Travel Stories

Champagne

The Ups & Downs of Bubbly

Legend has it that champagne was invented by 17th-century wine-making monk Dom Pérignon, who tasted an accidentally re-fermented vintage and cried out to his friends, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" But while the man did exist, crediting him for inventing "bubbly" was actually an advertising ploy from the 1800s.

Techniques of developing sparkling wine had been well known in France's Champagne district since 1530, a century before the monk's birth—although Dom probably did perfect its production by using fortified bottles and Spanish corks to avoid the problem of explosion. Whatever the truth, by the 19th century no beverage was as quintessentially "French" as the effervescent champagne that has now become a must-have at any elegant celebration around the world.

Champagne's symbolic value was such that after the German conquest of France in World War II, the Nazi high command (Wehrmacht) consumed vast amounts of it to flaunt their victory. In 1940, the Wehrmacht set up a permanent office at Reims to control bubbly production and ensure a constant supply for top Germans (except for Hitler himself, that is, who was a strict teetotaler.) Champagne was also the beverage of choice at German-run restaurants in Paris. Gluttonous air force leader Herman Göring filled vast cellars with stolen bottles, and some of the last planes into besieged Stalingrad were actually carrying crates of vintage champagne to the desperate officers.

But the symbolism rebounded on the Nazis at the end of the war. In a form of poetic justice, the surrender of the German army on May 7, 1945, was signed at Reims, where U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower set up his Supreme Allied headquarters—just around the corner from the most illustrious champagne houses of France.