By Tilar Mazzeo, Ph.D.
The BBC reported this summer that the owner of a castle in Scotland discovered a bottle of unopened 1893 Veuve Clicquot champagne, the oldest known to exist. The lucky laird gave the bottle to the champagne house, where it is now on display as part of their historical exhibit.
And since much of the value in this special bottle is the fact that it was preserved unopened, chances are slim that this bubbly will ever find its way to a glass. But if it were poured, what would nineteenth-century champagne look and taste like?Veuve Clicquot champagne started using its trademark yellow label sometime in the mid-1860s, and, since it was used exclusively in the beginning to advertise a drier style of champagne to the English market, chances are the wine in this newly discovered bottle is brut champagne.
The term is a bit relative. Today, brut champagne is a dry wine. But, in the nineteenth century, folks drank their bubbly cold and sweet. An average bottle of champagne for the Russian market, for example, had as much as 300 grams of residual sugar—which is about twice what we find today in sweet dessert wines.
And since champagne then was almost always a dessert wine and not an aperitif, that makes sense. Most champagne at the time was made in the style known as blanc de noirs—a white wine make with a mixture of red and wine grapes. But, in fact, calling this bottle a white wine is probably something of a misnomer. Imbibers expected their champagne to have a rosy tinge, something a quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary will confirm.
There are early records showing that bubbly was often served as something resembling frozen slush, with that same viscosity that comes after a good bottle of vodka has been sitting the freezer for weeks. So we’d try it cold, something that’s not ideal for bubbles, of course. On the other hand, champagne then didn’t have the same sort of aggressive bubbles we find today in commercially produced sparkling wine either. The quality of the glassware wasn’t strong enough to withstand the intense pressure created by strongly carbonated wines.
We’d probably serve it in those shallow champagne goblets known as coupes and modeled, or so the legend goes, on the much-admired breasts of Madame de Pompadour. Until the Widow Clicquot discovered remuage—a system for efficiently clearing champagne of the yeasty debris that is a by-product of those bubbles—sparkling wine was often served in small, opaque V-shaped pilsner glasses, meant to disguise the floating sediment. By the middle of the century, champagne was reliably clear, and, although flutes existed, the preference was for coupes well into the mid-twentieth century.
Even if someone opens this newly discovered rarity, we won’t be among the lucky few to taste a drop. But what good historian doesn’t want to imagine this kind of first-hand research?
Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (HarperCollins 2008) and the forthcoming travel guide to The Back-Lane Wineries of Sonoma (The Little Bookroom / Random House 2009). She teaches English at Colby College.