Champagne – its growth in popularity from humble beginnings, and the glasses from which it has been enjoyed for 350 years

The astute and knowledgeable collector of antique stemware is unlikely to be surprised by what may seem – to the casual observer – to be a contradiction in terms. Champagne glasses from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras were without doubt reserved for what was deemed to be the deliberately elitist pursuit of champagne consumption, but far from making the relevant glasseware a rarity, examples are surprisingly plentiful. This is due in no small part to the simple expedient that they were used far less frequently on a day to day basis that the more run of the mill ale and wine glasses, of whatever denomination, so cherished by the chattering classes and, therefore, far more prone to suffer breakage, misappropriation or other ill-fortune. The rare occasions on which champagne was available ensured that the glasses appointed for its consumption were used sparingly, and therefore proved to be surprisingly durable.
There is another oddity with regard to champagne, in that although it has an undoubtedly French provenance, it can equally said to owe its roots to intervention from this side of the Channel. The development of a genuine sparkling wine rightfully bearing the name of the Champagne region is often attributed to Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, whose name went on to rather erroneously become synonymous with the product. The majority of his work, however, was actually undertaken under the remit of reducing the wine’s effervescence which, was seen as an unwanted problem during the production of the still white wines for which the area was already famous. It was, in fact, the British who first actually developed a preference for sparkling wines, and the Gloucestershire physician and 17th century scientist Christopher Merret was the pioneering spirit behind the purposeful formulation and formalisation of the addition of sugar to already-fermented wine in order to induced a controlled secondary fermentation (which was exactly what Dom Pérignon was looking to avoid). Merret’s experimentation was to prove to be the catalyst for the deliberate development of the type of champagnes with which we are now familiar. Merret’s processes went hand in hand with work at Robert Mansell’s glassworks in Newcastle which was able to turn out far stronger glass than was the norm at the time, and thence produce bottles which were sturdy enough to constrain the quite literally explosive nature of double fermented wines. The French lacked this technical knowledge – exploding bottles were symptomatic of the problem that Dom Pérignon sought to resolve.
Early champagnes, however, struggled to gain a foothold in the affections of the English drinking classes during the 18th century. They were already amply catered for with domestic ales and ciders alongside imported wines, and – of course – the perfidy that was gin. In common with other growing predilections for finer glassware and porcelain as the 1700’s progressed – to service the pretentions of the upwardly mobile and newly-affluent entrepreneurs, chancers, movers and shakers of the industrial revolution – a taste for champagne began to be seen as an affectation of these same monied folk, and the arc of its degree of separation from the common man began to grow wider.
By the onset of the Regency period, champagne production was becoming more prevalent to supply this growing customer base, and the first purpose-made champagne glasses began to appear just after the turn of the 18th century. These initially took the form of the classic tall flute style; they had a purpose in common with other stemware in that the intention was that the drinker could hold their glass – by the stem – in such a way that contact with it would not transfer any body heat to the libation within, thus ensuring that it was enjoyed as close to the supposedly ideal temperature at which it had been served as was possible.
In addition a champagne flute was – and  still is – designed to minimise the surface area of liquid exposed to the air, thus reducing the rate of dissipation of its carbon dioxide in solution; in simple terms, this would retain the “fizz” for longer. From the aesthetic point of view, a tall, slender glass also provided better appreciation of the bubbles themselves, so the glasses were a genuine fusion of form and function.
Earlier Georgian and now Regency drinking glasses had for some time featured both ale and ratafia stemware of a similar nature to these fluted pieces, and, when deliberately produced for the increasingly popular sparkling wine during the latter partof the 18th century, they were readily adopted by the champagne-drinking cognoscenti. Decoration of such glasses was minimal; long slice cuts to bowls in order to accentuate the elongated profile, with occasionally wrythen twists and facet cuts to the longer stems of some examples. As the clarity and appearance of the champagne itself was considered to be an important commodity, bowls were generally left plain so that it could be more readily appreciated.
