Did you Know: Secret history of champagne

Who doesn’t love a bottle of bubbly?

As it turns out, the people who invented the stuff!

Champagne is all slick luxury nowadays but in its early days, champagne was a nothing more than an unfortunate mishap that wine makers rushed to get rid of. Its success today has much to do with marketing and “adventurous” upper class British tastes.

Several centuries ago, winemakers living in the Champagne region of France would make “normal” wine and store it in their cellars. Cold temperatures during the winter would render yeast cells left in the bottles inactive. But as temperatures warmed in the spring, or during transport, they would spontaneously restart fermentation right in the bottle. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct, and so winemakers who had bottled and stored their (flat) wines after production would open them up months later to find a bit of fizz.

That is, if the bottles didn’t explode first. Bottle explosions were a serious problem. Champagne winemakers wore special protective face coverings while working in the cellar. As much as 80% of a standard season’s production could be lost to explosions from internal gas pressure.

These exploding bottles and annoying bubbles were the bane of winemakers’ existence. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dom Pérignon? He was a winemaking monk whose life’s work was actually dedicated to removing the bubbles from his wines.

One of the best ways to get rid of an unwanted product is to try to market it elsewhere, and as it happened in the 17th century the British were particularly receptive to this newfangled product. Amused rather than frustrated by the bubbly drink, by the 18th century it was extremely popular among the wealthy, with influencers such as at the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Arlington at the heart of the trend. The English developed a stronger, explosion-resistant bottle, and finally the French decided the bubbles were a good idea after all, with Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, becoming the champagne cheerleader in its home country.

Artist’s rendering of actual historical events

But now champagne makers had another problem: consistency. Most people weren’t exactly sure how or why the bubbles appeared, and even less how to control it. By the 19th century, mostly through trial and error, with much thanks to the house of Veuve Clicquot, the French had a standardized method of producing champagne. But this method was rather convoluted compared to traditional winemaking, involving steps such as racking and riddling (the bigger houses had a dedicated employee for this, known as “the riddler”). This method, with small variations and some mechanization, is the famous méthode champenoise still in use today by any serious maker of champagne.

And now, some Q and A:
Can it be champagne if it is not made in the Champagne region of France?

According to French law, no. Internationally, it depends. The Champagne region is an A.O.C., or appellation d’origine contrôlée, and only champagne made within that A.O.C. can be termed champagne, according to French law. However, no equivalent international laws apply outside of Europe and so, essentially, an American winemaker in Connecticut can call his sparkling wine “champagne” and there is nothing the French can do about it.

How to choose good champagne?

There are many factors to consider when choosing champagne, but the most important guideline is your own taste: Choose what you like.

Some other helpful hints:

-Generally speaking, champagne should taste of apples and bread and be relatively acidic, not too sweet (there are different sweetness levels, with “extra brut” being the least sweet, and “brut” being the second least sweet – most champagnes are this label).

-“Blanc de blancs” refers to a champagne made with white grapes only; “blanc de noirs” refers to a champagne made with red grapes only; standard champagne is made from a combination – again, this is all about your personal tastes.

-Producers vs. distributors. If you prefer to get your wine from a short supply chain, choose a bottle with the “récoltant manipulant (RM)” label. This refers to an independent producer who grows at least 95% of his own grapes. Most big houses get their grapes from all over the Champagne region, and there are other actors, like négociants, cooperatives, and distributors, who have some hand in the longer chains of production.

-Bubbles: Well-made champagne should have small bubbles, moving in a steady upward stream from the bottom of the glass to the top, and should stay fizzy for a long time without going flat. Cheaper methods exist that mechanically infuse carbon dioxide into the wine but these bubbles tend to be bigger (think Coke). A true second fermentation in the bottle gives smaller bubbles that last longer.

What to pair with champagne?

Champagne is supposed to go with everything! Its relatively neutral flavor and high acidity are great for pairing with both savory and sweet foods. The specifics depend on the type of champagne you choose. But some classic pairings are oysters and strawberries.

I can’t afford champagne. What can I drink instead?

There are lots of great bubbly options out there! Some of my personal favorites are the Italian Prosecco and the Spanish cava, but if you want to stay within France, there are tons of affordable regional sparkling wines, such as crémant d’Alsace, blanquette de Limoux, or even a cider from Brittany.

So the next time you are offered a glass of bubbly, drink up and remember the secret history of this luxury drink. Santé!

Tell us: What bubbly drinks do you enjoy? What foods or drinks do you use to celebrate special occasions?

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