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August 2010

Wine has been with mankind for centuries, millennia indeed, but there is one wine which is a relatively modern invention; it is also one of the world’s great favourites.  I refer, of course, to champagne, and if ever there was a season for champagne (and strawberries), this is it!  Champagne had been around since the 17th century - but then, and for the next couple of centuries, it was a still sweet wine which had a tendency to ferment in bottle to produce a lesser or greater degree of fizziness.  At the time, the bubbles were very unwelcome, and it also made working with champagne a very real danger from exploding bottles, so much so that protective masks and clothing had to be worn in the cellars.  Possibly because of its proximity, but also of its Royal patronage, it was the favourite wine of Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries.  But it did not sparkle, and it was very sweet from the added sugar.  

 It was not until the mid 19th century (1848 to be precise) that Perrier-Jouët’s* unsweetened 1846 vintage was tasted by a London wine merchant who recognised its selling potential to the English market. Once bottles strong enough to hold the ‘dry’ sparkling wine had been made, champagne’s popularity quickly burgeoned in the minds of those who chose to afford it, (and let us not forget that Britain was at the centre of the world wine trade - it still is) so that by the last decade of the century, it was the height of fashion in a very big way.  It should not be a surprise that an array of accessories soon appeared on the market to satisfy this huge surge of interest. 

The wine glass specifically made for champagne, and which was favoured at the time, was the ‘coupe’ or saucer which, although rumoured to have been modeled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts, was not invented until the 1840s - about 50 years after she was guillotined. A romantic notion, but a false one. The coupe remained in fashion until the 1960s and the hollow-stemmed variety are quite sought, although infrequently seen.   There are still some who prefer the coupe to the flute which is now the generally  accepted glass for sparkling wine. 

Decanters for champagne - highly crafted with silver tops and clear glass bodies in the shape of champagne bottles were another fashion in the 1890s (see 9844).  There were champagne pliers to cut the wire and with a serrated element to remove the foil, and special stoppers to seal an opened bottle.  There were many inventions to preserve the contents of a bottle once opened, but the most common one was the champagne tap - a small device which screwed through the cork and which regulated the flow with a tap; the champagne tap was a short-lived fashion. 

One of the more elegant champagne accessories is the bottle holder or sleeve.  These handled, bottle-shaped pieces hinge to enclose a bottle completely, except for the top of the neck.  Most were made of silver plate, but a few were of solid silver. They were usually lined with chamois leather, and they not only made pouring very easy, but they also kept the bubbly cool.  The one I currently have (9718) was made in London in 1890, and exported to Paris where it was retailed by Tiffany.  I am delighted it is back in this country now. 

It is not surprising that there are bin labels for champagne as well as silver, and silver-gilt wine labels.  The latter were almost certainly for the earlier sweeter variety.

* The ‘t’, incidentally, is pronounced both in Perrier-Jouët , and Moët & Chandon - but you probably knew that.

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Carol & I felt we should try some British wines, particularly those which might ‘hold a candle’ to Champagne, to see if there were any that would do justice to the fine accessories made in this country in former centuries.  I expect most readers have tried a British wine and been disappointed at some time in the past - I certainly have.  In the 1970s and 80s, many vineyards were planted with second-rate grape varieties like Seyval Blanc, Muller-Thurgau and Huxelrebe, which would ripen in the infamous British weather, and the results were pretty dismal.

 More recently however, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the grape varieties which produce such great wines (as well as disappointments) in the champagne region in France, have been planted on the same soil types in Sussex, Kent and elsewhere. The results have been hugely successful.  We visited the Ridgeview and Chapel Hill wineries, and their sparklers are a real force to be reckoned with. They are not champagnes, but they have their own individuality and are really excellent wines in their own right.  We were unable to visit Nyetimber, but we have sampled that also, and were most impressed, so we were not unduly surprised to hear it is served at Buckingham Palace state banquets.  These wines, at £20 - £25 a bottle, are not cheap, but they are well worth a try - and they certainly do justice to British wine accessories of the past.

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Now for current news - in the past month, a world record auction price for a piece of English silver was achieved.  The piece was very definitely wine-associated - it  was a massive wine cistern.  There were never many made, but they were always the most impressive pieces of domestic silver to leave a silversmith’s workshop.  Today only about 25 remain.  However, this was one of the grandest, and had remained unrecorded (academics and collectors tend to know about these things, but this had escaped the net) - which always adds to the attraction. It was made in 1705 for Baron Raby who was Ambassador to Prussia, and who was later created 1st Earl of Strafford (of the 2nd creation).   For the record, the cistern is 4' 3" (130 cm.) wide, and weighs 2,597 ounces (that is a little over 80 Kg., or about 12½ stone).  It sold for a little over £2,500,000, so I am sorry to disappoint you if you were hoping to find it amongst my stock.

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