Chilling Champagne, Then and Now
Reims, March 2022
What is the proper way to chill champagne? How can you be sure you’re drinking it at the proper temperature?
Nowadays, champagne is drunk chilled, but not ice-cold. It’s true that champagne was frequently drunk ice-cold, and even frappé (partly frozen) in the 19th century; but nowadays that is considered heresy. Tastes, fashions and ways of serving champagne have evolved through history since the time of Pierre Chanoine in the early 18th century.
Chillers in the time of Louis XV
Two paintings dating from 1735, part of the décor in the dining room of the King’s lesser apartments at the palace of Versailles, provide precious evidence and interesting details on how champagne was chilled.
In the painting “Le déjeuner d’huîtres” (The Oyster Dinner) by Jean-François de Troy, corked and tied bottles of champagne are set to cool in a bottle chiller, in square zinc tubs filled with ice and housed in a small wood cabinet.
The companion painting, “Le déjeuner de jambon” (The Ham Dinner) by Nicolas Lancret, is a depiction of a dinner during a hunt, with the bottles set to chill in a simple copper basin and then placed on the table in individual porcelain or ceramic ice buckets.
Champagne was drunk “frappé de glace” — an expression from the period that simply means that the container the bottle is in is filled with water and ice.
The ice came from the numerous ice-storage wells at Versailles. The ice was cut from the Grand Canal and the Lake of the Swiss Guard during winter. It was protected by straw and planks. Ice was also able to be artificially manufactured with recipes that used saltpeter.
In the 19th century, champagne was drunk ice-cold
In the 19th century, the fashion was for champagne to be frappé — which means almost or partially frozen, at a temperature of just above zero, at 2, 3 or 4°C!
For the wine to be that cold, the champagne buckets were filled to the brim with crushed ice, without water, with the bottle three-quarters covered.
At banquets, champagne was often served in a carafe, like Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. Sometimes, chilled water was poured into the carafe before use to be sure it was cold enough. Even worse, a few ice cubes were sometimes added to the glass.
These excesses continued until the early 20th century, despite protests from wine lovers and representatives of the Champagne industry.
Why did people like champagne ice-cold? Most probably because during the 19th century champagne was mainly a dessert wine and — except in England, where brut champagne was already being drunk — the champagne had a high sugar dosage and was called doux. And admittedly, sweet dishes served at the end of the meal blend easily with a very cold beverage.
Enjoying champagne at the ideal temperature
Nowadays, it’s quite easy to bring champagne to the proper temperature. Depending on the cuvée, it should be drunk at between 8° and 12 °C. For example, Tsarine Premium and Chanoine Frères Réserve Privée Brut should be enjoyed at between 8 and 10°C. The same goes for the Tsarine Rosé and Chanoine Frères Réserve Privée cuvées. On the other hand, vintage champagnes, Tsarine Blanc de Blancs and Chanoine Frères Réserve Privée 100% Chardonnay should be drunk at between 10° and 12°C.
The ideal and recommended method for chilling champagne bottles is to use an ice bucket. You can find ice buckets today to suit every taste, in glass, metal, and even plastic. It makes no difference, provided that it’s large enough! When you’re on vacation, on a picnic, in the garden or in the country, any bucket will serve the purpose.
Just fill it amply with ice and water in equal proportions. In a room at 20°C, if the bottle was in a cool cellar it will reach 7°in 40 minutes. Keep in mind that the champagne will warm by 2 to 3°as soon as it’s poured into the glass. The advantage of the bucket is that it cools the bottle gradually and keeps it at the right temperature, provided you replace the ice as it melts.
The refrigerator can replace an ice bucket. Chilling will be slower; leave the bottle for three to four hours, and lie it down horizontally. The food freezer is a bad idea, because it chills the wine too rapidly. You should also refrain from chilling the glasses — the bubbles and the organoleptic qualities of the champagne will be affected.
In the final analysis, like any wine white, champagne should be drunk chilled. If champagne is served at room temperature, the bubbles will be too large and so will dissipate too quickly, whereas a cold temperature encourages fine, long-lasting bubbles.
Tsarine Orium and Tsarine Rosé should be drunk ideally at between 8 and 10°C