Just before midnight on the eve of 2018, I will for the 9th year in a row at Londolozi, pour 100 glasses of South Africa’s finest Méthode Cap Classique for our guests to celebrate with as the clock strikes 12. Ensuring that these 100 glasses are all poured timeously and that they are perfectly chilled has become a ritual of sorts; a way to wash away the old year and provide focus for the New. Pondering on this task ahead got me wondering – why do we celebrate the New Year with Champagne?
The story starts approximately 1,500 years ago, towards the end of the fifth century, when Clovis I became the first king of the Franks, uniting all Frankish tribes under one rule. Essentially he became the first king of what would become France. During his quest to become this great ruler, he promised his wife Clotilde that if victorious in his quest, he would become a Christian. Upon his victory, he was baptized in Reims, the unofficial capital of the Champagne region in France. The event was an elaborate affair and for many centuries, French kings continued to be crowned in Reims, and so Reims became known for royal celebrations where the regions finest wines were served.
Towards the end of the 1600’s, Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, became the new cellar master at Hauvilliers in Epernay. Whilst we now know that it is a myth that he actually created the first sparkling wine – sparkling wine was already readily available in the area – he can nevertheless be credited with producing the first white wine from red grapes, using corks to seal wine bottles, and finding a way to secure corks in sparkling wine bottles as the pressure built up. He also ensured that Champagne became known as a primary producer in the sparkling wine market. So much so, that by the beginning of the 18th century, Champagne had become the drink of choice for French royalty, and King Louis XV created laws as to what was permitted to be called Champagne and how it could be sold. With King Louis XV’s endorsement of Champagne and continuous improvements in the quality thereof, in 1790 Champagne was the only wine used to celebrate the end of the French Revolution. Thereafter it became the drink of choice for signing major treaties, landmark celebrations, royal weddings and any other noteworthy celebration.
It was only in the 1800’s that staying up till midnight to see in the New Year became a popular tradition, and as we are now aware, Champagne was a large component of celebrations by this era. By the end of the 19th century, Champagne was served at most New Year’s parties and Champagne sales skyrocketed from 6 million bottles a year in the 1850’s to 28 million bottles by the start of the 20th century.
In the 1930’s, Champagne as the New Year’s drink of choice was further cemented, when a restaurant in New York, Café Martin, run by two French brothers, offered a dinner menu of $1.50 with a selection of 69 different Champagnes. Café Martin became the first “Champagne Only” restaurant for New Year’s, and when this rule was implemented, the restaurant was one of the trendiest places to be in New York, so people wanting to be seen there were more than happy to only drink Champagne. The staff were also encouraged to promote Champagne as they would earn a bonus for each bottle they opened and cork they kept.
So tonight, after those 100 glasses have been poured, I will raise a glass as many have done throughout the years, and will continue to do for the unforeseeable future, and celebrate the arrival of the New Year.