Little known Champagne fact: Dom Perignon did not say, “I’m drinking stars,” he said, “I’m seeing stars” after being clubbed over the head by a British arquebus.
Verily, there’s been little love lost between France and England over the centuries, and the tale of two cities has been Hatfields and McCoys essentially since the Gauls were finger-painting bison on cave walls and the Anglos were dying their faces blue.
In point of fact, it’s been pretty one-sided. Pepe LePew will always have his 1066, but since then, he’s lost every major war to John Bull, and the only reason the Brits haven’t yet forced The King’s Good English upon the French is that their accents wind up being more irritating than their language. Clearly naval as well as martial superiors, the English condescended to build a tunnel linking the two countries only because they were sick of un-seaworthy French people vomiting up half-digested snails onto the deck of the Calais to Dover ferry.
The French have, however, maintained dominance in one vitally important aspect of life. No, not cuisine. Personally—and on any day of the week—I’ll take a snuggly, soul-salving Shepherd’s Pie over a slimy plate of Escoffier’s Les cuisses de nymphes aurores (frog legs) or the hors d’oeuvres version, frog arms.
No, it’s wine, of course—specifically and categorically, Champagne.
And since the seventeenth century, while the famous Benedictine monk Dom Perignon was still trying to RID wine of bubbles (which he viewed as a fault), the French have been schlepping frothy quantities upon the English, who developed a taste for the stuff long before they did. In fact, it wasn’t until 1715, within the newly formed court of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, that French nobility realized what a treasure they had in Champagne.
As in all great wine regions of the world, it’s a unique combination of soil, know-how and climate that allows Champagne—a small province 100 miles east of Paris—to produce sparkling wine of such magnificence that EU law, and the laws of most other countries, reserve the term exclusively for them.
And fittingly so. Many—even Champagne houses who bought land elsewhere—have tried and failed to duplicate the nuance, subtlety and general je ne sais quoi dissolved within the body and bubbles of Champagne.
The English are no exception. Ever since Julius Caesar send over a boatload of vines around 55 BC, the Tommys and the Pommys have been trying to get proper Champagne grapes to grow in certain reasonably temperate pockets around Kent and the Sussexes, where the soil structure—Limey limestone—is just right. Technically, everybody knew that it was at least possible—Champagne is near the northern limits of wine production, but from a crow’s viewpoint, there’s only a couple hundred miles between Rheims and English wine country. And yet, as close as they came in certain excellent vintages—just as they found that neither could they really grow tobacco—it was no cigar.
Over the years, Americans have made it a point not to interfere with the bickering between France and England—possibly because deep in our patriotic hearts we understand that we owe the French a lifelong debt for having bailed out our sorry asses during the Revolutionary War. Without them, the Redcoats would have prevailed and it would have been us that had the English language forced down our gullets.
But, over the past half century or so, we have presented the English with a precious and un-repayable gift: Global warming. Our magnanimous, ultimately selfless gestures—refusing to drive less or cut back on fossil fuels or turn out the lights after we leave a room—has allowed the average temperature in Britain to rise to a point where the southern-slope microclimates of Kent are now nearly akin to those of Champagne. Perhaps the pinnacle of proof happened during the Dijon-based sparkling wine competition Effervescents du Monde, 2007 when Theale Vineyard Sparkling Chardonnay from Berkshire beat out numerous high-end Champagnes to be named one of the world’s top ten sparkling wines.
It was, for the English, the equivalent of our Judgment of Paris, 1976.
What follows is a historical, cultural and enological synopsis of the rivalry between these two neighbors, who have essentially spent a millennium behaving like a pair of first-graders in the back seat of a station wagon.
Ever wonder why, when we eat cow, we call it beef? Calf veal? Pig pork? Sheep mutton? Thank William, Duke of Normandy, whose successful invasion of England in 1066, culminating in a victory at Hastings in what is now Sussex wine country, led to a French-speaking monarchy and clerical hierarchy. Over the eighty-odd years that the Normans sat upon the English throne, words like boeuf, veau, porc and mouton sidled into our lexicon as easily as Barney Frank into a bar on Christopher Street. But, whereas we still use these French-inspired words in their original sense, somehow along the way the term ‘Norman’ ceased to refer to the hulking, über-mensch descendants of Viking warlords and became instead the kid with horned-rimmed glasses in a band uniform on the Robotics Team.
