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January 6, 2005

A public radio commentary

Its a New Year and I'm sure that recently you reacquainted yourself with champagne. Here is a different view of that bubbly beverage - a technological view.

Although champagne is closely associated with France - many there see champagne as rooted in the soil and history of the country - in reality champagne came about because of technological innovations across Europe.

Now the part that is very French is the location. The cold climate of northern France makes happen accidentally the double fermentation necessary for champagne. Certain sugars aren't destroyed in the first fermentation, which stops because of cold weather, and which then ferment when triggered by the warm weather of spring. This second step produces the bubbles characteristic of champagne.

These bubbles caused the first vintners great trouble. Up to 40% of their bottles would explode from the pressure created by the carbon dioxide in the champagne. To solve this problem the French got stronger bottles from, of all people, the British.

In the seventeenth century the British learned Venetian glass blowing techniques from Italian immigrants, the finest craftsmen of the time. At first the British made bottles just about as weak as the French, but then a Royal Edict changed everything. British glass furnaces where fueled by wood, which caused major deforestation in Britain. To save what remained of Britain's woodlands, a Royal edict of 1615 forbid burning wood in glass-making furnaces. So new factories appeared in Britain using coal, which provided a hotter and more reliable source of heat. The higher temperatures allowed stronger bottles to be made, in contrast to the French, who still used wood-burning furnaces that operated at lower temperatures and made weaker bottles.

The next technological innovation that helped champagne reach the market was the stopper. The French used one of wood, wrapped with hemp cord and soaked in olive oil, something that had been around since Roman times. This stopper, though, wasn't strong enough to keep in the bubbling champagne. The British came to the rescue again by using cork stoppers to keep the fizz inside, although not without help from others: The British imported their cork from Spain.

So, although champagne is closely identified with France, it was a European effort with help from Italy, Spain, and especially Britain. Even today Britain is the number one importer of French champagne - 28 million bottles a year. And that interest comes right from the top: Recently a Buckingham Palace tax inventory found Queen Elizabeth had, in her cellars, four million dollars worth of French champagne.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises