The Tradition of Champagne and Weddings
There are lots of traditions associated with weddings, but toasting of the bride and the groom with Champagne is one of the most historic traditions that we honor. Champagne is truly the wine of celebration. It has launched thousands of ships, toasted billions of weddings, brightened countless parties, and graced untold special moments between two people.
And just in case you are wondering where the phrase "toast" comes from, it comes from an ancient practice in the 6th Century. The Romans and Greeks would literally float a piece of burnt toast on top of the wine. The reason for this was that the toast took away some of the wine’s acridity. In early history wine was made and stored in animal skins, as well as many other things, so it was not nearly as good as it is today. This tradition involved offering the toast to the gods by standing up and extending the drink toward the sky while saying a prayer. This is much like today's wedding toast tradition, wherein the toaster stands up and extends his drink for the "cheers" after the toast. In medieval France, the custom was embraced with the use of a toasting cup called a “Coupe de Marriage” a two handled cup that the couple shared. Today the French still put a small piece of toast into the couple’s wine to ensure a healthy life.
Throughout the ages, wine has been used for celebration. Often, and among many people, wine has signified life, vitality, love, and a life of plenty. Drinking wine from a common cup has been the intimate mark of deep sharing. It is also in remembrance of Jesus turning the water into Wine as his first miracle at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. The feeding of the wedding cake and the wine toast is a part of our religious tradition. It is a derivation of the Wedding Eucharist nuptial wherein a part of a ceremony is their giving each other a sip from the Cup of Love and to eat from the Bread of Life and Health.
The French added another adaptation for the use of Champagne at weddings during the era of Napoleon. This involved the "beheading" a bottle of champagne with a saber specially-made for the occasion. Begun as a means of showing off their skill on horseback, the Hussards under Napoleon's command celebrated their victories by sabering off the top of a bottle of champagne. As legend has it, these skilled horsemen would ride on horseback at a full gallop while brave (or foolhardy!) ladies would hold up the bottles. With over 100 lbs. of pressure per square inch in a bottle of champagne, the saber must strike the neck at exactly the right angle. The practice spread throughout France as a way to celebrate special occasions such as weddings. Sabering is not recommended. In the hands of an amateur it leads to broken bottles, glass on the floor, possible accidents to those standing by, bloody fingers, and not the least wasted Champagne.
So what is Champagne? Champagne is the name of a region in France. The history of the sparkling wine called Champagne dates back to the middle Ages. While it is a popular legend that the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon invented the technique to make sparkling wine, its origins actually predate his birth by 100 years. The oldest recorded example of sparkling wine to come from the Champagne region was indeed made by a monk. Called Blanquette de Limoux, the original bubbly was made in 1531 in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire. The signature effervescence of sparkling wine is created by a second fermentation period which is generally aided by the addition of small amounts of yeast and sugar and placed back in the same bottle.
When Dom Pérignon, born in 1638, was granted the post of cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, he declared it his intent to make the best wine in the world, and under his innovative leadership, the vineyards at the Abbey flourished. One of Pérignon's most important inventions was the wire cage which to this day surrounds all Champagne corks. Before that novel idea, bottles of Champagne were prone to have corks unexpectedly explode. Champagne equals luxury, which is part of what makes it such a special part of an important occassion like a wedding. In general, couples will serve the best Champagne they can afford to their guests, perhaps a mid-range non-vintage. It is a nice splurge if the bride and groom also select a prestige cuvée to share with one another.
As popular as Champagne is for wedding celebrations, the cost of serving Champagne from France to 100 wedding guests can be prohibitive. Fortunately there are many popular alternative sparkling wines which can serve as festive, budget-friendly toasting drinks. California offers many varieties in a wide range of prices. In addition, many other regions of the world produce sparkling wines. The prices of these effervescent wines can be quite reasonable, often $20 or less. Prosecco, a dry Italian sparkling wine, has become quite popular as an alternative to Champagne. From Spain come cavas, which is another sparkling wine. Perhaps best known to American consumers is the brand Freixenet, it would be an option for a budget-friendly sparkling wine for weddings, as it starts at around $17 per bottle.
Speaking of serving Champagne, it is best done in classic tall slender flutes which are specially designed to enhance the sparkling wine. In addition to looking elegant, the long stems of Champagne flutes keep the holder's hand away from the beverage, allowing it to remain icy cold. The other commonly used style of stemware for sparkling wine is the saucer glass, which has an open shaped bowl. Though once popular, the saucer glass has fallen from favor for serving Champagne because it makes the sparkling wine go flat more quickly. Besides, the wide bowl makes for more spills, and who wants to lose even a drop of the precious wine?
There is no doubt that a wedding celebration simply would not be the same without everyone raising a glass of Champagne to toast the newlyweds. Whether it is reserved for a special toast or flows freely all night long, Champagne is an integral part of a wedding reception. From its origins in the abbeys of France, Champagne has become the ultimate symbol of luxury and celebration worldwide. Cheers!