How the mighty have fallen!
Most folks won’t even argue this one, citing Auguste Escoffier (fired from the Savoy for stealing wine), the Gascon influence (diseased goose liver), poultry from Bresse (known for its free-flowing fat—ick—and compared to the purity of Céline Dion’s voice—double ick), the black Périgord truffle (smells like pig gonads and costs $700 per lb.), Escargots à la Provence (frankly, I won’t eat anything that English Gardens sells products to kill) and general haute cuisine (literally ‘high food’, which to my generation means Taco Bell at three AM), while failing to mention french fries (tubers dipped in grease), french toast (bread dipped in eggs, then fried in grease) and the french dip sandwich (beef dipped in beef juice which contains grease).
Still, in a stand-off, the English have to answer for kidney pie (kidneys regulate the body’s urinary system), black pudding (black via curdled pig blood), lamb’s heart (do a people exist who could eat something that sounds so precious?), tripe (stomach lining), causing one to wonder if the Brits ever eat the outside of animals?
Worst of all, there’s Nigella (boring, spoiled and overbearing rich chick), Ramsay (drunk, convicted pervert who cheats on his wife) and Oliver (once slit the throat of a conscious lamb on national television)—not one of whom has ever struck me as particularly unstoppable in the kitchen.
CUISINE, SEXUAL SOUNDING NAMES
Entries, England: Wet Nelly, Spotted Dick, Bangers, Fitless Cock, Faggots, Dean’s Cream, Neeps and Tatties, Toad In The Hole, Pretty Oggies, Hunter’s Buns.
Pop quiz: How long did the Hundred Years’ War last? Wrong, 116 years; 1337 to 1453.
Midway through it, in 1415, Charles VI—the nutcase French monarch who thought he was made out of glass regularly forgot his own name—was thoroughly trounced by a 5 – 1 outnumbered Henry V. Hank Five himself participated in the hand-to-hand combat while Chucky Six skulked around Paris telling people his name was ‘George’. Five years later, in 1420, Henry V was recognized as heir to the French throne, a regency he locked in by marrying Charles VI fifth, and presumably sane daughter.
The Brits will grandly assert that their teeth are no worse than ours, just as they insist that Americans don’t take soccer seriously enough. As a former soccer mom, I can assure my orally-challenged brethren across the pond that we take soccer very seriously—it’s that stupid, mind-numbingly dull game you call ‘football’, with final scores like ‘1 – 0’ or ‘0 – 0’, that we can’t stand.
As for your teeth, here’s food for thought that you will presumably not get caught between your crumbling bicuspids:
- Amid the NHS cluster-bleep, affordable English dentists are rare as hen’s teeth.
- Your carb-heavy diet is not particularly toothsome to begin with; supplementing it with with tons of refined sugar and tobacco is the kiss of death for that glittery Hollywood smile.
- You don’t fluoridate your water. Come on, people. Granted, it’s a Communist plot, but couldn’t you hold your collective, rank-smelling breaths for a sec and pretend it’s a Socialist plot?
On the other hand, a typical French mouth may be missing a few teeth, but those that exist tend to be speckless thanks to products like Antibactérien Eludril Rince-Bouche and Botot Pâté. In fact, so dazzling are Gallic denticles that when foreign diplomats come to town, members of the Sénat are warned not to smile for fear their incandescent incisors will be mistaken for white flags and the visitors will naturally assume that the country just surrendered.
Turns out that all really hot British women are Australian and all really hot French women are North African.
Advantage: Category Vacated
SEVEN YEARS WAR
Another pop quiz: How long did the Seven Years War last? Wrong again; nine years; 1754 – 1763, but historians had to think on their feet since the name ‘Nine Years War’ was already taken. Seriously.
