Champagne, but no glasses?

The Regency definitely had champagne. Beau Brummell claimed it was the secret of the high gloss on his boots. It flowed like water at Carlton House. Countless characters in countless novels quaff it at glittering social events. But how did they drink it, when not a single "champagne" glass was made before or during the Regency?

They had lots glasses, of course. The Regency was a very important and innovative period in the history of English glass-making. But it was not until the 1830’s, after the death of the former Regent, King George IV, that the first specially-made "champagne" glass was introduced. And yet, during the Regency, champagne was most commonly sipped from glasses that were much more suitable for the enjoyment of that delicate and festive wine than that later, purpose-designed "champagne" glass.

Champagne as we know it, the pale golden sparkling wine produced in the region of northeastern France from which it takes its name, was developed in the seventeenth century. Sparkling champagne was first introduced into England about 1670, during the reign of King Charles II, by the Chevalier de Saint-Evremond, in exile from the court of Louis XIV. It is said that Louis XIV drank nothing but champagne, once he discovered this elegant libation. Charles II was so pleased with champagne he gave the Chevalier a pension of £300 a year. In his typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, King Charles justified this expense by appointing Saint-Evremond Governor of Duck Island in St. James Park.

Because champagne was a sparkling wine, that is, it had bubbles, from the time of its introduction into England, it was most commonly served in the same type of glasses as those used for ales and wine-quality ciders. Those early ales were not at all like the frothy, thin concoctions we know today. They were strong, heady brews which were commonly served at meals from decanters, in small-capacity glasses. Ciders were also high in alcohol content at this time and were also served in small glasses. Occasionally, these glasses were fashioned of silver, but most were made of glass.

The glass type used for all of these beverages was called a flute. However, these flutes were not quite the same shape as the modern-day champagne flute. They tended to be shorter, and the bowl, though narrow in relation to the height, was of a conical or round-funnel shape. They did have a stem, though it was shorter and thicker than those of today. Around 1800, the stem was often decorated with a bladed knop at the center point, having a flat, circular foot. By 1810, the stem was much shorter, usually smooth, terminating in a square foot. Some flute glasses at this time are known to have had a polygonal foot.

By the first few years of the nineteenth century, the bowls of flutes might be decorated with cut or molded fluting patterns. As the century progressed, they might also be engraved. Typically, glasses of this type meant for ales would often be engraved with images of barley and hops. Those intended for ciders would be engraved with apple motifs. Infrequently, the bowls of some flutes have been found engraved with vines, which suggested they were intended for use with wine. But there were no definitive designs engraved on any flutes which would indicate they were specifically destined to be used for champagne.

Even more telling than the lack of unique ornamentation, was the fact that at no time, from the introduction of champagne to London society in the 1670’s, into the reign of King William IV, has any reference been found in any diaries, letters, newspaper advertisements or glass merchants’ catalogues or inventories of "champagne" glasses. In fact, the first reference to a "champagne" glass was in a March 1832 letter which Disraeli wrote to his sister. He told her of how, at a dinner party at the Bulwer’s, the guests had been served champagne in " … a saucer of ground glass mounted upon a pedestal of cut glass."

The champagne glass described by Disraeli is what we know today as the champagne coupe. It is a complete myth that the bowl of the glass was made in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breast. This style of champagne glass was designed almost forty years after the passing of the French Queen. The champagne coupe was the most commonly-used type of champagne glass well into the twentieth century, until the modern champagne flute was introduced. The wide, shallow bowl of the coupe is the least suitable style of glass in which to serve champagne, since it allows the rapid dispersal of carbon dioxide, which is the source of the bubbles. Champagne will go flat much more quickly in a coupe than it will in a flute. So, even though there was not a designated "champagne" glass type available during the Regency, through those years the delicate wine was most often imbibed from a glass with a shape well suited to its special properties.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to Champagne, but no glasses?

  1. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    Just read this. Recently I was told that champagne would be rare in the Regency. I have this throughout Beggars Can’t Be Choosier. So I think this might be of interest to others who like the Regency or read our latest book.

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