“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”- Dom Pierre Pérignon
History of Champagne:
It’s believed that the Roman’s first cultivated vines in Champagne, France in at least the 5th century, but it wasn’t until 987 when Hugh Capet was crowned King of France that the tradition of having local wine on display at the coronation banquets became a tradition, thus putting wine front and center. The Champenois were envious of the reputation their neighbors in Burgundy received for their wines and sought to produce wines of equal praise. The early wine of this region was a pale, pinkish color made exclusively from Pinot Noir, which in comparison to Burgundies, is a much lighter bodied and thinner wine. A problem they encountered was their climate. The cold winter temperature prematurely halted fermentation in the cellars, but then the dormant yeast would awaken in the warmth of the spring and start fermentation again. This caused a release of carbon dioxide gas which also caused intense pressure, and being that this is only the 10th century, their glass bottles were weak and often exploded. Those that happened to survive were found to contain bubbles. Of course, they were horrified because they thought was a fault. Little did they know, they were sitting on a treasure of a wine!
Even up until the 17th century, winemakers were trying to find ways to remove the bubbles from the wine. Enter Dom Pierre Pérignon, a monk and cellarmaster who tended vines at Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers. He’s noted to have tried to remove the bubbles but is also noted to have perfected the use of bubbles, likely figuring out during the removal process that he was indeed working with a true gem in the wine world. While serving as cellarmaster, he was able to work on and perfect various winemaking techniques that are used today. An abridged version of his resume is as follows:
- He pioneered several winemaking techniques that helped improve the quality by being able to blend different grapes to balance out imperfections. (Terminology: NV and Cuvée)
- He perfected the art of producing clear white wines from black grapes by clever manipulation of the presses. (Terminology: Blanc de Noirs and Rosé)
- Assisted Champagne wines in retaining their natural sugar in order to naturally induce secondary fermentation in the spring. (Terminology: Methode Champenois)
- Was a master at deciding when to bottle these wines in order to capture the bubble.
- Introduced corks which were fastened to bottles with hemp string soaked in oil in order to keep the wines fresh and sparkling, which prior to, were wood. (This is subject to myth from his successor, Dom Groussard, who used Pérignon’s efforts in “inventing” champagne to give the Abbey more prestige and importance.)
- Used thicker glass in order to strengthen the bottles, which at the time were prone to exploding.
Though Pérignon was a major player in the evolution of Champagne, it wasn’t until 14 years after his death that the first Champagne house was founded in 1729, and the main style of production in Champagne didn’t start to frequently occur until the 19th century.
Though he didn’t exactly discover the Champagne method for creating sparkling wines, he does have a line of bubbles he inspired, aptly named Dom Pérignon. (He is the pioneer after all. He most definitely deserves is own line!) The first vintage, a 1921, was released in 1936 by Champage House Moët & Chandon. Dom Pérignon is a “vintage Champagne”” which means it isn’t made in weak years and all grapes used to make the wine were harvested in the same year. It’s also always produced with a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, though each vintage will have a different blending ratio. As of 2020, only 44 different vintages have been released.
*Fun Fact: In 1981, Dom Pérignon Vintage 1961 was served at Princess Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles in magnums that held a special insignia created just for the ceremony.
Back to the history: The English were thought to be among the first who saw the bubbles in Champagne to be a desirable trait and tried to understand it, rather than remove it. In 1662, English scientist Christopher Merret presented a paper detailing how the presence of sugar in the wine led it to eventual sparkle, and that- in theory- nearly any wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar to the wine before bottling it. This is one of the first accounts of understanding the process and suggests that British merchants were producing “sparkling Champagne” well before even the French Champenois were intentionally making it. (Due to lack of communication technology, it’s likely that the English were working on the same thing Dom Pérignon was at the same time, and had no idea or notion that the other was doing the same.):
Following the death of French King Louis XIV, his nephew Philippe II, Duke of Orléans became the Regent of France, and enjoyed the (intentional) sparkling version of Champagne and featured it nightly at the palace. This sparked a craze in Paris as restaurants and the fashionable society sought to imitate the bubbling wine. The French Revolution temporarily derailed the popularity of Champagne, but as many nobles fled the Napoleonic Wars, they made sure their favorite Champagne was in tow.
