Champagne: great legend, nice history, funny story
By Aymeric de Clouet
When in April 2017 the Company of Legal Experts specialized in Collector’s items and Paintings decided to go on a trip to Champagne, I was not expecting to stumble upon a painting that would enlighten Champagne’s history as we know it.
Let me make myself clear: I am writing about Champagne’s history, not the monk(y) business. Although Dom Pérignon was a legendary wine maker at his time of life, he died 1715, long before the first bottle of “Champagne” was produced. He was famous for his red wines, still today 75% of Champagne vineyards are covered with black grapes. Dom Pérignon produced the finest red wines of his time, so popular that his name became the equivalent of a Grand Cru village: one used to order “a barrique of Verzenay, a barrique of Sillery, and another of Pérignon”.
There, you have it: a barrique. Before the Royal Edit of 1728, no wine in France could be transported or sold in any other form than in a cask, which made it impossible to make sparkling wines. It is only with the use of bottles that the production of sparkling wines could take off. It is only in the year 1728 that Louis XV, at the request of Champagne producers (Champagne being a red or pink still wine, mainly) that the authorization to bottle and sell was granted.
After bottling, a strange phenomenon appeared, which took many decades to understand: because of the frost in October, the fermentation process stopped and with the warmer days in April, it started again, causing many problems with exploding bottles and corks.
All this is now well known and established. Of course, British writers claim that they invented sparkling Champagne before the French. Like all good stories, it has some truth in it: because they imported wines from Champagne in casks, because they bought them early after production, and because they had the right to bottle (unlike the French) and had precisely strong bottles (due to coal instead of wood in the glass factories) and corks (due to the long relationship with Port), they had all the means to produce sparkling before France, and they did. But the sparkling they produced was champagne wine with an addition of molasses, probably very sweet, and dark, not very close to modern champagne.
In conclusion, as the foundation date of Ruinart proves, the first official sparkling Champagne may be dated back to 1729. To this date, the oldest painting known about it was the “déjeuner d’huîtres” by Jean-François de Troy in 1735, with the famous cork in the air. But on this day of April 28th, we discovered in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Rheims the painting by Alexis Grimou called “le buveur de Champagne” (the Champagne drinker), depicting a man in a gown holding a bottle with a cork. The cork is tied with strings and a wax seal on top, and the man has the characteristic position of the thumb on top of it! Undated, it would prove nothing, except for the fact that the author died in 1733.
The only conclusion is that as soon as 1732, the first champagne bottles already had a “muselet” to prevent cork accidents, three years after the creation of Champagne, as we know it. The painting expert with us checked if it was a later addition by another painter, but it was not. The oldest painting of a Champagne bottle is now Alexis Grimou’s.
Another interesting detail is that Alexis Grimou was a student of François de Troy, Jean-François’ father. More than two centuries later, the rivalry still goes on.