I have been a champagne/sparkling wine consumer for about ten years now. But these are some great facts and stories.
The popular story is that a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine. He was trying to eliminate the unwanted bubbles that occurred sometimes in wine and turned the bottles into ticking time bombs. He found that the uniquely shaped, thicker bottles used by the English to transport wine could also withstand the pressure of the gas. So he didn’t invent champagne (many say an English scientist first recorded the method), but he did help make it the drink we know today.
Champagne is made from the juice of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay adds lightness, Pinot Meunier contributes fruitiness while Pinot Noir gives the wine body and structure. Varying the ratio of these three grapes in a blend creates each champagne’s unique flavor. For example, Veuve Clicquot favors a majority of Pinot Noir, whereas Dom Pérignon is made from half and half Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
You might wonder why champagne is always white when both Pinot Noir (pictured here) and Pinot Meunier are red grapes. This is because the grapes are pressed gently so the juice has limited contact with the skins, which impart color to a wine. Grape juice itself is clear. This method is due to Dom Pérignon’s contribution.
Champagne is made in several stages after growing, picking and pressing. The first is to ferment the juice from different grapes into still wines, which the cellar master will sample and blend. For most champagnes, the aim of blending is to maintain a house style year on year and many blends include wines from previous years. This is why you won’t find a vintage, when a wine uses grapes grown and harvested from one specific year, on most bottles.
Once blended, the wine is bottled, and yeast and sugar are added to start the secondary fermentation process. The bottles are sealed so that carbon dioxide cannot escape and has to dissolve – creating champagne’s magical bubbles.
The yeast eventually dies and becomes a deposit known as the lees, the unlikely source of champagne’s complex flavors. A basic champagne is required, by law, to age with its lees for 15 months, but most houses will leave it for at least three years.
It’s this secondary fermentation – known as the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle – that sets champagne apart from some sparkling wines. Prosecco, for instance, undergoes secondary fermentation in large, pressurized tanks with little lees contact.
Don’t like the sound of drinking dead yeast? The lees are removed long before the bottle reaches the shelf through a process known as remuage or riddling, gradually rotating and upending the bottle over several weeks until the neck is at the bottom and with a plug of yeast above it. Traditionally this was done by hand but many houses now use machines. The neck of the bottle is then frozen and the plug removed in a process called disgorging, with as little champagne as possible lost along the way.
After disgorging, the final step is to ‘dose’ the champagne with a solution of sugar and still wine known as the liquer d’expédition. This dosage determines the sweetness of the final wine. Extra-brut means zero dosage (a style that’s becoming increasingly popular), brut sees the addition of 7–10g (0.2–0.4oz) of sugar while demi-sec and doux see up to 50g (1.8oz) of sugar added.
The English palate is actually behind the dry styles of champagne we know today. When the French began exporting champagne to England in the late 19th century, they discovered the dry varieties were preferred to the incredibly sweet, almost syrupy varieties that had dominated until then. By comparison, goût russe, or ‘Russian taste’, was used to classify the sweetest champagne, which was about six times sweeter than our sweetest champagne today.
In fact, Russia was a huge driver in the champagne industry, becoming one of the world’s largest consumers in the 19th century. It’s said that Cristal got its name because it was served to Russian tsars in crystal glass bottles, the epitome of luxury at the time.
Now for total BS: Champagne can only legally be labeled as such when it originates from the Champagne region of France. However, many US producers label their sparkling wines as ‘champagne’. Why? Due to a loophole in the Treaty of Versailles, the US government allows this term on brands already using the word prior to 2006, with no new brands allowed to advertise their sparkling wine as champagne.
Although champagne can only truly be champagne if it comes from the eponymous French region, many wines are produced using the champagne method (méthode champenoise). These include Crémant (a personal favorite) produced elsewhere in France, cava in Spain, cap classique sparkling wines from South Africa, numerous American wines (I am a big fan) and an ever-expanding range of English sparkling wines, many of which use the same grape varieties as champagne.