The modern Champagne industry didn’t truly start to come to fruition until the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century to early 19th. There was a better understanding on how to make sparkling wine and technological improvements helped make production financially feasible. In the 1830s, André Francois, a pharmacist from France, outlined formulas with the precise measurement of sugars that were needed to make the wine sparkle without producing more pressure than the bottle could withstand. Prior to this, 20-90% of their product was lost to instability. (Picture a fireworks display of broken glass and high pressured corks flying in a room while Champagne rains down.) Corking machines also improved how corks seals the wine, which created less opportunity for the gas to seep out of the bottle, which would result in a loss of bubbles.
In the early 19th century, an important advancement was made to remove the sediment caused by dead yeast after the secondary fermentation. Early producers left the sediment, which left the wine cloudy and prone of off flavors. (Terminology: Pét-Nat) Madame Clicquot of the Champagne House “Veuve Cliquot” and her cellarmaster developed the process known today as riddling. This process collects the sediment at the neck of the bottle and uses the pressure of the wine to eject the sediment. This led to the popularity of adding sugar-sweet dosage to replace the wine lost during the riddling process. The Russian were fans of very sweet Champagne, so this was a way to tailor the wines to their sweetness preferences.
(In 1892, Champagne production found itself on American soil when the Korbel Brothers began producing sparkling wine made from Riesling, Muscatel, Traminer, and Chasselas grapes.)
By the end of the 19th century in France, Champagne has made it’s mark and embedded itself into pop culture, but the early 20th brought upon many challenges. Many Champagne houses were looking outside of the Champagne region for cheaper grapes, and the French railway system made it easy for them to acquire these grapes, which were nearly half the price. Newspapers also published rumors that some of the Champagne houses were buying rhubarb from the English to make wine with. With hardly any laws in place to protect the vine grower or consumer, Champagne houses had most of the power in the region to profit from these ‘faux Champagnes.’
Secret alliances were made among various Champagne houses in order to drive down the price of grapes as low as they would go, and with the ever-present threat that if these houses couldn’t get Champagne region grapes for a low cost, they’d source to a different region, they found themselves in a position where they were being paid less for fewer grapes. In January of 1911, frustrations had reached a boiling point and riots erupted. Champenois vine growers intercepted trucks with grapes from other regions and pushed them into the river. Then they raided warehouses of producers known to produce ‘faux Champagne,’ tossing more wine and barrels into the river.
As a result, the French Government passed laws that defined where Champagne wine was able to come from. There was some argument over which regions would fall under the category, but WWI erupted, and those issues had to be set aside as the entire country prepared themselves for war.
Some Champagnes houses were abandoned, but many Champenoise remained and hide in the underground caverns where the wine was aged to hide from the German artillery. Vineyards became wastelands of pits and craters from bombs, but some Champenois continued to produce from 1914-1917. By the time the war ended, the Champagne region had lost over half its population, and many vineyards and warehouses were completely destroyed.
I’m happy to report that there is a silver lining to all of this. In 1919, the French Government passed a series of laws that would lay the groundwork for the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system that would define winemaking laws and regional boundaries. Measures were also taken to eliminate ‘faux Champagnes, and only grapes grown in the specified region could be legally called “Champagne.” But with good news, there’s sometimes bad. The Russian Revolution had ended, but the impacts were finally hitting home and the once lucrative Russian market was closed to Champagne imports, all while the US was beginning the Prohibition-era and dealing with the economic downturn of the Great Depression. WWII brought even more troops through the vineyards. The devastation wasn’t as bad as the previous war, but any loss after replanting is still a significant hit.
