All champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are champagnes. Only officially classified wines from Champagne – the most northerly wine-producing region in France – are entitled to bear this name.
How is champagne produced?
Harvesting begins at the end of September or the beginning of October. Only two grape pressings are permitted:
- from the first pressing comes the cuvée, the highest quality grape juice used for the best champagnes
- from the second pressing comes the faille, used to produce champagnes not designated as being of a particular vintage
All champagnes pass through a primary stage of fermentation. Here’s a little reminder: the sugar contained in the grapes + yeast = alcohol + carbon dioxide, which evaporates. This takes place in vats or oak barrels and last up to around 2 or 3 weeks. This fermentation process results in wine which doesn’t have bubbles.
This is followed by the most important moment in the production process, i.e. blending. The producer has to make many decisions, including which strains to mix, which vineyards they should come from and which vintages should be blended together. When the “blend” has been prepared, liqueur de tirage (a blend of sugar and yeast) is added to the grapes, triggering a secondary fermentation. At this point, the wine is also transferred to bottles and sealed with a temporary stopper, which prevents the carbon dioxide produced by this fermentation from escaping from the bottle. And that’s how we get our bubbles.
However, the re-fermentation causes a sediment to form which has to be removed after the wine has been aged. But how is this done in such a way as to avoid losing the bubbles?
The bottles are placed on special racks. Afterwards, with the necks pointing downwards, each bottle is gradually rotated in such a manner that it ends up standing almost completely “bottom up” and the sediment is caught in its neck.
Next, the tip of each bottle is immersed in a brine solution to freeze it. When it freezes, the stopper is removed and the sediment falls out from the bottle, pushed out by the carbon dioxide. This process is called dégorgement.
At this point, the producer adds a mixture of wine and cane sugar to the bottle and decides whether the wine is to be sweeter or drier. The following scale is used:
- brut – the driest
- extra dry – a little less dry
- sec – sweeter
- demi-sec – the sweetest
Finally, the bottle is stopped with a real cork.
Most sources state that champagne was in born in the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvilliers, and that it was created by the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon. But there are others, for example Michael Edward, author of a guide for champagne connoisseurs, who claim that it was probably another group of Benedictines (from the order of St Hilary) who were the first to produce sparkling wine by using the rural method. We’re not going to flesh out the details here. After all, it’s hardly news that the labours of many holy fathers were blessed with success and that history is not always just.
Ultimately, Father Pierre has been anointed as the father of champagne. And it is in his honour that the famous champagne brand, Dom Perignon, was named.
What’s so special about the Champagne region?
It would appear at first sight that Champagne is not the most promising location for vineyards. Its inhabitants have always complained about the relatively harsh winters and spring frosts. Cold winds blowing in from the Atlantic and a mean annual temperature not exceeding 10°C mean that the vines almost never reach full maturity. But even so, they are very good quality. This is due to numerous undulations in the terrain, which moderate temperature changes and maintain humidity levels. The chalky soils are another one of this region’s assets. They retain their moistness and reflect sunlight toward the fruit. During the day, they collect heat, only to release it to the plants during the cold nights. The chalk also allows the roots to penetrate even as far as 20 metres into the earth, from where they can draw valuable nutrients.
Everything beautiful is born of pain
You’re probably thinking by now, my dear readers, that “We know who, we know where. Let’s combine these two and – Abracadabra! – we have champagne.” If only that were the case!
This history of this drink radiates out in ever expanding circles and extends across an extremely long period of time. The first vines were sown in Champagne by the Romans back when Gaul was a Roman province. Cultivating them was by no means easy on account of the local climate, but this eventually paid dividends thanks to the perseverance of the local monks. As the Greek proverb goes, “patience is the key to success”. Well… in retrospect, it’s difficult, when sipping champagne, not to agree with this.
During the feudal age, wines from Champagne were classified as “French wines” (vins de France). Under the reign of Henry IV, the term “Champagne wine” became established in Paris. From a marketing perspective, it would be impossible to hit upon a worse name for this drink. The word “champagne” actually denoted wasteland suitable for grazing sheep. Even the inhabitants of Champagne were not at first especially partial to sparkling wines. They called them atrocious. They were regarded as bland, drained of colour and, according to winemakers, poorly aged in the barrels.
