Scheid sparkling

Hannah Moranda and Chelsea Leniart show off sparkling wine from Scheid Vineyards.

Sparkling wine is governed by a thick set of rules. 

The most famous of these dictates which bottles can be declared Champagne, but others apply to such things as winemaking methodology or the terms used on labels. So it’s a bit curious that the rule that we should pour sparkling wine for a New Year’s toast is an unwritten one.

That’s right, no decree tucked into a dusty archival chamber at Dom Pérignon, no covenant signed by an order of monks and safeguarded by the Knights Chandon. Nothing.

Yeah, we wanted some drama, but there’s only a public acceptance so entrenched that about 25 percent of all sparkling wine sold each year is purchased during the holiday season.

“It’s a double-edged sword”—we’re not the only ones caught up in Medieval imagery—says Matty Eggleston, beverage director for Stokes Adobe restaurant in Monterey. “People save it for a celebration when they could drink it year-round. Champagne opportunities are never to be missed.”

He’s onto something. As an occasion marker, bubbly a winemaker frets over for months and years to bring out its prized expression of terroir is too often treated carelessly. Winning race car drivers spray it on crewmembers and anyone else in their vicinity. Newly-built ships are christened with a hard thwack of a bottle. And really, by midnight on New Year’s, can anyone properly appreciate a nuanced wine?

If we truly cared about that $300 vintage sparkler, we’d crack a beer on the bow of the ship—you’ve got five left—and begin the evening’s festivities with the pop of a cork.

But it’s hard to break an unwritten rule (see how far you get if you try to sack Tom Brady). Still, there must be a good reason why we bring the bubbly on New Year’s Eve.

“There’s something about the popping of the cork,” observes Chelsea Leniart, manager of Scheid Vineyards’ Carmel tasting room. “Everyone’s like, ‘whoo!’”

Yes, there is a sense of enthusiasm that flows from the distinct burst from the bottle. The exuberant toast that follows is just part of the affair.

“Wine hits four of the five senses,” explains Hannah Moranda of Scheid. “‘Cheers’ gives it five.”

Aaron Dominguez, director of food and beverage for the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, points out that any wine, spirit or even beer could be the centerpiece of a celebration. However, he too agrees on the atmospherics.

“The key that makes wine and Champagne so important—particularly with Champagne—is the popping of the cork, the twinkling, the friends and family,” he says. “It just has that feel.”

The answer may be just that simple. Different cultures and people from varied means developed a collective popular perception of sparkling wine as a proper way to send off the old and wave in the new.

Sounds like we’ve solved…

“I’m sure there’s some background to it,” Leniart says.

Fine.

There is quite a bit of scholarship on the matter (so you can get a job with a drinking major) from sages who search through actual dusty archival chambers in actual quests to learn more about sparkling wine and its New Year’s ways. 

The story involves ancient Roman bureaucracy, wars of the Dark Ages, religion and science, royalty, even an unbelievable plot twist.

Sparking wine in the traditional method results from secondary fermentation in the bottle. And many centuries ago, it was a frequent—though not generally welcome—occurrence. Dead yeast flotsam would leave the wine murky. Bottles would explode from the pressure, spewing wine and glass shrapnel.

Before sparkling wine could even make it as a holiday must, however, someone needed to create a reason to raise a glass to January. Enter Julius Caesar, who gave us the first piece when he tacked a couple of new months to the calendar, named one after the two-faced god Janus and said that, going forward, new consulate terms would begin on the first day of January.

No time to nurse a hangover, so no partying—yet.

Next, fame had to be associated with a winemaking region. A king named Clovis gets the credit here.

You see, Clovis, king of the Franks, on a mission to unify the peoples of what became France, promised his wife that if successful he would convert to Christianity after slaughtering whoever needed slaughtering.

The baptism took place in Reims in the region of Champagne, and a lot of local wine was consumed following the ceremony. For centuries after, the royals of France would travel to the Champagne city for crowning, bringing entourages along to sample the local varietals.

Of course, these were still wines, not the lowly sparklers. But the presence of royalty gave the wine region its first glimpse of real significance.

Fizzy wine remained an unwanted mishap for another 1,000 years after Clovis. But then came not Dom Pérignon, but a tinkering British scientist named Christopher Merret.

Yes, the French monk generally gets the credit for preparing fine Champagne on purpose. In his Christie's Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, however, author Tom Stevenson credits a paper Merret delivered before the Royal Society in London touting the virtues of bubbly in November of 1662, two decades before Pérignon.

What aided them in their discoveries was a new and stronger glass first tempered in England and used by Pérignon, who also figured out a way to produce white wine from red grapes. And a process—methode champenoise—was developed, clearing the wine of its debris cloud.

So to the plot twist. By 1728, the style of wine once dismissed as flawed was so favored by French royalty that Louis XV declared that Champagne alone could be transported in bottles. Anyone who was someone or wanted to be someone regaled their guests with bubbly. And then the rest of us were invited to the party.

The emergence of a middle class with the Industrial Revolution meant more people with both the means and the leisure time to sample sparklers. Just 6 million bottles were sold in 1850. As 1900 dawned, the market had grown to 28 million. In her book When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity, Kolleen Guy points out that the wine chateaus began to market sparklers as occasion wines.

You knew that marketing had to be involved somewhere along the line. And people fell for it.

“One observer noted in 1881 that the increased use of Champagne at festive gatherings was ‘a charming fashion that is beginning to be more common,’” Guy wrote.

Yet the process of making fine sparkling wine remained tedious and the bottles pricey until the 1890s, when the charmat method, which allows for secondary fermentation in a large tank before bottling, was introduced. And we still don’t have a specific connection with New Year’s Eve.

That doesn’t come about until Cafe Martin opens in New York. In 1903 the place was wildly popular with the gilded age glitterati. It’s owners advertised a cellar stocked with 69 different sparkling wines. And they began urging guests to pop the cork on New Year’s.

Most who study such things tag Cafe Martin as the first restaurant to go to a sparkling-only policy after 9pm on the big night.

“There’s a small ceremony involved,” Eggleston says. “There’s an innate luxury to sparkling wine. It enhances the experience.”

Still, it remains an unwritten and largely unenforceable rule. It’s just fine to call for something else as midnight approaches. But Eggleston advises people to remember that it’s an occasion.

“Reach one shelf up from the usual,” he says.

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