Sparkling wine first became popular in imperial Russia in the 18th century, during the reign of Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730-40). Under her successor Elizabeth Petrovna (1741-62), it was not uncommon to serve 1,000 bottles of champagne at a time. Bottles from Canon Frères, one of the oldest champagne houses, graced the tables of such notables as Czarina Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great.
But it wasn’t until the Russians discovered Veuve Clicquot champagne that they fell in love with this wine.
Portrait of Madame Clicquot by Veuve Clicquot / Getty
Champagne and the Napoleonic Wars
Russian consumption of sparkling wine outside the aristocracy began during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-15), when troops occupied the Champagne region and plundered the vineyards.
In the short term, this was disastrous for champagne producers such as Veuve Clicquot, which was then led by Madame Clicquot. But she was able to use this loss of shares to her advantage.
Madame Clicquot, a wardrobe pioneer, was the first woman to head the champagne house. Instead of hiding her bottles from the invading army, she poured some over them. It was at this time that she is said to have uttered the famous phrase “Drink today, pay tomorrow.”
But for years Clicquot retained its champagne of the 1811 vintage, considered the first modern champagne because it contained no sediment. When the Napoleonic wars were almost over and her money was running out, Madame Clicquot defied French trade blockades to bring champagne to Russia.
In 1814, she secretly loaded the last glass of champagne onto a ship bound for Russia. If the ship had been hijacked or sunk, or if the voyage had spoiled the bottles, it would have gone bankrupt and possibly been jailed.
Fortunately, none of this happened and their champagne arrived safely in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad).
Their earlier efforts and sacrifices paid off. The Russians greeted the arrival of their champagne with great enthusiasm. They remembered their high quality drink and lined up to buy their product. This not only saved their business, but also made their champagne the best in the world.
Champagne, which for a time was simply called Clicquot, became so popular in Russia that it remained the second largest consumer of champagne until the Russian Revolution.
Tsar Alexander I even declared that the Clicquot of 1811, known as the Year of the Comet, was the only one he would drink.
New World / Alamia
Russia makes its own champagne
The Russians’ enthusiasm for champagne was so great that the country began producing its own sparkling wine.
Prince Lev Golitsyn (1845-1916) is widely known as the founder of a practice that developed from his experiences on his estate in Crimea, just below Ukraine on the Black Sea.
In 1900, Golitsyn brought his wine to the World’s Fair in Paris. This was a world exhibition, also called the Paris Exposition, which was to honor the achievements of the previous century and inspire further innovation. His sparkling wine, produced at the Novy Svet winery, blindly beat the French wines, which won the coveted Grand Prix de Champagne in Russia.
The popularity of champagne among the Russian royal family increased steadily in the 19th century.
Louis Roederer sent some of its best bottles to Russia.
In 1876, at the request of Czar Alexander II, he created Cristal, considered by many to be the first prestigious cuvée. The name comes from the clear crystal originally used to make the bottles. Because of his paranoia, Alexander II insisted that the bottles be transparent and prevent bombs from passing under or penetrating them.
Louis Roederer in Reims, France / Alamia
The Russian revolution and champagne
Russian interest in champagne came to an abrupt halt after the Russian Revolution (1917-23), when “decadent” foreign imports were banned under the Soviet regime.
At the request of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the country began producing its own sparkling wine, “Soviet Champagne.”
This mass-produced sparkling wine was sweet as syrup and suited the proletariat. Although it was too expensive for daily consumption, it was indispensable for celebrations such as New Year’s Eve.
Although you can still buy Soviet champagne from private producers, few recommend it. Instead of continuing the Soviet approach of producing sparkling wine in huge barrels, modern Russian producers are reverting to traditional methods that were impractical or forbidden under Stalin.
Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II / Alamiya
Champagne in today’s Russia
Russia continues to produce its own sparkling wine, but has once again become one of the world’s largest importers of champagne.
Champagne producers know how important Russia is to the continued popularity of their wines.
In 1996, with a new publication, La Tsarine, the Maison Chanon Frère paid tribute to the women of the Russian nobility who contributed to the popularity of champagne throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815).
Everything about the Tsarevich, from the curved bottle modelled on the domes of St. Basil to the name, evokes an era in Russian history.
Despite its many ups and downs since the 1700s, Russia’s relationship with Champagne remains strong. Each year it buys about 215 million bottles of Champagne. About 53 million of these bottles are consumed during or on New Year’s Eve.
If history is anything to go by, Russia and Champagne will maintain close relations for a long time to come.