On March 7th, 1945 German military commander Alfred Jodi offered an unconditional surrender to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the following morning, the signing was celebrated with 6 cases of 1934 vintage Champagne. A WWII historian commented that “the last explosions of the war were the popping of the Champagne corks.”
Since 1950, sales have quadrupled to over 200 million bottles. The increase in worldwide demand prompted the French authorities to look into expanding the zones for the designation, and 40 more villages were added to Champagne production.
End History. Sorry, I got really into the research and history on this! I couldn’t bring myself to omit a single thing. It was all so interesting and everything seem important!
Why have I been calling it Champagne instead of the Sparkling Wine you’re used to?
Over time, Champagne has become a brand in and of itself, with the Champenois actively trying to protect that brand and term since the late 1800’s. With its popularity and success, many imitators have been inspired around the world, such as Cava in Spain, Sekt in Germany, several American sparklers, and even Cremants in other French regions. As detailed a bit above, they got their wish in 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was enacted after the first World War which led to Champagne officially becoming a legally protected designation. However, it was never truly ratified in the US since we were in the midst of Prohibition and it didn’t seem overly important enough to follow, thus resulting in producers still being free to use the term “Champagne,” much to the chagrin of the Champenois. (It is important to note that many did convert to the term “Sparkling Wine” out of respect.) In early 2006, the US and European Union signed a wine trade agreement where the issue was brought up again. The US agreed to no longer allow the use of certain terms, such as Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Port, and Chianti, but anyone who already had an approved label was grandfathered in and could continue to use the terms. And that is how Sparkling Wine was born….
Sparkling Wine Terminology
Blanc de Blancs– “white from whites” This is a sparkling wine made exclusively from white grapes, usually Chardonnay or Cayuga White.
Blanc de Noirs– “white from darks” This sparkling wine is made exclusively from red grapes. It is pressed and fermented after being separated from the skins.
Brut– a sweetness indicator for sparkling wine, “brut” means dry.
Spumante- an Italian word that translates into English as “Sparkling Wine.”
Vintage– A sparkling wine produced from grapes from a single harvest.
Non-vintage/NV– A sparkling wine produced from grapes from multiple harvests.
Rosé– a wine made from red grapes that are fermented without the skins, leaving it white to pale pink in color.
Cuvée– many meanings: a French word that translates to “tank,” meaning it can specify a particular tank of wine. It can also mean that it’s made form the very first gently pressing of grapes, indicating prime quality. Lastly, and the most popular option it seems, it can also refer to a particular blend of different types of wine that go into a recipe made by that winery. This allows for consistency year to year.
Naturale/Naturel– term used to describe a sparkling wine that is absolutely dry.
Fermentation- when the yeast transforms the grape sugars into alcohol.
Second Fermentation– a process where the sparkling wine goes through a second fermentation, typically in the bottle.
Lees– dead or residual yeast leftover from fermentation.
Riddling– developed by Madame Clicquot and her cellarmaster, this is the process of getting the dead yeast into the neck of the bottle after the second fermentation. The bottles are stored at an angle and are rotated and slightly shaken before being dropped back into the rack, which causes the sediment to work its way to the top.
Disgorging– the act of removing the dead yeast from the neck of the bottle. Most are done manually, though some are done by machine. This is where the cork is removed and the sediment “pops” out, along with a tad of liquid.
Dosage– immediately after disgorging, but before the final cork, a little bit of base liquid and sugar is added to the bottle to top it off.
Methods of Producing Sparkling Wine
Method Champenoise/Traditional Method– this is believed to make the highest-quality, longest-lived, most complex sparkling wines, and is also the most expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. This requires a secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle. It’s riddled, disgorged, and the dosage is added before the final corking.
Charmat Method/Tank Method– the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank which forces the carbon dioxide into the wine. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered and bottled. The dosage is added during bottling.
Transfer Method– this is a hybrid of both the traditional and tank methods. This begins as a traditional method with the secondary fermentation taking place in the bottle, but then the wines are emptied into a pressurized tank, the sediment is filtered off, and packaged into new bottles.