With pretension being of the utmost importance amidst champagne-drinking circles, it was not long before coupes or saucers began to appear – broad, flat-bowled glasses of a shallow profile which were intended to maximise the appreciation of champagne’s novel effervescence. Unfortunately, as the glasses did little other than to more quickly lessen the effect and dissipate the equally sought-after bouquet, they remain regarded to this day as inferior glasses by true connoisseurs of the sparkling potation. All notions of their design being based on Marie Antoinette’s breast are based on nothing more than scurrilous and entirely unfounded myth, put about by historical revisionists who looked to defame the martyred Queen after her death (more on this here).
Georgian coupes tended to be somewhat sturdier than their modern counterparts, so much so that distinction must be drawn between them and their contemporary sweetmeat serving glasses, which at first glance appeared to be very similar. It’s generally the thickness of the glass used for the bowl and contour of its rim which are the distinguishing features, with the drinking glasses being more refined in both instances. The sweetmeats were, naturally, intended to be sturdier than a drinking glass, and also had more substantial stems and feet.
Somewhere between the coupes and the flutes, there were also less numerous types of champagne goblet; more substantial coupes with pedestal or baluster stems and lighter pan top, saucer-top or thistle-bowled variants. The heftier forms were more prevalent, and were again similar to sweetmeat tablewares, with the same distinction as outlined above.
There was one further evolutionary step to follow which has left us with the ultimate champagne connoisseur’s glass of choice – the tulip wine glass. This was, in essence, a less elongated flute with a more bulbous bowl which narrowed towards the rim with a broad waist under a slightly flared extremity. The volume of champagne contained was greater than would normally be the case for the corresponding surface area of a flute, so the bouquet would be intensified while the prolongation of the sparkling property was also enhanced – the fact that it simply held more of the sumptuous draft than other forms of vessel may or may not have been a happy coincidence…
As the Regency period drew to a close, the Victorian propensity for opulent display gathered momentum and champagne production again grew at a not inconsiderable rate.
By the time of Victoria’s accession to the throne, many of the still-current “big names” in the trade were already established, following in the footsteps of Veuve Cliquot who first formalised the methodology and practicalities of large scale production. Bollinger, Krug and Pommery all took their place in the directory of producers, joining the likes of Moet & Chandon, Piper Heidsieck and Taittinger – already extant for decades, albeit on a smaller scale.
This was, of course, simply a case of supply keeping pace with demand, as champagne was by now the “go to” drink of any discerning Victorian socialite, largely due to the fact that it became more and more widely available as transportation across Europe became easier to effect. Its appeal was broadened by somewhat curious means on occasion – it became hugely popular in Russia, for instance, having been shipped there in bulk alongside Napoleon’s Grand Armée on their ill-fated march to Moscow.
Although formerly a drink of almost universal appeal at the time of its initial popularity, there was now a conscious effort by producers to position their product at an ever higher level in the social stratosphere with endorsements by gentlefolk of esteemed standing being commissioned by way of early “celebrity advertising”. By the time that France was fully immersed in La Belle Epoque the drink was irrevocably established as the intoxicant of choice for the upper classes, and its transition from populist tipple was complete.
This repositioning was, of course, reflected in the glasses which were by now very specifically designed for the drink. Having reached its high water mark of popular appeal at a time that the techniques of mass production were beginning to be applied to glassmaking, there were swathes of relatively plain, slice-cut flutes on the market, even before the yet more generic moulded pieces began to appear. However, given the carefully cultivated perception of exclusivity, there is also a rich seam of highly decorated, very finely embelished champagne glasses from the 19th century to be appreciated too.
Naturally, these more decorous pieces tended to be in the coupé style, as the bowl shape was far more conducive to the application of engraved designs which – as was the case across all glass types – was a great favourite of the Victorians given its suitability for the depiction of specific, ornate and very elaborate scenes, as well as being deemed to have an inherently ostentatious comportment. Coloured, flashed, enamelled and heavily cut pieces abound, mirroring the same rush of new techniques – and the refinement of old skills – that are apparent across all Victorian glassware, but even with the advent of mass production, champagne’s position as the pinnacle of desirability remained intact, and remains so to the present day.

site search results for all champagne glasses