in 1870, which was mistaken at a meeting of Pleasant Valley growers for a ‘great champagne of the West’ (i.e. California). While the eastern states were making merry with fizz, Pierre Sainsevain, on returning from Champagne, set up a winery in San Jose for bottle-fermented ‘sparkling California’. At the same time, Agoston Haraszthy sent his son Arpad to Champagne to learn the tricks of the fizz trade at De Venoge. Arpad was later to produce Eclipse, one of the most successful American sparkling wines of the 1870s. Meanwhile, Paul Masson, who left Burgundy for California in 1878 at the age of 19, was to become known as the ‘Champagne King of California’ after establishing the Paul Masson Champagne Company in 1892.

The sparkling wine industry was bubbling under in nineteenth-century Europe too. Georg Kessler, who had worked for Madame Clicquot, left in 1826 to found the firm of GC Kessler in Esslingen and, with it, the German spark­ling wine industry was born. Carlo Gancia is believed to have cut his sparkling winemaking teeth at de Venoge in 1848, returning to his native Piemonte to create the first ‘Italian champagne’ in 1865. Prosecco’s future was foretold after Federico Martinotti developed a prototype of the tank method, allowing refermentation of the base wines in autoclavi (large pressurized tanks). The metodo Martinotti was patented in 1895 before Eugène Charmat took up the baton and patented the Charmat method in 1907. While the claim for the first Spanish sparkling wine belongs to Antoni Gali Comas in around 1850, the first to pioneer a bottle-fermented sparkling wine from local Penedès varieties was Josep Raventós in 1872.

In Pozsony (now Bratislava), Johann Evangelist Hubert returned from Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia to make sparkling wine. The company that became Hubert was founded in 1825 by Mihály Schönburger and János Fischer and won the award for best Hungarian sparkling wine in 1842. The first sparkling producer on the Pest side of Budapest was founded in 1852, but domestic fizz production didn’t really take off until later in the nineteenth century. In neighbouring Slovenia, sparkling history dates back to 1852 when the first traditional method bubbles appeared in Radgona (today in Austria), a trad­ition continued by Radgonske Gorice on the Slovenian side of the border. In Moldova, it’s reported that Prince Paravichini made ‘an extremely pure champagne probably from the Iaidzhi variety [possibly Chasselas] in Akkerman in 1825 and, famously, Henri Roederer founded what became the Odessa Sparkling Wine Factory in 1896.

Today it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when wine was drunk with no thought of the bubble. As is clear from the early history of so many countries, either through visits to the region by fizz-struck pioneering spirits or the importation of champenois savoir-faire and technology, we have Champagne to thank for inspiring production of sparkling wine around the globe and enriching our capacity for enjoying bubbles for all seasons and occasions.

Extract from Fizz! Champagne and Sparkling Wines of the World © Anthony Rose (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library online shop.