Blame the French for Champagne’s coupe emoji
The first wine book I ever purchased, back in the 1960s, was from a second-hand shop. It was a seminal work that deserves a place in every wine lover’s library: George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-Book.
Written in 1920 by this scholarly English journalist who spent 20 years as Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, it’s a classic of wine connoisseurship.
When I moved from a house into a condo in 2008, I donated some 600 volumes on wine to wine schools but I kept this one and several others from which I could not bear to be parted. (Most wine books don’t get better with age but Notes on a Cellar-Book speaks eloquently to an era when wine lovers laid down cellars and waited patiently for their Clarets and Burgundies to mature while they sipped on old Madeira, Vintage Port and Sherry.)
The second wine book I bought — and I still have it — is Patrick Forbes’ Champagne: The wine, the land and the people, still the best book on the subject even though it was published in 1967 and there have been dozens of books devoted to the subject since then.
Which brings me to the ongoing debate as to what to serve the stuff in.
The French have to take some blame for legitimizing the coupe as the emoji for Champagne; because the cover of the first edition of Forbes’ book bears a colour photo of a piece of Sèvres porcelain, moulded, legend has it, from Marie-Antoinette’s left breast. As charming as that may be, Champagne tastes better out of clear glass than it does out of a china bra.
While the Marie Antoinette story might be a myth, it did inspire two 21st century beauties to lend their bodies for the purpose of creating a Champagne bowl. In 2008 the house of Dom Pérignon engaged Karl Lagerfeld to create a drinking vessel that was modelled on the German super-model Claudia Schiffer’s chest. And not to be outdone, British top-model Kate Moss memorialized her left breast as a coupe for London’s 34 Restaurant.
In Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, his hero Rubashov is imprisoned in a Russian jail for anti-Soviet activity. A prisoner in an adjoining cell establishes contact with him by tapping on the metal pipes. He is a White Russia officer who has been locked away for many years and is eager to know about the last woman Rubashov made love to. Rubashov, who had been more interested in the Revolution than women, makes up a fantasy for him. At one point he says that her breasts would have fitted into Champagne glasses. Koestler, I suspect, had in mine the saucer-shaped glass and not today’s more fashionable receptacle for Champagne, the elongated flute.
But the Champagne producers, usually a very conservative lot, have turned their noses up at both the coupe and the flute in favour of a shape quite similar to a white wine glass (the better to savour the bouquet, they say). However, some sparkling wine enthusiasts with retro tendencies are scouring thrift shops in search of those mini bird baths that are possibly the worst glasses from which to consume Champagne. (You can’t enjoy the sight of the ascending bubbles; the wine warms up too quickly because of the shallow design and owing to the large circumference, you tend to take in too much wine, creating — horror of horrors — backwash.)
The flute, on the other hand, forces your mouth into the shape of a kiss, narrowly channelling the wine down the centre of the palate, avoiding the edges of the tongue where the taste buds experience acidity.
Come to think of it, I should re-read Notes on a Cellar-Book and see what George Saintsbury, the master, has to say on the subject of Champagne glasses.