Although the main antagonists were England and France, the war went global and drew in all the major superpowers of the time: Prussia and Hanover siding with Britain against the Spanish allies Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Spain. Obviously, they should have called it World War I—a name which was still up for grabs. The war was fought on two continents, beginning and ending in North America, resulting in a British victory that forced France to cede all of their holdings east and west of the Mississippi along with Canada. In return, they were permitted to hang on to their Caribbean colonies, which is why they speak French in Haiti today.
Apparently, the Brits thrive on being outnumbered, and it must drive them up Hadrian’s Wall that each side must field the same number of players during soccer
snoozefests matches. In 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson and his twenty-seven warships found himself in a bit of a misunderstanding with the French Empire under Napoleon, and off the coast of Spain, faced a 33 ship fleet commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. Oddly, though Nelson destroyed 22 enemy vessels without losing a single one, he managed to get himself killed during the battle and so did not live to see Britain’s now-total worldwide naval supremacy.
SPARKLING WINE, QUALITY
England is again outnumbered, this time by sparkling wine consumers, whose demand both domestically and abroad cannot be met by the 120 million bottles annually that England is capable of producing. As a result, there’s current gold rush in English wine country, with vineyards being established at a rate which has quadrupled in the past five years.
In Champagne, by contrast, there’s simply no more land—short of window-boxes—left to plant.
But is the English wine worth it? At least one French Champagne maker thinks so: Vintner Didier Pierson-Whitaker is about to release several thousand bottles of Meonhill—a sparkling wine grown from French rootstock (chardonnay and pinot noir) in Hampshire, a place where the chalky subsoil duplicates the geology he farms in the Marne.
The rest of the world? I think you’d have to be a certifiably-batty Anglophile with taste-buds on hiatus if you truly imagine that the nascent British bubble industry is anywhere close to being on par with the fizz finesse of Champagne—not yet, and, though we never say never, probably not ever.
Even Imogen Pierson-Whitaker, Didier’s English wife, admits, “Truthfully, it’s been tough. We don’t have a massive support system like in France. We planted in 2005 and the vines have been fabulous some years and there have been poor years….”
So far, Theale Vineyard’s award-winning wine is the exception, not the rule. And obviously, only a fool discounts the éclat inherent in three hundred years of Champagne’s méthode champenoise experience, vineyard mastery, cellar skill and sheer old-guard reputation—and the world of chardonnay/pinot noir cultivation two hundred miles north of what was once considered feasible does not suffer fools gladly.
Imogen Pierson-Whitaker goes on to say, “The industry will obviously evolve, but the beginnings are tough, especially when you are using a new vineyard.”
Depending, perhaps, on how much carbon dioxide the rest of the developed world is willing to pump into the atmosphere, we may in our lifetime see how far that evolution can go.
Current Advantage: France
SPARKLING WINE, HIP-HOP PRESTIGE
Entries, France: Cristal, Krug, Dom Perignon.
Entries, England: Upperton, Bolney, Daws Hill.
SPARKLING WINE, FUNNY NAMES
Entries, France: Billecart-Salmon. That’s it. Salmon is a fish name, and therefore, a funny name for wine. And not even that funny.
Entries, England: Breaky Bottom, Blackboys, Nutbourne on Gay Street, Ridgeview in Furzefield on Fragbarrow, Tickerage Blush, Plumpton on Ditchling, Biddenden in Little Whatmans on Gribble Bridge.
In the final analysis, they’re not yet Bordeaux balmy, Rhône roasty or even Loire lukewarm, and the chief danger of all the new vineyards being planted in Southeast England is that these virgin vintners are underestimating the amount of capital required to produce world-class sparkling wine in a climate that may see five good vintages out of ten. Before they go out of business (and they will), these wineries may foist upon the world an awful lot of substandard and reputation-ruining product.
That said, an interesting historical footnote concerns the real inventor of méthode champenoise, which, of course, was not Dom Perignon, the legendary Benedictine monk who actually thought that effervescence ruined wine. In 1662, a scientist called Christopher Merret presented a paper detailing how sugar in wine caused the bubbles and that by adding sugar before bottling, nearly any wine could be made to sparkle.
Merret’s nationality? British. And thus, for the genuine global origins of the sparkling wine process…