In order to improve the quality of the wine, winemakers began to bottle it before the end of the primary fermentation. But there’s always a trade-off. In this case, in the spring, the temperature rose in the cellars where the bottles of wine were stored and they began to pop their corks with a bang. This caused the monks and winemakers a host of problems. In fact so many that champagne was labelled “the devil’s wine”.
And it is here that father Dom Perignon, who we have already met, enters the scene. This is the point at which the modern history of champagne begins. Dom Perignon noticed that it was the addition of sugar that causes young wines to effervesce while they are being aged in bottles. This observation and his natural curiosity led, around 1690, to his discovery and mastering of a method for successfully producing sparkling wine. The principles governing his production method are gathered together in a treatise he published. Interestingly, all of his most important findings remain unaltered today.
The extraordinary promotion of an extraordinary drink
Champagne reportedly made it to the royal court in quite extraordinary fashion. Among the faithful heading to the church in Hautvilliers to pray and confess their sins was a certain Baroness Jeanne de Thierzy, known as La Jolie Baronne. This high born woman was partial to leading a dissolute life. It was therefore with great apprehension that she entered the confessional to ask Father Bernignon for absolution. Nevertheless, the monk granted her grace, though with a certain reluctance. The Baroness was so relieved that she decided to assist in the promotion of the church’s vineyards. She offered her favours to the influential pig-ugly Marshall de Crequi in exchange for him delivering a case of the champagne to the royal court, which he did. Champagne was really successful and Louis XIV was so enamoured by it that he reserved most of the wine produced at the Abbey of Hautvilliers for himself. Time has shown that this unusual form of promotion turned out to be extremely effective.
Champagne conquers the world
In 1728, King Louis XV lifted the restrictions on the shipment of bottled wine. The first firm engaged in its production (Ruinart) appeared. Seven years passed before the king introduced regulations defining the dimensions and capacity of champagne bottles. He ordered bottle corks to be reinforced with wire. In 1743, Claude Moët founded the largest champagne producer. Others appeared over the next few years. By the end of that century, sales had reached almost 300,000 bottles. The Napoleonic era was also favourable to champagne. Champagne houses appeared, and by 1870 vintage champagnes were beginning to appear on the market. Today, almost 300 million bottles of champagne are sold.
The age-old dispute over the appropriate glass
In Victorian England, champagne was drunk, just as it was throughout the world at that time, in coupe glasses – basically, flat broad bowls on a tall stem. This is not, however, the ideal shape for a glass for this drink. The delicate champagne foam melts away too quickly in this kind of glass, and the bouquet very quickly disappears as a result of the bowl’s large surface area. These days, this type of glass is not recommended by connoisseurs.
The flute glass is specifically designed for champagne. It is tall with straight walls and a long stem. Opponents of the flute claim that the champagne in these glasses foams too much, while its supporters argue that it’s extremely elegant and wax lyrical over the priceless view it affords of the bubbles breaking away from its base. The surface area of the opening of the bowl is small, so the aroma of the champagne can be fully savoured before it vanishes.
Real devotees sip champagne from tulip glasses, whose shape resembles that of the flower of the same name. They have thin delicately curved sides and are slightly tapered towards the top. In a glass of this kind, the aroma evaporates in a more concentrated manner than in the flute-type glasses.
The Palate’s Delight!
We normally buy it to celebrate New Year’s Eve. But that’s a mistake! Champagne is a wine suited to every occasion and suitable for anything. It stimulates and refreshes the palate. It can be drunk in the morning and the evening. For many, it’s the ideal wine for a picnic. Champagne should be drunk chilled but not frozen. Unlike most other wines, it can accompany a whole meal: it can be opened as an aperitif or finished off as a dessert accompaniment. Champagne and chicken, champagne and strawberries, champagne and caviar, cheese, fish, beef… Could anything be more delightful than a supper featuring the swallowing of oysters and drinking of champagne?