34, a swanky restaurant in the heart of London’s Mayfair district, commissioned British sculptor Jane McAdam Freud (daughter of the celebrated late painter Lucien Freud) to design a Champagne coupe molded from the left breast of supermodel Kate Moss, to celebrate her 40th birthday and her 25 years in the fashion industry. A spokesman for 34 described the glass as “an intricate abstract design reminiscent of Art Deco symmetry which, when held at an angle, shows a beautiful curvy shape.” The coupe has a long, slender stem and “her ‘Kate’ signature accompanied by a small heart at the base.” (The Independent, August 25, 2014)
On October 8, 2014, Kate Moss will host the launch of the coupe at 34. Filling the glasses will be Dom Pérignon’s P2-1998 (a rebranding of the latest release of the 1998 vintage from the Oenothèque series). The coupe and a bottle of 1995 Oenothèque will cost £2,123 (US$3,515).
This is not the first time that a Champagne coupe has been modeled from a supermodel’s breast. In 2007, Dom Pérignon commissioned German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to create an advertising campaign for the release of its 1993 vintage Oenothèque. Lagerfeld’s muse, Claudia Schiffer, also happened to be a top model for Dom Pérignon at the time. Lagerfeld honored her and her bosom with a design that has a white breast-shaped bowl with a pink nipple sitting atop three white porcelain miniature replicas of Dom Pérignon bottles on a silver tray bearing Lagerfeld’s and Schiffer’s signatures. This assemblage, accompanied by a bottle of Oenothèque, could be purchased in December 2008 for $3,150.
Why did McAdam Freud and Lagerfeld cast their interpretation of the Champagne coupe from a beautiful woman’s left breast? And why did Lagerfeld make his coupe and miniature Dom Pérignon bottles of milky white porcelain? Here are some possible explanations:
This Sèvres porcelain milk bowl, complete with a nipple, is one from a set of four made in 1788 by artisans from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory as part of a 65-piece dining set that Louis XVI commissioned for his queen, Marie Antoinette, to use at the royal dairy at the Château de Rambouillet. The tripod base on which the bowl sits features the head and hooves of a goat, the Queen’s favorite animal.
The bowl is modeled after a Greek drinking cup produced by Athenian potters, a mastos (meaning breast, udder), made from terracotta in the shape of a female breast, with nipple.
In the early 19th century, Josephine Bonaparte commissioned Sèvres to make an updated version of the breast bowls for her, using the original molds. Hers were of white porcelain and 24-carat gold and were also used in the Rambouillet dairy.
The gift of the Sèvres milk bowl from her husband may have inspired Marie Antoinette with an idea for a reciprocal gift to him: round Champagne glasses made from casts of her breasts (or her left breast in particular, depending on who tells the story)—the first Champagne coupe, so the tale goes—so that Louis XVI and their courtiers could drink to her health from them.
Kate Moss heard this story about “the Marie Antoinette coupe” too. She said, “I was excited to participate in this project. What an honour to be alongside Marie Antoinette—she was a very intriguing and mischievous character.”
But legend also has it that the saucer-like Champagne coupe was cast from the breasts of—take your pick!—Madame du Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Empress Josephine, Diane de Poitiers, Helen of Troy, and 1930s American model and photographer Lee Miller. Why? Because their men—respectively, Louis XV (twice), Napoleon, Henry II, Paris, and surrealist artist Man Ray—greatly admired their lover’s breasts and fantasized about drinking Champagne from them. In the case of Diane de Poitiers, one version of the story says that her husband, Henry II, cast the mold solely from his wife’s left breast.
Are these tales all born of men’s fantasies, the coincidental shape of a glass, an homage to a beautiful woman’s chest, and celebrity sex symbols, perhaps? In fact, the coupe was designed and made in England around 1663, which predates du Pompadour, du Barry, Josephine, Marie Antoinette, and Lee Miller and postdates de Poitiers and, if she existed at all, Helen of Troy.
Marketing and celebratory hoopla aside, why all this fuss (and expense) over a glass whose shape is spectacularly ill-suited to drinking sparkling wine, especially a sparkling wine as miraculous as Champagne?
