Champagne is traditionally popped at midnight on New Year's Eve by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Tonight, as we ring out 2020, there may be many more of those bottles opened at home than at crowded, festive parties at restaurants and bars, but no doubt there will be many who want to celebrate the end of this challenging year.
But where did this tradition start? It is a fascinating history, from Rome of 100 BC to Reims of the 1600s, from the Champagne region in the 1700s to Cafe Martin in Manhattan in the early 1900s.
Most people do not know that this tradition is believed to have originated in the BC times, when pre-religious or pagan ceremonies celebrated the passing of the winter solstice with festivity and alcoholic drinks, although not champagne. It was around the same time that Julius Caesar created the Roman calendar with January at the start of the year, so that the solstice, drinking and the start of a new year all happened at the same time.
The introduction of Champagne to this tradition evolved from French coronation ceremonies and the association of Champagne with royalty and nobility. In the late 400s, King Clovis united France, and in a promise to his wife, became a Christian. He was baptized on Christmas Day in 496, in Reims, in the heart of Champagne, and wines from the region were used as part of the coronation. From then on, French Kings became anointed in Reims, with wines from Champagne traditionally served- but again, not yet the champagne we drink today.
It wasn't actually until the 1600s that the sparkling wine with some sugar we now know as Champagne evolved in France and also, believe it or not, in the UK. French Benedictine monk Dom Perignon helped improve and popularize the technique in the early 1700s. The oldest still active producer Ruinart was founded in 1729, with Taittinger, Moet & Chandon (and Dom Perignon), Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roderer, Heidsieck & Co and Piper-Heidsieck all founded in the mid to late 1700s.
By the 1800's in Europe and in the US, champagne as we know it was more common but still not a true celebratory tradition. Many sources focus on the rise of champagne and sparkling wine in the US from 1850 to 1900, when consumption rose fourfold. Mashed Magazine suggests that by the end of the 1800s, champagne was commonly served at parties and celebrations. The first real documentation of this is from the early 1900s in New York City, where Cafe Martin became known for it's champagne menu, originally featuring 60 champagnes and later featuring hundreds. It is said that at that time, restaurants would post signs as "champagne only" after 9pm for New Year's eve. and it was around the same time in 1904, that the Times Square NYE celebration began just one mile north on Broadway, with the famous Ball drop beginning from 1907
It wasn't until 1937 that Champagne became a designated AOC. Imbibe Magazine suggests that it was in the same year that Cafe Martin is credited as the first place to promote a high end New Year's Eve party. We don't truly know if Cafe Martin is the direct link between NYE, Times Square, and Champagne celebrations. But it is nice to believe that this particular New Year's Eve party celebrated the Champagne AOC designation, and continued the ancient traditions of celebrating the end of the year, as well as the beginning of new governments, both royal and now democratic.