The Story of Champagne
A look behind the bubbles...
What's the trouble with bubbles? Find out, as our Food Editor explores the history of the world's most festive beverage.
Did you know the bubbles in Champagne were first considered a flaw?
Early winemakers of the Champagne region of France didn't want effervescent wine. They considered bubbles a defect, a corruption of the still, fizz-free wine they were trying to make.
These bothersome bubbles came about unintentionally. The weather was the culprit. Being so far north, the temperature in Champagne sometimes turned too cool too soon, stopping the fermentation process short.
Once placed into bottles, this partially fermented wine became little glass time-bombs. When temperatures warmed up again in the spring, fermentation rebooted--only this time inside the bottle. The build-up of carbon dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation) created intense pressure inside the bottles and turned the tranquil cellars of Champagne into war zones of exploding bottles--and presumably led to a tremendous boon for the eye patch industry around Reims.
Of course, when the bottles didn't burst, this secondary fermentation created bubbles, which were released harmlessly when the bottles were uncorked.
Faced with a potentially defective product, there was only one thing to do: call in the marketers! The marketing pros took what was essentially a flaw and turned it into a fabulous selling point! They positioned Champagne as a fun, festive wine. Today, of course, the very word "Champagne" is practically a synonym for celebration.
And job one for the marketers of Champagne? No doubt it was to build a better bottle, one that wouldn't explode shards of glass into customers' faces! (Such a thing was not considered particularly festive even by early marketing standards.) You'll notice that today's sparkling wines come in thick, unexploding glass bottles.
Making It Bubbly
In this way, Champagne signals the first modern wine, certainly the first mass-marketed wine. It also requires quite the industrial process. To produce Champagne, or sparkling wine, in modern times, a syrupy sugar mixture (dosage de tirage) is added to still wine to ensure a reliable secondary fermentation in the bottle. This secondary fermentation creates sediment called lees (dead yeast cells), which settle and collect in the neck of the bottle (the bottles are placed tilting forward). After a time, the bottles are uncorked, the lees are removed, and the bottles are topped off with a dosage d'expedition--a splash of extra wine to fill the gap. The lees give flavor. When disgorged, there will likely not be further quality development. So the more "time on lees" the better.
As you can see, the process of making champagne is time consuming and requires a lot of labor. And that's the rub! Good champagne is usually pretty pricey. Excellent champagne can be stratospheric--truly the stuff for special occasions.
The Grapes that Make Champagne
Another interesting thing about Champagne is it is often made with black grapes. Specifically, Pinot Noir (also Meunier). Often Champagne is a blend of both white and black grapes. When only black or only white grapes are used, the label will let you know:
- Champagne made with only black grapes will be labeled blanc de noir (white from black).
- Blanc de blanc (white from white) means the grapes are all white grapes, specifically Chardonnay.
- Interestingly, a blanc de noir wine does not mean it will be rosé in color. The wine might be a little more golden than a blanc de blanc, but it will still be white. Rosé champagne gets its color from still red wine being added to the bottle.
The Size of Your Bubbles
When it comes to bubbles, size does seem to matter. Small bubbles generally suggest better quality in a sparkling wine. Larger bubbles can indicate that the wine was fermented in a giant vat instead of inside the bottle according to the dictates of the vaunted Champagne method. Done correctly, you will find millions upon millions of tiny bubbles in each bottle.
Like Drinking the Stars
Legend has it that Dom Pérignon, upon taking his first sip of Champagne, gushed, "I am drinking the stars!"
Though this is pure fiction, an early example of marketing baloney, Dom Pérignon was in fact a real person. His major claim to fame: he was responsible for advancing the quality of champagne in the late 17th, early 18th centuries.
Pérignon is credited with perfecting the art of blending Champagne. He blended grapes from different vineyards before pressing, choosing batches according to location, ripeness, and flavor. Through careful blending, he arrived at a consistent, distinctive flavor, a house style, a brand.
And that's really the art of blending: creating a wine that, though the vintages change, remains relatively consistent in flavor.
Words and Phrases to Know
Champagne is a blended wine. Here are some terms to know about the wine and the process of making them:
Cuvée means a blended batch of wine, put together to make a specific lot of wine. Cuve means tank or vat.
Grandez Marques: The big houses; Moet et Chandon, Vouve Cliquox, etc.
(multi-vintage) means the wine is not made from the grapes of one particular vintage but is a blend of wine from various vintages.
House style: Champagne is typically blended to create a consistent style, one that will conform to a certain taste year after year. This can be a good hedge against inconsistent conditions in the vineyards.
Tête de cuvée: This is the very best wine from a vintage, which is set aside. Leftover wine makes non-vintage house wine.
Dosage de tirage: The process of adding a sugary syrup to still wines to ensure secondary fermentation in the bottle. The process dates to about 1700. Wines come in from different lots and are made into still wine.
Dosage d'expedition: One for the road. The final bit of Champagne that is added at the end to fill the gap left after disgorgement.
RM (Recoitant-Manipulant): Shown at various spots on the label, RM indicates that the wine was made by a single grower who used his/her own grapes; the wine was estate grown and made.