The large surface area of the wide, shallow coupe dissipates Champagne’s bubbles, warms the wine, and quickly renders it flat. As Benoît Gouez, chief winemaker for Moët & Chandon since 2005, says about drinking Champagne from a coupe, “You won’t have enough focus. The effervescence will go everywhere, the flavors will go everywhere, and you’re going to lose a lot of it.” (Ironically, the Dom Pérignon being served in those modern-day reinterpretations of the “Marie Antoinette coupe” is a Moët brand.)
But when the coupe was invented in the 17th century, sparkling wines were not nearly as effervescent as they are today. Sparkling wine was bottled before the initial fermentation had finished because bottles had not yet been invented that could withstand the internal pressure created by a secondary fermentation. Exploding bottles and popping corks led to the wine being called “the devil’s wine.” For those more sedate sparkling wines of the late 17th century, the design of the coupe was probably very appropriate.
The coupe was popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, thanks in part to the Stork Club, black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s such as Casablanca, Shall We Dance, and The Thin Man, and the penchant at wedding receptions for stacking layers of coupes into a “tower,” with Champagne poured continuously into the top glass and flowing down to fill the others below.
Personally, though I acknowledge that it’s far from the ideal glass from which to drink Champagne, I love the look and shape of the coupe. Yes, some are very plain, sturdy, and workmanlike, but those with a beautifully faceted stem, a diamond-shaped capital atop the stem, a graceful bowl, and a thin lip are exquisite to me, aesthetically. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the 1940s glamour that I associate with them. My parents’ vintage Champagne coupes have a hollow stem, all the way to the base—a design feature that visually highlights the upward-spiraling bubbles in a most delightful way (even while the drinker’s fingers around the stem warm the wine prematurely, alas). Coupes are great for cocktails, and, when beautiful, are both fun and sophisticated to drink from!
The stemmed tall, narrow, very unbreastlike flute (so named because of its resemblance to the musical instrument) replaced the coupe as the preferred Champagne glass in the 1960s (although Audrey Hepburn was drinking from a flute as early as 1954 in Sabrina). Designed to remedy all the problems of drinking Champagne from a wide, shallow coupe, the purpose of the tall, slender flute was to preserve carbonation (and, as a side benefit, to allow more glasses to fit on a tray). There’s a much higher concentration of carbon dioxide in a tall, narrow flute than in a broad saucer. The bottom of the flute’s bowl can either taper into the stem or sit perpendicular atop it. Holding the glass by the stem prevents warming the wine, and the narrow opening at the top of the glass exposes less surface to air, retaining the effervescence and reducing spillage.
The better flutes have a rough spot deliberately etched inside the bottom center of the bowl that acts as a nucleation point for the bubbles to gather and then stream continuously upward to the top. In this way, the effervescence remains in the wine longer, which is probably why the flute is the best glass to display a sparkling wine’s bubbles. The flute will keep the wine bubbly longer than any other shape of glass. Supposedly, the narrow diameter of the top of the flute concentrates the wine’s aromatics, opposite to the way that the coupe’s wide bowl dissipates them, but I’ve never been able to discern much, if any, of a Champagne’s aromatics in a flute. Inside such a narrow diameter, the wine has no room to breathe, open, or develop. The diameter of some flutes is so ridiculously narrow that it’s impossible to drink from them without one’s nose getting in the way. Others are so tall that they become top heavy. Decorative arts and furniture appraiser Soodie Beasley said that “flutes, the extra tall ones anyway, remind me of big hair and the 1980s and ’90s.”
The trumpet flute, with its wider mouth tapering outward from a slender stem, is a variation on the straight up-and-down flute. Because its wider opening at the top of the glass diffuses aromas rather than focusing them toward the nose, I can’t see that this design is an improvement over the standard flute, except that its wider mouth allows sipping without bumping one’s nose against the rim.
An improvement over the flute’s constricted aromatics, the tulip glass features a bowl that curves outward slightly above the midpoint, enabling some space for swirling, then curves back in at the top, directing the aromatics toward the nose.
