RENDERED 14: Champagne
Considering luxury, desire, and pleasure
Welcome back to RENDERED. Enjoy the essay, and stay tuned till the end for a special announcement!
It's Valentine's Day--a holiday that invokes images of love and romance, pleasure... and scorn. (I can't say Valentine's Day, as we know it today, isn't corny as hell.) It's a holiday that cultivates desire, both for affection, and to consume food/drink to celebrate. Restaurants are booked up, offering special Valentine's menus to a public that's out looking for inducement of seduction--or, the cultivation of desire.
The food and drink that come to mind with "Valentine's Day" include chocolate, strawberries, Champagne, oysters... they connote luxury, indulgence. There's a fine line between indulgence and sensuality--even the words themselves are aphrodisiacal.
This month, I've been thinking about desire as hunger, indulgence as sensual pleasure, and consumption as possessive. What better to bring this all together, than Champagne? This month, I'm looking at the history of sparkling wine, its association with luxury, and how it all ties back to pleasure.
Grapes are a highly symbolic and celebrated food (which I will certainly explore in more depth some day). There are many thousands of varieties of grape, indigenous to lands from North America to Asia. But it is Vitis vinifera that is the granddaddy of them all--native to Eurasia (from modern-day Turkey to Afghanistan), V. vinifera encompasses most varieties of grapes that are used for wine, for raisins, and to eat as-is. Larger, sweeter grapes make the best table grapes; smaller, more acidic grapes are perfect for fermentation. (The acid helps keep yeast production in check during the fermentation process.)
The earliest archaeological evidence of wine is the dregs in a clay pot from western Iran, from around 6000 BCE. Trade spread grape wine throughout western Asia and Egypt and beyond. The beverage was aged and stored very successfully in clay amphoras. The Romans began using lighter, sturdier wooden casks--an idea they got from their neighbors to the north. This meant you could transport it further, but the drawback was you couldn't properly age it--the casks were not airtight, so within a few years the drink would oxidize and became unsuitable to drink.
There is some debate between the English and French about who really discovered the sparkling texture. It was English wine traders who began bottling the Champagne wine from the casks before the fermentation was complete. This left the drink to finish fermenting in an airtight container, causing pressure to build up. Thus, the satisfying POP when the cork is released: when the liquid is exposed to air, the carbon dioxide contained under pressure has somewhere to go: the bubbles form, then burst on your tongue, leaving behind the carbonic acid that tickles with its crisp aftertaste.
Back to the region of Champagne, east of Paris: Hautvillers Abbey. There lived Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. Maybe you've heard of him? Around 1668, the cellar master found a way to consistently create sparkling wine, and his name has come to be associated with a powerful cultural symbol of luxury and indulgence.
What exactly is St. Valentine's Day? The calendar of saints, or saint's days, is dedicated to Christian martyrs--for each day of the year, there is a corresponding saint who is memorialized. (February 14th is St. Valentine's Day, March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, etc.) It's said that the origin of St. Valentine's Day came way before the man: February 13th-15th was the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, an event celebrating/encouraging fertility. Lupus may refer to the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Lupercus was also an ancient fertility god, aka. Faunus or Pan. Lupercalia commenced with priests, Luperci, who sacrificed goats and a dog, then used the hides to whip young women to encourage fertility. Young women were supposedly paired off with young men via lottery for the duration of the festival, or even longer. Needless to say, the Church didn't dig it (Those damned sexy, superstitious Pagans!), and in 494CE, the festival was banned.
As for St. Valentine himself: Emperor Claudius II may have actually executed multiple guys named Valentine on February 14th of different years (around the year 270CE). In one case, the Emperor had banned young male soldiers from marrying, to ensure their devotion to defending the State. As one story goes, a priest named Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret, in defiance of the Emperor's orders--for this, he was put to death. Another story says that Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians escape from prison--he fell in love with his jailor's daughter, and sent her a love note signed "From your Valentine." Both or neither of these stories may be true.
