How the modern Champagne bottle was created

There was a time when cellarmasters wore iron masks, to save their faces from exploding glass bottles. And then, an enterprising German changed everything. Barnaby Eales explains.

An old Buhlbacher label
An old Buhlbacher label

Germany’s Black Forest is well-known for its wine, gastronomy, and dark Grimm Brothers tales. Far less known is the story of how local glassmakers created the modern Champagne bottle.

Georg Christian Von Kessler’s quest to create a non-breakable fizz bottle came about after his first disastrous 1826 vintage of German sparkling wine. Four thousand bottles – about half of production – smashed.

Kessler had acquired the art of Champagne production whilst working at Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin in Reims, where he became the lover of owner, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the Cliquot widow, and a director of the company. Upon his return to Germany in 1825, he established Kessler, the first German sparkling wine cellar in Esslingen.

He then travelled to Buhlbach glassworks in the remote Baiersbronn valley of the Black Forest. At the time, cellarmasters were known to wear iron masks to protect them from shattering glass. But it was here where glassmaker factory owner, Johann Georg Böhringer and his colleague Franz K. Klumpp, created the modern Champagne bottle, called the ‘Buhlbacher Schlegel,’ which would become the industry standard bottle.

This bottle could withstand the pressure of six atmospheres – equivalent to the pressure about 5kg of weight on every square centimetre of glass – created by the second fermentation in bottle. The Buhlbacher Schlegel bottle’s innovative feature was the ‘Stülpboden’ a punt or inverse indentation created to strengthen Champagne bottles, allowing more even distribution of pressure. This design led to the end of flat glass bottles.

Without the Buhlbacher Schlegel bottles, Kessler would probably not been able to become a pioneer in sparkling wines production in Germany. “Glassmakers in Buhlbach used a new pressure-proofed glass and the novel punt in the bottom of the bottle. They produced the bottles as a one liter and half liter bottle, but also bigger sizes. The bottles were always green, to protect the Champagne from light and sun,” explains Tina Emmer, manager of the Kessler archive. “The quality of the Buhlbacher Schlegel bottles was so high, that many producers in France ordered them to fill up their Champagne.”

In his book, ‘The Buhlbach Glassmakers 1721-1909’, Otto Konrad recounts how the composition of the bottles remained a secret at the time; they did not feature in the company archives. Glassmakers blew as many as 350 Champagne bottles in a shift, about 40 bottles per hour. “By 1856, the Buhlbach glassworks had unbelievable quantities of orders for Champagne bottles: one part of Europe was starving, the other part was drinking champagne,” writes Konrad.

Exported to Austria, Hungary and Russia, it is estimated that about 100m Buhlbacher Schlegel bottles were produced up until 1909.

Barnaby Eales

 

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