England's key role in the champagne saga

8/5/2005 2:13:01 AM

CHAMPAGNE was said to have been invented on this day in 1693 by a Benedictine monk called Dom Pierre Perignon.

But you can thank English tipplers for actually prompting its development.

Back in the 17th century, the winemakers of Epernay and the Champagne region produced a whole range of speciality wines.

These were exported in barrels and bottled on arrival at their destination. In England, a grey wine that was often found to be sparkling, became very popular.

The bubbles were caused because the young "vins gris" went through a second fermentation during travel. Experts back home in France were intrigued and began to try to produce it by design rather than accident.

And that is what happened 312 years ago when Dom Perignan - whose name is now synonymous with the delightful drink - supposedly produced the first batch successfully.

Cheers, Dom.

The Champagne area has attracted bon viveurs and celebrities ever since. My wife Maria and I even visited Epernay, back in the 1960s. We were with Jenny and Gerry and driving down to the South of France and camped on the outskirts of the town to sample a bottle or three.

As a cultural experience, this was memorable for the wrong reasons. Like the wineshop owner who saw us coming and offloaded a batch of red to his unsuspecting English customers that should have been used for commercial purposes only. Perhaps he didn't understand our French?

"Good afternoon. Could we have six bottles of your finest paint stripper, please?"

Or, "Hello, pleasant and friendly French wineshop keeper. Could you supply us with something appropriate for sprinkling on our fish and chips?"

As a consequence, I faced the ultimate challenge: finding the way to the lavatories at dead of moonless rain-swept night across a field of guy ropes with a severely delicate stomach. This, I discovered, is best attempted sober. Except that had I been sober, I wouldn't have needed to.

Then there is the journey back, an even greater challenge which few people rarely consider.

To arrive at the ablutions block all you have to do is keep stumbling forward until you hit concrete. But getting back? When all tents look alike? I'm still not sure whom I cuddled up to that night.

I have since drunk champagne only occasionally, but only because I can't afford it on a regular basis. It really is a delightful drink and to be without it is unthinkable.

How would we toast brides at weddings? In brown ale?

And I doubt if Grand Prix winners would find it quite as exhilarating to spray each other with a magnum of fizzy Tizer?

Indeed, would we have won the war without it?

Winston Churchill reputedly had a pint of champagne every morning at 11am. He had pint-sized bottles specially produced for him. Usual sizes are 75 centilitre, Magnum (1.5 litres), Jeroboam (3 litres), Rehoboam (4.5 litres), Methuselah (6 litres), Salmanazar (9 litres), Balthazar (12 litres) and Nebuchadnezzar (15 litres).

Strange names, you may think, even for the French. What do they mean? Listen carefully, I shall tell you:

Nebuchadnezzar (King of Babylon, 605-562 BC); Balthazar (Regent of Babylon, son of Nabonide, 539BC); Salmanazar (King of Assyria, 859-824 BC); Methuselah (Biblical patriarch who lived to the age of 969 so it didn't do him any harm); Rehoboam, son of Solomon (King of Judah, 922-908 BC); and Jeroboam (Founder and first king of Israel, 931-910 BC).

And Magnum?

He was a television detective in the 1980s.