Rose champagne is the intoxicant of choice for courtesans and kings. Beautiful, expensive, and rare, it was beloved by the grandest of the grandes horizontales of nineteenth-century Paris—and the men who could afford to love them. In Second Empire France, the Countess Henkel von Donnersmarck—known to historians of the libido as La Païva, and earlier as Esther Lachmann, late of the Moscow ghetto—demanded magnums of it as a “gratuity” while entertaining clients in the boudoir of her ill-begotten Hotel de la Païva on the Champs-Élysées. Not to be outdone, her arch rival, Cora Pearl, formerly Miss Emma Crouch of England, famously forced her lovers such as the Duc de Rivoli, Prince Massena and the powerful Duc de Morny, the Emperor Napoleon III’s half-brother, to pour the pink stuff into her size-six slippers for her refreshment. During the 1830s, in the Sublime Porte on the Bosphorus, Sultan Mahmud II poured it for his concubines as an indication of his Westernizing ways. There was apparently no slaking louche women and their lust for pink bubbly.
One legend has it that this ineffable nectar was first created for a queen to match her bridesmaids’ dresses. But it wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that rose champagne went democratic and entered the public domain. In Depression-era New York it passed in the more upscale speakeasies for cherry soda. But it reached an apogee of applause when it turned up in the movies, most memorably in 1959 in An Affair to Remember, when Cary Grant drinks it with Deborah Kerr as they first meet aboard an ocean liner. They proceed to drink nothing but the stuff as their love affair unfolds. Sales in the U.S. ballooned that year. President Reagan was particularly fond of it—and famously used to pair a bottle or two of Louis Roederer Crystal Brut Rose 1974 with a bowl of jelly beans.
Since Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in the cathedral of Reims in 987, wine from this region has been regarded as “royal.” Originally still and pale pink, it was much in vogue at court. The elaborate wine-making process that led to white bubbly was worked out at the ancient Abbey of Saint Pierre d’Hautvillers by the blind Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon—with improvements added later by the “widow” or veuve Nicole Clicquot. Seeking to rid his wine of bubbles regarded as a fault by many at the time—and to render it white to distinguish it from Burgundy—at first he failed at both. Towards the end of his life he did manage to create the world’s first truly white wine—but the bubbles remained. Sampling one of his own bottles, Dom Perignon famously said “I am drinking stars.” In 1668 he was appointed cellerer and procurator of the monastery and wine maker to the Sun King, Louis XIV, who adored the stuff and thought it good for his gout.
The summer of 2002 will always be remembered at the Dom Pérignon vineyard in the heart of Champagne; it was a season they say “touched by grace.” Those who preside over the magic arts of viticulture at the domain Dom Pérignon today create a vintage cuvee rose, not annually, but occasionally. 1990 was one such year, 2002 was another. Being declared ready to drink, a vintage champagne is allowed to ferment for ten years or more in the bottle as it continues to produce biological bubbles behind a stout cork and toughened glass. In Dom Pérignon’s own day, bottles would explode as the pressure built up to three times that inside a car tire, shattering weak wood fired eighteenth century French glass and blowing out the oiled hemp stoppers early vintners used. It was the British with their own great thirst for bubbles who first perfected coal fired toughened glass and corks from Portugal that finally made storage safe. Later, following Napoloeon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna that restored the old order, the Russian army occupied Reims and the champagne region, looting all the bottles they could find. Over the next hundred years, the Imperial Russian aristocracy became champagne’s greatest fans.
Rose champagne is rare. Only three percent of the 350 million bottles produced annually in the Champagne region of France are pink, perhaps because giving it its tint while maintaining its quality is hard. It’s basically a matter of either adding still red Pinot Noir just before the second fermentation, or leaving the red Pinot grape skins in contact with the wine for a while—both of which are risky and complex. A small mistake can turn the champagne into an unwanted, unsalable red, blue or brown.
To find out what the very best rose champagne tastes like, I was invited a few months ago to Istanbul, that watery palimpsest of lost civilizations, where the house of Dom Pérignon was hosting a boondoggle and a bash on the very edge of Europe in honor of their latest creation, a true beluga of bubbly. If each vintage has its distinctive hue, the glass of Dom Pérignon Vintage 2002 that I contemplated in solitude was a mysterious shade of amber. “The Dark Jewel,” Richard Geoffrey, Dom Perignon’s present-day chef de cave, has dubbed it.
Seated alone on a sunny open veranda in a Sultan’s Palace on the fast flowing Bosphorus, the stretch of choppy water that divides Europe from Asia, I was here to sip what many consider to be the best vintage in a generation of the finest pink champagne in the world. I fantasized that joining me to share my glass was the ghost of Sultan Abdul Aziz, one of the last Ottomans. It was he who built the neo-classical palais where I sat, and it was he who was later murdered here, so his ghost, I thought, might be thirsty. A modernizer and reformer in love with all things French, he had been the first sultan to journey abroad, visiting Second Empire Paris in the 1860s where the Empress Eugenie threw him massive banquets. Like other nineteenth century rulers, he was partial to bubbly—in particular, the pink kind.
Trust me when I say what I drank that day was ineffable. Robert Parker, doyen of American oenophiles, has given it an almost unheard of rating of 98. At Sherry Lehman on New York’s Madison Avenue and Berry Brothers in London—the first shipment, at $5,000 a case, was snapped up in an hour. I can only assume that in the flesh pots and boudoirs of the two greatest cities on earth, “bad girls” have been having “a good time.”
Image: Une Soireé Chez La Païva, by Adolphe Joseph Thomas MonticelliMarch 20, 2013