No one person or group can rightly be credited with "inventing" champagne: Natural effervescence, intentional or not, has been part of winemaking since man first made wine. Nonetheless, Dom Pierre Pérignon is often credited with "inventing" champagne. As cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers from 1668 to his death in 1715, Pérignon indeed made tremendous improvements to champagne as we now know it. He was the first to make it from a cuvée (blend) of wines, refining its taste and balance, and he pioneered the use of black grapes to make a white wine. However, historical evidence suggests that Italian, southern French and English vignerons all had created sparkling wine in the decades before Pérignon's arrival at Hautvillers. In 1662, a report on winemaking techniques was presented to the Royal Society in London and detailed a crude version of what is now known as the méthode champenoise, in which sugar and yeast are added to still, bottled wine to start the second fermentation, which gives sparkling wine its sparkle.
Burgundian winemakers introduced sparkling pinot noirs in the 1820s, though today Australian Shiraz is the most respected sparkling red. Span-ish cava, also made in the méthode champenoise, was first commercially available in 1872, from the house of Codornu00edu; the first mayor of Los Angeles, Benjamin Davis Wilson, made California's original sparkling in 1855, at the San Gabriel Winery.
We can thank the French for champagne's association with weddings. From the 12th to the 19th century, Reims, a city in the Champagne region, was the designated place for French coronations, and so its wines became associated with pageantry. Champagne, once introduced to the Court of Versailles, was a rare and expensive product, and this, along with the sweetness that characterized it until the mid-19th century, reinforced bubbly as the beverage for marking special occasions. In belle époque France, champagne labels often recommended it be served at such events as an engagement (fiancé champagne), wedding (champagne nuptial), or baptism (bébé champagne). So as champagne began to be exported to England and the United States, it was established as a matrimonial beverage in those markets, too.
From left: Roman centerpieces, $386; round footed centerpiece, $285, both from Match, match1995.com. "Bunny" crystal flutes, $78 each, from William Yeoward, williamyeowardcrystal.com. Vintage 1999 champagne, $149, from Dom Pérignon, domperignon.com. "Amalia" flute, $55, from Juliska, juliska.com. "Lady Hamilton" flute, $145, from Moser, moserusa.com. "Duchesse" champagne saucer, $40, by Vera Wang from Wedgwood, wedgwood.com.
Champagne glasses have nearly as long a history as does the wine itself. The flute dates back to the Roman Empire, and artisans have perfected the design continually since that time. In the 1660s, Venetian glassmakers in England developed the coupe, or saucer, said to be modeled after the female breast. Though the coupe enjoyed a brief vogue, thanks in part to its use by Marie Antoinette and the Court of Versailles, the flute was recognized as superior by the end of the 18th century and continuing to the present day. Its relatively small surface area allows champagne to hold and display bubbles longer, and a proper two-thirds pour allows room at the top of the glass for the wine's aromas to linger. In fact, a generic tulip-shaped wineglass, though not as festive as a flute, provides concentration of the drink's aroma without sacrificing as many bubbles as a coupe.
While trends in dresses, venues and cuisine come and go, the service of champagne or other sparkling wines at weddings is constant. “With few exceptions, every client chooses to serve some kind of bubbly at their wedding, whether it's prosecco, cava, blanc de blancs or champagne,” says Marcey Brownstein, of Marcey Brownstein Catering & Events, in New York City. “It's a very food-friendly wine, so it makes an effortless transition from the cocktail buffet to dinner.” Jean Christophe Le Picart, managing partner and co-owner of New York's Feast & Fêtes Catering, suggests that “it is more chic to serve champagne from a small, undiscovered producer rather than a nonvintage name-brand champagne.” Despite the enduring image of a champagne toast to the bride and groom, Brownstein explains, “We don't do champagne toasts as often as one might think. Often, clients choose to toast with whatever they're drinking at the moment and focus on having high-end champagne available at the bar for those who choose it.” She has also provided pre-ceremony sparkling wine-based cocktails, such as Bellinis or Kir Royales. Of champagne's enduring appeal to altar-bound couples, she says, “It brings a touch of luxury that will never go out of style.”
Gallic tray, $122; “Gabriella” espresso spoons, $22 each; sugar owl with spoon, $138; condiment jar with spoon, $109, all from Match, match1995.com.
Champagne is but one of the many varieties of sparkling wine that can contribute a festive feeling to your wedding reception. Here are some of the major categories:
Sparkling wine made of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes in France's Champagne region, ranging from extra brut (very dry) to doux (very sweet).
Made from grapes harvested in a single year; highest quality and price.
Also known as “classic”; a blend of wines from different years.
Blanc de Blancs
Made with 100-percent chardonnay grapes, best used as an aperitif.
Blanc de Noirs
Made with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes; rare and costly.
Pink champagne, most often dry; best drunk young.
Other French Sparkling Wines
Close to 40 sparkling wines made outside Champagne, including Blanquette de Limoux, Crémant de Bourgogne and Vouvray Mousseux.
Made primarily in Australia, from Shiraz; also made in smaller quantities in the Burgundy region of France.
Made in northeastern Spain, from native Spanish grapes; meant to be drunk young.
Italian Sparkling Wines (Sweet)
Asti is sweet and fruity, a great accompaniment to wedding cake; Moscato d'Asti has less alcohol and is drier but still a sweet wine. Both made from muscat (moscato) grapes.
Italian Sparkling Wines (Dry)
Spumante, made from champagne and other grapes; and prosecco, made from prosecco grapes. Both are light-bodied and make good aperitifs.
California Sparkling Wines
Commonly called brut and made from riper grapes. Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and New York also create quality sparkling.
From left: Pewter round platter, $378, from Match, match1995.com. “Giselle” flute, $50, from Waterford Crystal, waterfordcrystal.com. “Florence” flute, $55, from Juliska, juliska.com. “Vesta” flute, $85, from William Yeoward, williamyeowardcrystal.com. “Lady Hamilton” flute, $145, from Moser, moserusa.com. “Florella” flute, $55, from Juliska.