So what makes real champagne so special? Firstly, the Champagne region has the perfect conditions for grape-growing, notably chalky limestone soils, regular rainfall, mostly warm and steady summer temperatures, and the influence of both an oceanic and a continental climate.
In 2015, the whole Champagne region – including the hillsides, houses and cellars – was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List as a mark of its outstanding cultural significance. Many of the cellars have fascinating histories of their own, including the caves at Taittinger (I was there) which are built into the crypts and vaults of the now-destroyed Abbaye Saint Nicaise.
Around 80% of champagne is produced by the large houses such as Taittinger, Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, but they only own around 10% of the vineyards. This has led to a unique system where they purchase grapes from smaller growers after each harvest. Recent years have seen small changes and a rise in ‘grower champagnes’, which can be more diverse in style, as well as those made in local co-ops.
In such a small region, it may come as little surprise that there are numerous ties between champagne houses. For example, Madame Clicquot (pictured) was the great-granddaughter of Nicolas Ruinart. These connections continue today with most of the famous brands including Dom Pérignon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Moët et Chandon and Krug all being owned by the same company, mega luxury brand LVMH. We know it as Louis Vuitton.
Veuve Clicquot actually got its name when its founder, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, died. His wife Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot took over the business and rebranded as Veuve Clicquot – Veuve meaning widow in French. The book, “The Widow Clicquot” is a good read.
One fact with slightly less historical integrity is the claim that the saucer-shaped coupe champagne glasses were modeled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts. This is, in fact, false: the design was actually conceived in England, especially for champagne, around 1663. Marie Antoinette, and many others who were said to have ‘inspired’ the glass, weren’t even born yet.
If you want to get the best from your champagne today, you’d be wise to abandon the coupe altogether. Flutes will keep your wine sparkling for longest, while tulip-shaped glasses are thought to be best for enhancing aromas.
With a nickname like bubbly, it’s not surprising to find that champagne has plenty of fizz to preserve. A standard glass of champagne (125ml/4.2floz) will produce around one million bubbles before it goes flat in around four hours’ time.
As well as picking the right glass, there are several other things you can do to improve the quality of your champagne. As champagne starts to degrade in quality when it’s exposed to light, it’s best to keep it in a dark place until you drink it. This also means that, when purchasing champagne, look for bottles straight out of shipping box for higher quality.
Contrary to popular belief, the quality of most champagnes will diminish over the years rather than improve. Champagnes should generally be drunk within three years and once opened will last just two or three days in the fridge. Be sure to invest in a sparkling wine stopper (I have several), which will help preserve the bubbles.
The oldest bottle of champagne was found in 2010 in the Baltic Sea, among 167 other bottles of bubbly that had aged in near-perfect condition. Among them was a 170-year-old bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Its flavor, age aside, was largely uncontaminated despite being underwater for so long. The champagne was later sold at auction for a fizztastic €30,000 (£26,943.90)($37,720), setting a new world record.
The biggest bottle of wine made is called a midas or melchizedek and is around 40 times the size of a normal bottle. Of course, actually finding one is rare – and you’ll need at least three people to carry it. More sensible sizes to consider buying are magnums, which contain two bottles, and jeroboams which contain four bottles. My friends say the bigger bottles taste better!
Champagne is synonymous with celebrity. Marilyn Monroe apparently bathed in champagne at least once. A reported 350 bottles were used to fill up her tub. Another fan is the fictional spy James Bond. Although his most famous tipple is a martini – shaken, not stirred – he is actually seen drinking champagne more than 35 times in the films.
I conclude with this story: The first prestige cuvee was made by the house of Roederer for Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1876. The czar wanted an exclusive Champagne not available to the lower aristocracy (god forbid). Furthermore, Czar Alexander II demanded that the bubbly should be shipped in leaded crystal bottles. This was how the prestige cuvee Roederer Cristal was born.
Lastly, a word of advice. Apparently you’re more likely to be killed by a flying champagne cork than by a poisonous spider. So open your bottles with care…