Be it a white wedding in the Shires or a sordid weekend in Pigalle, no beverage offers quite the same romantic possibility as a chilled bottle of bubbly. Champagne roars of sauciness, seduction and sex. Its exorbitant price, the weighty foiled and fettered bottle, the rituals, paraphernalia and effervescent intoxication – everything about champagne is deeply suggestive.
The seeds for champagne’s lofty reputation were sown in the Dark Ages. In AD496 the barbarian king Clovis I was baptised in Reims, capital of the champagne region. The affair was rather miraculous involving a dove sent from heaven, a sacred phial of oil and a saintly bishop. It also proved to have momentous consequences as Clovis went on to unite France under Catholicism and become its first king. Reims has been the ceremonial location for the coronation of French kings ever since. At the coronation after-parties the tipple du jour has always been the local brew – champagne.
The wine enjoyed by Clovis and his cronies would have little in common with that of today. The first innovation, widely attributed to Dom Pérignon, was the creation of bubbles. Cellar master at the monastery of Épernay in the late 17th century, he started bottling the local wine before fermentation was complete. The gas released by the ongoing fermentation was reabsorbed, creating champagne’s now trademark fizz. This development was perfected in the 19th century with the secondary fermentation of the méthode champenoise. The final innovation was the emergence of the dry style of modern champagne. This dates back to 1846 when Perrier-Jouët decided not (or perhaps forgot) to sweeten the wine bound for England. The English loved it and in 1872 the brut style of champagne was officially recognised and modern champagne was born. Cheers and bottoms up to that.
It is easy to attribute champagne’s aphrodisiac allure to its social status: a universal shorthand for success, luxury and celebration. This no doubt plays a placebo part in proceedings but isn’t to my mind the whole story. The rituals involved in champagne are undeniably sultry. There is a pent-up energy and tension in the heavy reinforced bottle, a teasing provocation in the undressing and unwiring of the bottle’s phallic neck and bulbous cork. The release is metaphoric, either sudden with a foamy jet of excitement, or controlled as the pressure is released with the whimper of the ‘soupir amoureux’. Once in a glass and in one’s mouth, the yeasty fragrance, tingle of bubbles and cool acidity are both invigorating and intoxicating. And really it is intoxicating, a hefty 12–13% of alcohol which those delightful bubbles mainline straight to the brain.
Socially and psychologically, champagne’s aphrodisiac reputation glitters convincingly. There is also a bit of science behind the sparkle. Champagne packs a poky punch of aphrodisiac trace minerals. These include potassium, zinc and magnesium, all absolutely essential for both male and female sex hormone production. It is also said that the yeasty bouquet of dry champagne accurately mimics the scent of female sex pheromones. Probably why rock stars are compelled to fill bathtubs and bathe in the stuff.
Selecting champagne is a rather delicate process. The various brands are closely associated with quite disparate social tribes. The hip-hop fraternity has a decided penchant for Cristal. The posh prefer the well-bred orange of Veuve Clicquot, whilst the nouveau get off on Moët or Laurent-Perrier. Winston Churchill drank Pol Roger and the Queen tipples on Taittinger. The bon viveur, however, sides with the bone-dry, rich and well- mannered Bollinger – just like James Bond. Chill Bolly to around 8 degrees (not too frosty), and if you are peckish pass on the strawberries and serve with a side portion of caviar, scrambled eggs and potato latkes.
It would be sacrilege to adulterate a top-drawer vintage champagne with anything other than one’s tongue. At the entry level of the market, however, there is much to be said for fortifying and fancifying less exalted champagnes into extravagant cocktails. Almost everything has been mixed with champagne from stout in Black Velvet to blackcurrant liqueur in Kir Royale. My preference is to keep the cocktail clean and classic whilst adding a little extra alcoholic va-va-voom and seductive spice. The Vanilla Thriller ticks the boxes. Like all good cocktails it is fun and frivolous yet decidedly feisty.
Vanilla Thriller Champagne Cocktail
Vanilla: ¼ pod
Brandy: 1 shot
Angostura bitters: 2 shakes
Dry non-vintage champagne: 1 bottle
Simple enough for the prettiest to prepare: split the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and mix them with the brandy. Place the sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne glass and saturate with the Angostura bitters. Add the vanilla brandy and top up with champagne. As you sip away at the cocktail, the layers will mix giving a stronger vanilla flavour as you descend the glass.
The Aphrodisiac Encylopaedia by Mark Douglas Hill is published by Square Peg.