Champagne, Sparkling Wine...
...Bubbly. Champers. Fizz. Champanky. Carbonated wine has many different names, but inevitably shows up at any party indicating the same thing: celebration. It is the definitional drink to ring in some form of good news or cheer. Sparkling wine is highly carbonated and full of a fun, rich history. When you hear that loud ‘pop’ and a bulbous wine cork goes flying across the room on Year Years, chances are it came from a bottle of sparkling wine.
However, what does one mean when they say 'sparkling' wine? Put simply, sparkling wine is wine that has undergone a second fermentation which gives it carbonation. If you get your hands on the bottle and it happens to say “Champagne” on the side then you know you are enjoying one of the best, and definitely the most well known sparkling wines in the world.
Champagne actually refers to an area in France that has exported this premium sparkling wine since the Seventeenth Century. The wine in question is only Champagne if it comes from that region of France–that region, and only that region. Why? In the early 1900’s, before World War I, winemakers from outside of the region were dragging the Champagne vines through the consumerist mud by selling low-quality wines under the Champagne name. These wines reflected relatively little (if any) of the distinctive tastes and flavors found within the Champagne valley. Consequentially laws were enacted to preserve the name and quality of the wines grown in the Champagne region. Wines not grown in Champagne are classified as “Sparkling Wines”, or other territorial equivalents like “Spumante” (Italy), “Cava” (Spain), or “Sekt” (Germany). In correctly labeling a wine not produced within the Champagne region faces penalty of prosecution from the French government.
This is not to say some wines, although not classified as Champagne, are not themselves of a premium quality. A good example of a non-French sparkling wine would be the wines produced by the Louis Roderer family estates: they produce Cristal Champagne in France, but also other premium sparkling wines in their estates located in California.
Sparkling wines like Champagne have enjoyed a rich, interesting tradition. Let’s first take a look at where, exactly, sparkling wines such as Champagne originated.
The Origin of Champagne
The short answer is that no one really knows for sure. The earliest records indicate that the Romans were growing wines in this region as early as 79 AD. (In fact, the caves that they dug in order to access limestone for building were later turned into some of the first wine cellars!) The generally accepted theory is that sparkling wine was, through an ongoing process of trial and error, invented first by Frère Jean Oudart (1654 – 1742) and then later perfected by the experiments of Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639 – 1715). Both of these men were Benedictine monks and cellar masters at the respective abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons and Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. (It is also worth noting that Dom Perignon is also responsible for the introduction of using cork as a bottle stopper.) Where Frere Jean Oudart played around with simply prolonging the first fermentation to achieve the effects of a second fermentation, Dom experimented with the latter. In fact, he originally added sugar in an attempt to reduce the carbonation; Dom later realized that by adding sugar he was actually making the bubbles, and soon resigned to embrace this effect rather than try to fight it.
Whoever the actual credit should go to, Dom Pérignon definitely takes them in the opinion of most people. To point, the Moët and Chandon house bought the rights to use the name of Dom Pérignon and well, as you see from the success of the Dom Perignon Brand, the rest is marketing history.
In the following centuries Champagne went on to enjoy great success, indulged in by Russian Czars, Kings and Queens. Napoleon, the famed war general, loved to celebrate so much it is rumored that he only went one battle without stocking up on some more of his tactical bubbly.
More To Come...
Alright, now that we know the basic history behind Champagne, in the next blog in the series, 2. How To Make Champagne, we’ll be looking at how sparkling-wine-making has evolved since the trial-and-error days of Seventeenth Century monks to a the highly specialized art form we all celebrate (with) today.