The first record of St. Valentine's day as a lover's holiday was by Geoffrey Chaucer, in a 1375 poem called "Parliament of Foules." Between the 3rd century and 14th century, there was plenty of time for oral tradition and dubious scribework to evolve the story of the martyred Valentine, into becoming the patron saint of lovers. Since the 1400's in Europe, people have exchanged love notes and small gifts as tokens of their affection.
Of course, you have foods considered aphrodisiacal, often for their anatomical aesthetic (eg. oysters, artichokes, you get the picture), or the symbolic connotations behind the desire to consume them. I wrote on this idea one year ago today, from an Italian Futurist feminist perspective in my essay about strawberry breasts. Aphrodisiacs are mostly hooey, as I noted in my first narrated essay on Spanish Fly.
The name "Champagne" spread, at first to refer specifically to the sparkling wine from the Champagne region. Later, there was much contention and polemic when the name started spreading to refer to other products in the 19th century: American, Spanish, South African, Australian champagnes were floating around the market (not all of them sparkling wine), and French Champagne houses weren't happy about it. They came after those foreign manufacturers in court to secure exclusive rights to the name for their product, and were successful. Others were not. Spanish sherry manufacturers, for example, didn't act swiftly enough to hold onto the rights to the name "sherry." By the time winemakers went to court against a "British sherry" manufacturer, the name had been in use for so long, that it had become generalized and was no longer associated with a specific origin (Jerez, Spain), but had become a general name for this type of wine.
Since 1936, "Champagne" is an AOC--Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée--which means there are strict rules that govern every aspect of its production: soil, pruning, harvest, processing, storage... Not just anyone can use the term on their labels--unless it is certified AOC Champagne, then it is sparkling wine. Moët & Chandon brand Champagne produces the famous Dom Pérignon.
Champagne is actively pursuing improvements in sustainability: reusing all byproducts, zero herbicides by 2025, etc. The goal is to practice viticulture with respect to the environment: waterways, terroir, landscapes, air, biodiversity. A quote from the Comité Champagne website reads: "For an AOC as reputed as Champagne, terroir is a priceless heritage that must be protected for future generations. Its preservation is vital to the continued success of the Champagne industry and the maintenance of brand authenticity."
I read this, and can't help but think: Could you imagine if all agricultural systems were approached with this same level of care, attention, and long-term sustainable vision? Not in the name of brand authenticity or prestige, but in the simpler ways we nourish ourselves.
Of course, we don't need luxuries like Champagne. Our need would be met by water, by juice, by any bubbly drink, before Champagne. But to go that extra step toward luxury: with the higher price comes purely aesthetic pleasure, more "specialness."
Part of life is the collection of stories: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. For a story worth remembering and retelling, there is some aspect of novelty about it. "Foreignness" is what I'm calling anything outside of one's "ordinary."
Exooooticness, dahling. Speaking a foreign name sets the scene, and tasting it will certainly invoke a new experience. And in consuming it, you own it. Not the item itself, but the memory of the experience--you have consumed and possessed it, and because it is new, it has transformed you. (Sounds pretty magical to me!)
Even here in France, you tell your friends you've got a bottle of Champagne to open, and there are rustles of excitement. One word, its name, promises an imminent special experience. Professor Anat Keinan refers to these as "collectible experiences." It's satisfying, a promise for an emotional happy ending.
And there are many hoping for special experiences and happy endings, especially on Valentine's Day.
There is an excitement about celebration, as incitement to indulge. And touching on one carnal need may inspire desire to satisfy another.
So, no matter where you stand on the whole "Valentine's Day" thing: here's to the inducement of pleasure--no matter what form it takes.
Thank you for reading. And now: I'm pleased to announce that I have opened an online store on Etsy! The original champagne glass illustration featured here is available for sale, as well as a few other items. Listings are few for the moment, but check back in periodically as my store grows! (We've all got to start somewhere, haven't we?)
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