By Graham Harding (Oxford)
This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”
‘When will France […] learn that champagne should be drunk with roast meat and not introduced as an incubus after dinner’ demanded a letter in The Times in September 1860. The writer was reflecting the growing trend amongst middle and upper-class households in Britain to serve champagne not as a sweet wine to start or end the meal but as an increasingly dry wine that was taken either between courses or with the main meat dishes. Advertisements in the British press for ‘dinner champagne’ rose from around twenty in 1850-59 to nearly 400 in the decade 1870-79. By the mid-1880s a French wine merchant was complaining of the ‘tendency of men of the new generation to make champagne […] their sole drink at every meal. Fifteen years later in 1899, the wine writer Louis Feuerheerd reiterated his objections to this ‘fashionable’ practice on the grounds that ‘champagne does not go with everything’.
So what drove this change and what were the implications for the dinner table? In essence, the pursuit of status drove the change and the consequence was a decided shift in the style of nineteenth-century champagne that was unique to Britain.
The habit of drinking a heavily fortified, dry still white wine from the Champagne region of Sillery was common amongst aristocratic men in the 1820s and 1830s. The new-fangled sparkling champagne was taken up by younger elite men in the 1850s as the fashionable drink in London clubs and military messes. Then middle-class households aspiring to gentility took up the champagne habit to demonstrate their wealth and sophistication. As the gourmandizing barrister A. V. Kirwan observed in 1864, ‘everyone in England tries to ape the class two or three degrees above him in point of rank and fortune, in style of living, and manner of receiving his friends’. Champagne became a dinner table must, even if it meant eking out one bottle round a crowded dinner table. The press publicity given to the Prince of Wales’ taste for dry champagne in the 1860s and his habit of champagne-only dinners in 1886 only strengthened the social value in serving branded dry champagnes.
Champagne’s role at the dinner table was further enhanced with the switch from service à la française to service à la russe that took place between 1850 and 1880. The à la russe style prioritised diners as ‘audience’ for a pre-conceived meal orchestrated by the hostess’ servants, rather than as ‘participants’ (to use Cathy Kaufman’s terminology) who chose their own meal from a range of possible dishes. This shift contributed both to the increasingly ordered matching of wine to food. Sweet champagne simply did not work with meat dishes and ‘sour sauces’. The British taste for champagne moved decisively to drier wines. By the late 1860s, premium brands such as Pol Roger and Pommery were shipping wines with only 2-4 grams of sugar per litre into the British market compared with 20-40 grams in wines for France, Germany and Russia.
Not all hosts succumbed to the allure of champagne. Some continued to match the soup with a glass of sherry and the fish course with German white wine before offering a choice of Burgundy or champagne with the roast dishes. Crucially, of these, champagne was the only wine that was not decanted and thus the only wine whose brand name could be seen by the guests and whose price was therefore generally known.
Champagne proclaimed status and sophistication. The Victorians believed that to like – even to tolerate very dry champagne – demanded that the drinker start young and drink often. That meant those born to wealth and privilege. Merchants, who made their money later in life, were assumed to prefer slightly sweeter wine. But the British taste for very dry wine was vaunted as a rare marker of British culinary superiority. As a contributor to the influential Saturday Review put it in 1879, ‘for once the English have been more intelligent in a matter relating to the table than the French, and […] it is in their appreciation of champagne that they have achieved this solitary triumph’. Not a bad triumph…
Graham Harding returned to the study of history after a career spent in publishing, advertising and marketing. Having completed an M Phil in Cambridge, he is now a final-year D Phil student at St Cross College, Oxford. He has written several books including The Wine Miscellany (2005). More recently he has published on champagne, on the nature of connoisseurship in wine in the nineteenth century and on the nineteenth-century wine trade.