Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ring in the New Year “Drinking the Stars”

Next Monday is New Year’s Eve.  It’s a time to look back fondly over the past year, and anticipate the coming of the new.  And what better way to mark the celebration than with the pop of the cork and a cascade of bubbles – a glass of Champagne in hand.

But why do we choose this bubbly wine for our special moments?  It seems that drinking Champagne at celebrations began in the royal courts of Europe during the late 18th Century.  Champagne has always been viewed as a drink of the rich, a luxury, a status symbol.

In 987, when Hugh Capet was crowned King of France, he had the local wine served at the coronation banquets. This wine, made from Pinot Noir, was a pale pink without bubbles. But it began a local tradition of serving the Champagne region’s wines for celebrations. 

During the mid-17th century, Charles de Saint Evremond decreed to serve only the wines of the Champagne region at his London parties and banquets.  His taste influenced some of the most fashionable men of London.  Soon, Champagne was being ordered from France and shipped throughout England.  It was during the shipping, that the wine could restart the fermentation process. If it did, when the wine was opened, it was bubbly.  The English loved it, and began seeking out those “sparkling Champagnes.”  But the French winemakers were at a loss on how to control the process of making the wine sparkle.

In 1715, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, enjoyed a sparkling version of Champagne nightly. Paris’s fashionable society followed the Duke’s example and sought out the bubbly version of the wine, making it a favorite among the French nobility.  It was during the 18th century that Champagne houses began to dominate over the vineyard owners.  The houses of Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger and Moet & Chandon were founded during this time, creating a new type of business.  But at the end of the 18th century, over 90% of the Champagne region’s wine production was still the non-sparkling wines.

Although Dom Perignon is usually credited with the invention of sparkling Champagne, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that the methode champenoise, the traditional method of making Champagne, involving riddling, was used reliably.

It was also during this time that the sweetness level of the wine could be selected. Champagne went from doux or sweet, to demi-sec or half dry, to sec or dry.  Extra sec or extra dry described a wine with even less sugar, and brute or extra brute was made without sugar. Extra dry is now the style that the majority of Champagne is made in.

Then during the 1860’s, the Great French Wine Blight occurred. Caused by an aphid from North America, the phylloxera epidemic ravaged vineyards throughout France. Over 40% of grape vines were destroyed in a 15-year period, from the late 1850’s to the mid 1870’s.  Only after grafting the French vines with the aphid-resistant American grape vines, was the devastation stopped.

With the Twentieth Century came more misfortune, and could have brought about the demise of Champagne. Two world wars almost destroyed Champagne production; vineyards were devastated by war. The Russian Revolution, Prohibition, and the Great Depression closed two of the most lucrative markets for Champagne sales in the world.  But since 1950, sales of Champagne have risen steadily. 

Today, over 250 million bottles of Champagne are produced in France each year.  The British alone enjoy over 30 million bottles of Champagne – more than anyone else in the world.

Champagne is, indeed, a celebratory wine.  It is used to commemorate everything, from the launch of a ship, to the joining of two lives in marriage.  We use it to celebrate life events, religious occasions, and joyous celebrations.  Champagne not only imparts a feeling of joyousness and wonder to an occasion, it’s also a symbol of our approval and admiration for what we are celebrating.

So this New Year’s Eve, when you raise that glass of dancing bubbles to toast the New Year, remember the words of the Wine Avenger, Willie Gluckstern;

“In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening.”

Hmmm…..What an enjoyable resolution for 2013!

A safe and Happy New Year to you and yours!

~ Joy

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A History of Traditional Holiday Drinks

This Friday will usher in the longest night of the year, what is known as the Winter Solstice.  This is when the sun appears at its lowest altitude above the earth in the Northern Hemisphere, usually on December 21st or 22nd.  This is also the first day of winter.

Since ancient times, the winter solstice was viewed as last chance to feast and celebrate before the long, cold winter months took hold.  During those dark days, it was a struggle to find enough to eat, a place to stay warm, a way just to survive until the warm winds of spring brought a rebirth of life.


 With the shorter days, began the final feasts and celebrations.  This was the time when wines, made during the year, were ready to drink. They were offered up with toasts and cheers for a better year ahead.

The Winter Solstice is still associated with special cold weather holidays and festivals that revolve around gatherings and celebrations.  These include Christmas, Hanukkah, Hogmanay, St. Lucia Day, Ziemassvētkiand, and Yule.  And each holiday, and region, offers its own preferred celebrational beverage for keeping the grip of cold weather, and low spirits at bay.


In Scandinavia, the Yule is celebrated from December 21st into January.  The Yule log may be set on fire on the 21st and can burn for up to two weeks.  The Norse believed that each spark of the Yule log represented a new calf or pig that would be born during the coming year – adding prosperity to the community, and a reason to celebrate.


While contemplating the Yule log, Scandinavians sipped Aquavit.  This 15th century drink is distilled from grain or potatoes, and flavored with caraway or dill.  It is thought to aid in the digestion of rich holiday foods.


In Southern England, wassail is the main drink of choice.  Wassail (meaning good health) is a mulled cider made from apples, with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg added, and served hot.  The tradition of wassailing involves singing and drinking to the health of the apple trees to ensure a good apple crop the next year.


In Germany, a mulled wine from the 1400’s, known as gluhwein, is popular around the holidays.  Gluhwein means glow wine.  Mulled wine is usually made with red wine that has spices such as cinnamon, cloves, anise added, along with sugar, and should be served hot.


Swedish/Danish glogg is another winter drink made from red wine. Sugar is added along with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and bitter orange. The spices are allowed to steep in the wine in order to intensify the flavors.  Then the wine is reheated when served.

In Scotland, they enjoy a Hot Toddy during the Winter Solstice. Whiskey, boiling water, and sugar or honey are mixed with cinnamon, cloves, or lemon to make the drink. It was once thought that the hot drink and spices helped relieve the symptoms of a cold or flu.  Regardless, they feel that a hot toddy can raise your spirits, and make the cold weather easier to bear.

In the U.S., colonists celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Twelfth Night with Hot Buttered Rum.  Rum was one of the cheapest liquors available in the colonies.  With a molasses flavor that could be enhanced with butter and spices, hot buttered rum became the drink of choice during the cold, snowy winter months and continues to be a cold weather favorite.

The British once enjoyed a hot drink of milk curdled with wine, known as a posset.  A drink from Medieval times, it was usually spiced with ginger and anise. Once cooled, the curds were gathered and the whey discarded before adding the spices and more wine.  The drink fell out of favor during the 19th century.

A mostly forgotten American drink is known as the Tom and Jerry.  This drink was created by British journalist, Pierce Egar during the 1820’s.  Egar publicized the drink as a way to boost sales of his book, Life in London: Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom.  It is a variation of eggnog made with brandy or rum, flavored with vanilla, and served in a bowl. During the mid-twentieth century, special Tom and Jerry bowls and cups were used.  Tom and Jerry is a very regional drink, made mainly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Midwest.

And what would the holidays be without a cup of Eggnog?  Crafted from milk, cream, sugar, and whipped eggs, liquor, such as brandy, rum or bourbon, is added and nutmeg sprinkled on top.  Served cold and topped with whipped cream, eggnog is the quintessential holiday drink.  At one time, in England, eggnog was reserved for the well to do, for they were the only ones who could afford dairy products. In America, where cows were plentiful, eggnog was a common holiday celebration drink, dating back to the late 18th century.

So Friday evening, build a fire and gather your friends together to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Pour a traditional drink and toast to the longest night of the year. Celebrate the season - and Enjoy!

~ Joy