Ancestral Method– this is the oldest sparkling method of all and has regained popularity as it’s used to create pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat. There is no secondary fermentation with this method, but instead a fermenting wine is transferred from tank to bottle before the first is complete. In the bottle, it finishes fermenting under cork, or more commonly, cap. Some disgorge and rebottle after fermentation, but most elect not to, which results in a cloudy, earthy textured wine.
Force-Carbonation– instead of feeding the leftover yeast more sugars to naturally create CO2 within the bottle, in this method they directly infuse CO2 into the wine from a gas cylinder. This is popular amongst the sweet sparkling options since, if you add more sugar to sweeten it up, you’ll just create more alcohol and potentially cause the bottle to explode.
Cooking with Sparkling Wine
When you cook with any alcohol, the heat makes the majority of the alcohol evaporate, and in the case of sparkling wine, it’ll also take the bubbles away leaving only the flavor. Add sparkling wine to sauces for meats, fish, and vegetables. Sparkling wine can also be added into baked goods. I suggest Sparkling Wine cupcakes- they’re divine! You can also make a vinegar out of it by putting it in a jar, covering it with cheesecloth, and storing it in a cool, dry place for a few months.
Pairing Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine is surprisingly versatile when it comes to pairing food. It’s a brunch beverage for a reason- it goes incredibly well with omelets, quiches, and salty foods like bacon and butter. Popcorn is a bonus item it pairs with, for the perfect Netflix and chill moment with sparkles and a snack. It also pairs well with charcuterie boards, specifically with blue cheese and baked brie. Other great choices are Ahi Tuna, Smoked Salmon, Oysters, and Shrimp Cocktail. Fruit-based desserts like tarts, crepes, or anything honey or butter works great, as well. And surprisingly, shortbread cookies also go great since it’s a butter-based cookie.
Check out these offers along the trail* for the entire month of February
Montezuma Winery– 20% off Pink Swan, sparkling raspberry wine (From $16.99 to $13.59) In-store and online – coupon code SPARKLING. No other offers or discounts apply.
Knapp Winery– Complimentary tasting of Brut NV with purchase of standard tasting, plus $1.00 off a bottle, available in-store only
Buttonwood Grove Winery– Complimentary tasting with purchase of standard tasting:
ALL SPARKLINGS will be available at a discount of 25% off 6 or more bottles, mix and match any sparkling wines for the month of February, plus $10 shipping.
- Complimentary tasting of any sparkling wine with the purchase of standard tasting: Blanc de Noirs, Sparkling Wine, Naomi.
- Plus, an additional $5 off (on top of quantity discount) when you purchase 3 or more bottles of any sparkling, may mix and match. In-store only.
- Bonus: free champagne stopper if you purchase a full case. In-store only.
Lucas Vineyards– 15% discount on single or multiple bottles of Blanc de Blancs 40th Anniversary Methodé Champenoise($29.99 to $25.49), Extra Dry Methodé Champenoise ($23.99 to $20.39), and Raspberry Blues Splash ($14.99 to $12.74) Available for curbside pickup or shipping. Cannot be combined with other discounts. Call 1-800-682-WINE (9463) to order
Americana Vineyards– $3 off a bottle of Rubies Bubbling (Blush or Red) and any fudge flavor. $5 off 2 bottles of Rubies Bubbling (Blush or Red) and any flavor of fudge.
Six Mile Creek Vineyard– $5 off 3 or more bottles of Avery’s Spumante on top of quantity discount. In-store only. Can call to add to your shipped order, too! 607-272-9463
*At participating wineries
Back in December, I hopped on the FingerLakes1 podcast and paired Sparklers with some NYE snacks. I love going on this podcast! I have a blast with Jim and Sydney and have even more fun thinking of different wine and food pairings to showcase! I was so surprised at how well the bubbles went with the popcorn.