The seasoned collector of 18th century Georgian champagne glasses may be pleasantly surprised at the number of period champagne glasses which survive to the present day. There is one simple reason for this – given the relative scarcity of the sparkling wine with which they were intended to be used, they were less frequently employed than other wine or ale glasses, and consequently less prone to breakage or other ill fortune.
The development of sparkling champagne – wines from the French region of the same name – is often attributed to Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, who’s name went on to become synonymous with the wine. The majority of his work, however, was actually undertaken with the remit of reducing the effervescence which was seen as a fault in the production of the still wines for which the area was already famous. It was the British who actually developed a taste for sparkling wines, and the Gloucestershire physician and scientist Christopher Merrett was the first to formulate and formalise the addition of sugar to fermented wine. This process induced a secondary fermentation (which was exactly what Dom Pérignon was looking to avoid) and thus prompted the development of champagnes.
With the drink itself now in purposeful production, the first purpose-made champagne glasses began to appear during the 18th century. Initially taking the design of the classic flute style like an ale glass. In common with other stemware 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 wine within, ensuring that it was enjoyed as close to the supposedly ideal temperature at which it had been served as was possible.
A champagne flute is also designed to minimise the surface area of liquid in contact with air, thus reducing the rate of dissipation of carbon dioxide in solution. From the aesthetic point of view, a tall, slender glass also provided better appreciation of the bubbles themselves, so the glasses were a real fusion of form and function.
Georgian drinking glasses had for some time featured both ale and ratafia receptacles of a similar nature to these fluted pieces, and, when deliberately produced for the increasingly popular sparkling wine during the second half of the 18th century, they were readily adopted by the drinking cognoscenti. Decoration of such glasses was minimal; long slice cuts to bowls in order to accentuate the elongated profile, with occasionally “twists” and facet cuts to examples with longer stems. As the quality and appearance of the champagne itself was considered an important commodity, bowls were generally plain so that it could be more readily appreciated.
With pretension being of 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 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 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 scurrilous and entirely unfounded myth. Georgian coupes tended to be somewhat sturdier by comparison to their modern counterparts, so much so that distinction must be drawn between them and contemporary sweetmeat serving glasses. 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.
There was also a final evolutionary step 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. 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.