History of Champagne
The History of Champagne
The history of sparkling wine aka champagne dates to the mid 17th century and has a somewhat dubious yet ultimately glorious story line. Champagne wasn’t necessarily invented in as much as it was a bad accident that was properly marketed to a faddish trend in, of all places, London.
(Scroll down for instructions on how to OPEN a champagne bottle.)
Somehow the English had developed a taste for what would be considered spoiled white wine. It was shipped from the Champagne region of France and bottled in London by merchants who were adding brandy and a little sugar, thereby causing a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This caused a fizzy carbonation to develop giving the still white wines from Champagne their signature effervescence.
A Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon perfected the process of making still white wine from red grapes. He also refined the art of blending the grapes of different vineyards and advanced clarification techniques far beyond what was known at that time, which contributed to the development of champagne.
Once people learned what the English were doing to create the carbonation, the process was rationalized to just adding a little sugar solution to fermented white wine to create the secondary fermentation. The problem with this was the dead yeast cells would then accumulate in the wine giving it a cloudiness that Perignon worked hard to eliminate.
The solution came from the House of Veuve Cliquot run by Nicole Barbe-Cliquout-Ponsardin, who developed the process of Remuage. Remuage is the practice of twisting, gently shaking and re-angling the capped bottles of champagne and replacing them in racks that are slowly tipped over the course of several weeks until they are upside down. The sediment is then trapped in the neck and the neck is dipped in a freezing solution to solidify the sediment. The metal cap is removed and the pressure of the carbonated wine forces out the sediment slug, the bottle is topped, corked and wire caged for shipping.
Under French law only three grapes are permitted to make champagne, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, two reds and a white respectively. Most champagne is NV or non-vintage. Each year quantities of wine are held in reserve to make NV champagne.
Extra Brut is the driest type of champagne while the most common type is Brut, the standard bone-dry style. Extra Dry is actually less dry than Brut, and Extra Sec still less. These are followed by Sec and Demi Sec, which is noticeably sweet and then Doux which is sweetest of all. Blanc de Blanc is made from only chardonnay grapes and Blanc de Noir only from Pinot Noir. Rose’ champagne has a little red still wine added to the white champagne for color.
Both by definition and law, champagne only can be labeled as such if it comes from Champagne, France. All others should be labeled sparkling wine. This rule is often disregarded, particularly by producers of cheap, often carbon dioxide injected still wines.
Champagne need not be limited to special occasions. It is meant to be fun and celebratory and is great to serve as a first course with light cheeses, nuts, or patés. The sweeter styles may be best enjoyed with desserts.
How to Safely Open and Decant Champagne
The bottle should be cold and rested. Carefully remove the foil and wire cage. Firmly grasp the cork in one hand and the lower half of the bottle in the other. Gently work the bottle and cork in opposite directions. Place your thumb over the tip of the cork with your hand around it as it eases out. Don’t be frightened by the pop; that is part of the fun! Slowly pour to half full into standing flutes, allow bubbles to subside, then fill up. Flutes are the best glasses in that the high sides allow the bubbles to be visible and the narrow opening concentrates them. A champagne stopper may be used to preserve bubbles and a chiller or bucket of ice will keep it cold.