High Society and Dry Champagne

John Adams's taste for dry — not sweet — champagne exemplified the changing palettes of the English upper classes

Saintsbury

The Education of Henry Adams is a parody of the Bildungsroman. Born in 1838 into one of the great political families of the United States, Adams died 80 years later, having witnessed from various elevated public stations the tumultuous decades that transformed America from a predominantly bucolic and agricultural society to an urban and industrial powerhouse. His recurrent lament in The Education of Henry Adams is how ill-prepared he was to fathom the momentous changes through which he lived. His understanding was always calamitously in arrears of his experience, and The Education of Henry Adams for the most part tells the story of a Bildung (self-cultivation) that failed to happen.  

A period when Adams felt particularly out of his depth was the early 1860s. Against the backdrop of rising tensions between the northern and the southern states, Adams’s father had been appointed as Abraham Lincoln’s minister to England, and Henry accompanied him as his secretary. It was a most difficult and delicate posting, for English sympathies — and certainly the sympathies of the majority of the English political caste — were with the South. Although England claimed to be neutral, it offered surreptitious help and comfort to the slave-owning states, in part because of the economic ties that linked the cotton mills of Lancashire to the crops of the Confederacy. Without being treated exactly as pariahs, the Adamses nevertheless found English high society cold and quietly hostile: “Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor any region south of the Humber contained a considerable house where a young American would have been sought as a friend.”

It was only among radical circles that Henry Adams felt truly welcome. Radicals such as Monckton Milnes, a “hard-drinking, horse-racing Yorkshireman”, cultivated the representatives of the northern states. For them, the humanitarian question of slavery took precedence over questions of economics. In 1862 Milnes invited Adams to spend Christmas with him and a few other house guests. It was a strange party: “Fryston was one of a class of houses that no one sought for its natural beauties, and the winter mists of Yorkshire were rather more evident for the absence of the hostess on account of them.”  Such privations apart, this was however an important connection for Adams, because through Monckton Milnes he met his distant cousin, James Milnes Gaskell:

In his youth one of a very famous group, — Arthur Hallam, Tennyson, Manning, Gladstone, Francis Doyle, — and regarded as one of the most promising; an adorer of George Canning; … He was a voracious reader and an admirable critic; he had 40 years of parliamentary tradition on his memory; he liked to talk and to listen; he liked his dinner and, in spite of George Canning, his dry champagne…

Canning (who had died in 1827), a protégé of the younger Pitt, was no foe to good wine. But in the matter of champagne he presumably cleaved to the sweeter taste of an earlier generation.  

It was supposedly the French man of letters Charles de Saint-Evremond who had introduced the English to this bewitching drink. When he was banished from the court of Louis XIV and exiled to London, he brought the wines of Champagne to the court of Charles II. They seem then to have been variable and unreliable: at their best, enlivening and with a vivacious sparkle, but in bad years thin and sour, with a tendency to cloudiness as a result of over-aggressive pressing of the black grapes which, then as now, often contribute to the blend of champagne. There was also a problem with explosions. The bottles were thin, and the corks were normally nothing more elaborate than a “wooden plug wrapped in a clout, but without any wire cage” such as is used now to retain the cork in position. When the cork was well-fixed, the bottle might explode. If it were less well-fixed, the pressure of the secondary fermentation would often blow the cork.  

The remedies for these defects — stouter bottles capable of withstanding the pressures generated by secondary fermentation, and superior corks imported from Spain — are both credited to the English, who were already the most important export market for champagne. Meanwhile the Champenois were also investigating the cause of exploding bottles, which might, if the purchaser were unlucky, account for up to half a shipment. The solution had to wait until the early years of the 19th century, when a local chemist showed how to calculate the amount of added sugar that would produce an exciting but safe degree of sparkle.

At this point the British were drinking an astonishing 40 per cent of the production of champagne, and their taste was therefore very influential. Although some markets (notably Russia) preferred sweet champagne, often dosed with in excess of 12 per cent of liqueur de tirage, or added sugar, James Milnes Gaskell was typical of the emergent English taste for much drier wines. In 1874 that English taste was formalised in the creation of the first “brut” champagne by Pommery & Gréno, but clearly Milnes Gaskell and his friends had before this found sources of that drier style of champagne which so impressed Henry Adams in the early 1860s.

Adams did not forget the education in drinking he had received while living in England.  In 1880 he published Democracy, a novel set in Washington, and born of his dismay at the scene of American politics. It has a baffled question of perennial importance at its heart: is a respectable government impossible in a democracy? But it also contains much social comedy. A British aristocrat, Lord Skye, is giving a lunch party and Miss Dare, an American girl who has set her cap at him, inquires about the wine: 

“I hope it is very dry champagne,” said she, “the taste for sweet champagne is quite awfully shocking.”

The young woman knew no more about dry and sweet champagne than of the wine of Ulysses, except that she drank both with equal satisfaction, but she was mimicking a Secretary of the British Legation who had provided her with supper at her last evening party.  Lord Skye begged her to try it, which she did, and with great gravity remarked that it was about five per cent she presumed.  This, too, was caught from her Secretary, though she knew no more what it meant than if she had been a   parrot.

Five per cent here is the degree of dosage, not of alcoholic strength, and it equates to a degree of sweetness which we would now call, at the driest, demi-sec. The memory of vinous discoveries made by Henry Adams during those Yorkshire winters in the 1860s hovers behind this vignette of attractive American pretension.

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