It has become a commonplace fact, beloved of pub quizzes, that an Englishman, Christopher Merret, invented Champagne. There is even an element of truth to it: Merret gave a paper to the Royal Society in 1672 outlining how to make wine fizzy. But he wasn’t the first to induce bubbles in a bottle. In the West Country, scientifically inclined gentlemen had been doing it for years — only they used cider, not wine.
In the 17th century there was a wine crisis in England. Home-grown vines had been killed by prolonged cold weather — something now known as the Little Ice Age — and imports were severely curtailed because of wars with France, the Netherlands and Spain. The problem became acute when Cromwell passed the Navigation Act of 1651. This was designed to stop Dutch shipping to England — and the Dutch controlled the trade in all German and a great deal of French wine. There was also a very high excise duty. And so affordable wine became scarce in England. What was needed was an alternative.
In his 1664 paper ‘Pomona’ John Evelyn had the answer: ‘Our design is relieving the want of wine, by a succedaneum of Cider.’ This paper became a sort of bible to a new wave of cider producers looking to turn a peasant drink into something finer. Just as with wine, the variety of fruit was all-important. The most prestigious apple, the pinot noir of cider if you will, was called ‘Redstreak’ or ‘Scudamore crab’ after its propagator, the Herefordshire notable Sir John Scudamore. It would have been inedible raw, being high in tannin and extremely hard, but it was perfect for making fine, high-alcohol ciders designed for keeping. These became known as ‘Vin de Scudamore’, and their reputation quickly spread. It was noted how ‘a barrel of Redstreak surpassed the best Spanish and French wines’. A hogshead (110 gallons) of the best cider could go for £8, or £20 if it had been matured for three years. This was a similar price to the best canary sack (the sherry-esque wine from the Canary Islands that Falstaff loved).
Further evidence of these ciders’ value lies in the Museum of London, in the form of a drinking glass made in London sometime between 1642 and 1660 with an S for Scudamore and exquisitely rendered apples upon it. You wouldn’t use such a glass for scrumpy. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a modern champagne flute, a glass designed specifically to keep hold of precious bubbles.
These bubbles could only have been created in England because only in England was glass made strong enough to take the pressure of fermentation — the pressure inside a modern Champagne bottle is something like the tyre-pressure of a bus. The modern wine bottle had been invented around 1633 by Sir Kenelm Digby, a founder member of the Royal Society. Previously glass was delicate and bottles were just for storing. In his snappily titled book The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, he outlines in detail how to make a strong sparkling cider for bottling. The cider would be bottled and sealed while still fermenting, so that the carbon dioxide would be absorbed and the cider would become sparkling. There was always a danger of fermentation getting too vigorous and bottles exploding, so he suggests storing them in wet sand to keep them cool.
Other members of the Royal Society in London took an interest in apple growing, cider making and putting fizz in the bottles. Some of the greatest minds in the country turned themselves to perfecting this home-grown product. It was soon noted that the bubbles would be all the more vigorous if extra sugar was added to fuel the bottle fermentation. John Beale — from Herefordshire, naturally — read a paper to the Royal Society on 10 December 1662, ten years before Merrit spoke, in which he describes putting a ‘walnut of sugar’ into bottled cider. This is about 20g of sugar, roughly the amount of sugar added to modern dry Champagne.
So why aren’t we all drinking cider now instead of Champagne? Despite all the papers written, these ciders were never more than a minority interest — especially after England’s wine shortage was solved thanks to the signing of the Methuen Treaty of 1703 with Portugal. This led to the establishment of a British colony in Oporto and the creation of a new drink, port, in which powerful Portuguese wine was made stronger still by adding brandy: much more to the English tastes than 10 per cent cider. So after this brief flowering, cider went back to being a drink for West Country labourers, the upper classes drank port, sherry or claret, and everyone else made do with gin and beer.
The desire to make such ambitious ciders has never completely gone away, however. They returned briefly in the Edwardian era. Bulmer’s used to make a ‘Super Champagne Cider de Luxe’. Drinks such as these died out or were bastardised by mass production methods in the 1960s. Now, with the explosion of interest in cider, they’re back. A number of producers around the country are making ciders inspired by Digby and Scudamore. Last week I tried a superb bottle-fermented Devon cider called Ashridge Sparkling Vintage. It was a very elegant West Country cider complete with some tannin and a little scrumpy-like funkiness but with the most beautiful persistent bubbles and an extremely long finish, worth every penny of £13.99. The company that can produce something of this quality but in Moet-like quantities and market it as England’s answer to champagne will be rich. It just needs a catchier name.
Five to try
• Thatcher’s Green Goblin A serious cider made from a variety of apples including the legendary Redstreak.
• Aspall’s The 5.5% stuff is now available everywhere and delicious with its taste of fresh green apples.
• Gospel Green This bottle-fermented Sussex cider is all fruit and no tannin; as close as cider gets to fine wine.
• Weston’s Wyld Wood A rich and fruity organic cider.
• Halletts Welsh Cider I love this one’s depth of flavour and pronounced bite.