War, Revolution and Tsarine: How Russia Shaped Champagne

Champagne Tsarine
Champagne Tsarine / Alamy

The centuries-old relationship between Russia and France spans wars, revolutions and a deep appreciation of Champagne.

The sparkling wine was first popularized in 18th-century imperial Russia during the reign of Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730–40). During her successor, Elizabeth Petrovna’s reign (1741–62), it wasn’t uncommon to serve 1,000 bottles of Champagne at a single event. The bottles of Chanoine Frères, one of the oldest Champagne houses, graced the tables of notables like Czarina Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great.

But it wasn’t until Russians encountered Veuve Clicquot’s Champagne that they fell in love with the wine.

Portrait of Madame Clicquot of Veuve
Portrait of Madame Clicquot of Veuve Clicquot / Getty

Champagne and the Napoleonic Wars

Russian consumption of the sparkling wine outside of nobility took off during the Napoleonic Wars (1800–15), when troops occupied Champagne and pillaged the region’s vineyards.

In the short term, this was devastating for Champagne producers like Veuve Clicquot, helmed by Madame Clicquot at the time. But she was able to turn this inventory loss to her advantage.

Madame Clicquot, pioneer of disgorging, was the first woman to head a Champagne house. Rather than hide her bottles from the invading army, she plied them with it. It was during this time that she was said to have uttered the famous phrase: “Today they drink; tomorrow they will pay.”

But for years, Clicquot kept her 1811 vintage, regarded as the first modern Champagne because it was sediment free. When the Napoleonic Wars were nearly over and her money was nearly gone, Madame Clicquot defied French trade blockades to bring her Champagne to Russia.

In 1814, she loaded the last of her Champagne in secret onto a Russia-bound ship. If the ship was caught, or sank, or the journey ruined the bottles, she would’ve been bankrupt and possibly imprisoned.

Fortunately, none of that happened, and her Champagne arrived in Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad) safely.

Her earlier efforts and sacrifices paid off. The Russians greeted her Champagne’s arrival with great enthusiasm. They remembered her high-quality beverage and lined up to buy her product. Not only was her business saved, it cemented her Champagne as the finest in the world.

Champagne, which for a time was referred to simply as Clicquot, became so popular in Russia that it remained the second-largest consumer of bubbly until the Russian Revolution.

Czar Alexander I even declared that Clicquot’s 1811 vintage, known as “The Year of the Comet,” was all he would drink.

Novy Svet
Novy Svet / Alamy

Russia makes its own sparkling wine

Russian enthusiasm for Champagne was so strong that the country started to produce its own sparkling wine.

Prince Lev Golitsyn (1845–1916) is widely regarded as the founder of the practice, which developed out of his experiments on his estate in Crimea, situated just below Ukraine on the Black Sea.

In 1900, Golitsyn took his wine to the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Also called the Paris Exposition, it was a world’s fair to recognize the achievements of the past century and encourage further innovation. His sparkling wine, made at his estate Novyi Svet, beat the French wines in a blind taste test, which earned Russia the coveted Grand Prix de Champagne.

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The popularity of Champagne with Russian royalty continued to increase during the 19th century.

Louis Roederer shipped many of his finer bottles to Russia.

In 1876, he created Cristal, regarded by many as the first prestige cuvée, at the request of Czar Alexander II. Its name comes from the clear crystal used originally to manufacture the bottles. Due to his paranoia, Alexander II insisted the bottles be clear to prevent bombs being placed in or under them.

Louis Roederer in Reims, France
Louis Roederer in Reims, France / Alamy

The Russian Revolution and Champagne

Russian interest in Champagne was halted abruptly with the Russian Revolution (1917–23), when “decadent” foreign imports were prohibited under Soviet rule.

At Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin’s request, the country began to manufacture its own sparkling wine, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye.

This mass-produced sparkling wine was syrupy sweet and suitable for the proletariat. Though too expensive for everyday consumption, it was an essential element of celebratory events like New Year’s Eve.

Although Sovetskoye Shampanskoye can still be purchased from private manufacturers, few would recommend it. Rather than continue the Soviet approach to create sparkling wine in enormous vats, modern Russian producers are returning to traditional methods either not feasible or forbidden under Stalin.

Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II
Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II / Alamy

Champagne in today’s Russia

Russia continues to produce its own sparkling wine, but it has again become one of the world’s leading importers of Champagne.

Champagne producers understand the importance that Russia has played in the continued popularity of their wine.

In 1996, Maison Chanoine Frères honored the women of the Russian nobility who helped bolster Champagne’s popularity throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment (1685–1815) with a new release, Tsarine.

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Everything about Tsarine, from the curved bottle modeled after the domes of St. Basil’s to the name, are evocative of the period of Russian history.

Despite numerous ups and downs since the 1700s, Russia’s relationship with Champagne remains strong. It buys about 215 million bottles of Champagne every year. Around 53 million of those bottles are consumed during or around New Year’s celebrations.

If history is any indication, Russia and Champagne will enjoy a close relationship far into the future.

Published on February 9, 2021
Topics: Drinks History