A Spoonful of Sugar

Helps the Medicine Go Down

A quote from Victorian writer Abraham Hayward’s Art of Dining:

Canning used to say that any sane person who affected to prefer dry Champagne to sweet, lied.

The range of sugar, residual or added as grape must or sucrose, in today’s Champagne was tellingly illustrated by wine writer Madeline Puckette a few years ago at her Wine Folly site. The amount of dry sugar that represented the liquid quantity in each type of Champagne, so Brut Nature, Brut, Dry, Extra-Dry, etc., was placed in an otherwise empty flute glass.

The sweetest contained the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugar per glass. By my calculation, this is about two-thirds as sweet as a standard Coke – fairly sugary.

Brut contains half a teaspoon sugar, almost at the other end of the spectrum.

Was Charles Canning’s sweet Champagne on the sweetest end of this range, and the dry probably like the Brut or Brut Nature? If so his dictum has died, as Brut is the type most widely consumed today at least in English-speaking countries.

Yet, perhaps the register hasn’t moved quite so far: this would depend on the sugar levels of 19th century Champagne, something I’m sure has been documented.

The original French type, or at least the style favoured by Continentals, was decidedly sweet. The same was true in Britain, as Canning noted, but Hayward explained that a coterie of English wine connoisseurs bruited the dry style (dry in the general sense today vs. that on a Champagne label, confusingly).

As often happens, the predelictions of a small group ended as general writ. It is the story of craft beer too: from the pages of the seminal beer author Michael Jackson Belgian beer sprang to beer bars around the world. It is the story of Starbucks, and much more.

Henry Jeffreys, in his recent Empire of Booze, investigated the sweet-to-dry change in Champagne in-depth. He mentions it as notable for another reason: it contradicted the general British pattern which was to make Continental drinks sweeter – e.g., sherry, port, Madeira.

Envoi: “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” – Winston Churchill

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on Charles Canning. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.