Starting around 2010, sommeliers and heads of Champagne houses such as Krug began advocating drinking Champagne, which is a white wine, out of a white wine glass, in order to taste the wine’s fullness in a way that’s impossible in a flute. The wine glass’s bowl is wide enough (and wider than the tulip glass) for the wine to breathe, open, and develop, and release its aromas and flavors. The inward-sloping sides at the top of the glass deliver the aromas into the nose and the flavors onto the palate in a much richer way than a flute can. Because of this, the wine’s finish is longer as well.
This past week a friend and I shared a bottle of Agrapart Les 7 Crus Brut Blanc de Blancs NV at the newly opened Chelsea Market (Manhattan) location of Laura Maniec’s Corkbuzz wine bar. (The “7” in the wine’s name refers not to the seven permitted grape varieties in the Champagne AOC but to the seven villages from which the grapes come: Avize, Cramant, Oger, Oiry, Avenay Val d’Or, Bergères-les-Vertus, and Mardeuil.) When the sommelier asked if we wanted the wine poured into flutes or white wine glasses, we replied, “Both, please.” We wanted to conduct our own taste test of the two glasses. As we expected, the white wine glass was far superior to the flute. We could not really smell anything in the wine in the narrow flute because its slender shape prevented the wine from coming into contact with oxygen; consequently, the aromas could not open or develop. In contrast, the white wine glass gave the wine room to open, breathe, and release its concentration of aromas. And the wider opening at the top of the glass gave each of us the room to swirl the wine and tilt the glass toward our face without spilling the contents; we had room to really put our nose into the glass and smell the aromas. Because more than 70 percent of what you taste with your mouth comes from your olfactory sense, being able to smell the wine is very important to your overall enjoyment and appreciation of Champagne!
If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to drink older, more complex, vintage Champagnes, then you owe it to yourself and to the wine to pour that precious liquid into a white wine glass in order to savor its elegance, depth, and aromas. Remember, that wine has spent anywhere from six to twenty years or more inside a bottle. How else will it open and reveal its concentration of complex aromas of yeastiness, toastiness, and brioche unless it’s allowed to come into contact with oxygen? And served at the right temperature, by the way (50°F/10°C)! Serve your Champagne too cold, and you will suppress its aromatics.
Kate Moss’s festivities aside, Richard Geoffroy, cellar master at Dom Pérignon, must have to turn a blind eye to the colossal lost opportunity represented by pouring P2-1998 into a coupe, even one modeled on Kate Moss’s left breast. P2-1998 spent 12 years aging and maturing on its lees (the spent cells of the yeast that gave their bodies to the wine) and an additional two years resting postdisgorgement (after the yeast plug is removed) in the Dom Pérignon cellars. Earlier this year, Geoffroy described P2-1998 like this: “The 1998 is about energy: the wine is already 16 years to the vintage. You could well expect the maturity of the wine to be based on weight and power—paradoxically, it is not. It is full, packed with energy—so lifted, so Dom Pérignon, so penetrating; energetic and dancing, nothing weighty, nothing tired or oxidative.” I hope the guests at 34 at the christening of Kate Moss’s coupe in October will appreciate these characteristics of the remarkable wine they are privileged to drink, coupe or no.
Benoît Gouez observed that “if you pour one bottle [of Champagne] into ten different glasses, you will have ten different wines. The glassware does affect a lot the tasting experience.”
But if your budget, as does mine, prevents you from regularly spending a minimum of $45 for a bottle of more complex Champagne, then it’s perfectly fine to drink your more simple sparkling wine from something other than a white wine glass! Personally, I’m on the lookout for a hybrid glass—something between a narrow flute and a small white wine glass. A Riesling glass, perhaps, or else a voluptuous tulip glass, both of which are wider than a flute. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way! My most important considerations, as I evaluate glasses, are: How does the glass feel in my hand? Is it beautiful to look at? Do I enjoy holding it and drinking from it? I want my chosen glass to feel special—and playing into that equation of elegance are overall aesthetics: the lightness and thinness of the glass and the lip, and the glass’s height. And most important: Does its shape allow the wine’s aromas and flavors to develop?
While I’m looking for my ideal glass, I’d like everyone to take a minute to remember Lily Bollinger, who ran the Bollinger Champagne house from 1941 to 1971, and what she said about drinking her Champagne. I wonder what shape of glass she used?
I drink my Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.
Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland