Champagne, a story of unwanted bubbles
Fall, a time when things slow down a little, a routine is established once again and we enjoy the last remaining days of life outdoors. Champagne or a Sparkling Wine is a perfect pair for all those comfort foods or great to just sip on the patio.
The history of Champagne and those who 'created it' are filled with tales, but the real story is just as good. A story worth knowing while you are sipping. Here are few highlights.
It all began in the Champagne region of France when the Romans planted vines around 57BC. Then the preferred wine was red and especially the reds from Burgandy. Hundreds of years later, Champagne region growers gave up trying to produce a better than Burgandy red wine and ventured in their own direction. Sparkling wine, or wine with a fizz, is first mentioned in the mid-1600's in England and quickly became in high demand. The fermentation was not fully understood at this time and for most producers the fizz was a fault and not desired. The fizz was truly an accident caused by the shipping of newly harvested, incompletely fermented, wine in barrels during the winter months to England. The wine would then warm up producing bubbly wine.
Prior to the early 1700's all wine was shipped and held in barrels and not bottled. At the time France did not have easy access to corks and bottles were not tough enough to hold the fizz. English coal-fired furnaces were soon able to produce bottles strong enough to hold the fizz and by the mid 1700's molding techniques arrived. So bottling became a viable option for Champagne. For many years, Champagne makers were reluctant to produce many bottles of the now popular bubbly, especially for shipping. In fact, up to 90% of the bottles of Champagne would explode in the cellar or elsewhere, before consumption; it was nick-named "Devil's Wine."
A monk from the Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Perignon, was a key component to the 'creation' of Champagne. In the mid-1600's, Perignon was in charge of the wine making at the Abby. The regions cold climate and short growing season, doesn't always leave enough time to properly ferment the wine, thus causing bubbles. He realized he could not prevent the bubbles but could make the bubbly wine better. He developed the art of blending grapes from different vineyards and with different grapes. He also developed a method to press black/dark grapes and get white juice. He also improved clarification techniques, producing a brighter wine. Perignon is also attributed with using stronger bottles and Spanish corks, thus allowing the possibility of shipping the bubbly wine.
Another key innovation, came from Widow Cliquot in the early 1800's, a Champagne producer. The in-bottle fermentation clouded the wine with dead yeast. Getting rid of the yeast was a problem and made the wine less appealing. Cliquot's innovation was to turn the bottles neck-down and let the yeast settle there, allowing easy extraction prior to sweetening and re-corking. The process is now known as riddling.
In the 18th century, Champagne was only 10% of the regions output of wine, however, it was enjoyed by the royalty of England and France and considered a preference of aristocratic events. By the mid-1800's Champagne sales had reached around 20 million bottles.
In the early 1900's France realized that other's were producing a bubbly wine of an inferior quality and in 1936 French law established the official boundaries of the Champagne grape growing region. Champagne-like wines made outside the Champagne region could no longer be officially called Champagne.
Non-vintage Champagne requires a minimum aging of 15 months, though most receive 18 to 30 months. A vintage Champagne is aged for a minimum of 3 years. The methode Champenoise or traditional method of making Champagne requires two fermentations, a blending step, and riddling, which happens after the second fermentation. It is then aged fully invented for the required time. Once the wine is ready to be released, disgorgement takes place, which is the removal of the sediment that has collected in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then topped off with 'liqueur d'expedition,' and then corked.
Today, many great sparkling wines are produced in all regions of the world from many grape varietals. Nearly 320 million bottles of Champagne are now sold, There are several Champagne or Sparkling wine styles, which determine the amount of sugar they have; from less sweet to sweetest, Extra Brut, Brut Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-sec, and Doux.
So, this fall while enjoying a bit of the bubbly, stop to consider the history within the glass you are enjoying.