With the festivities of the holiday season all subdued and life slowly returning to normalcy I was reminded about how UNESCO has added the “Hillsides, Houses & Wine Cellars of Champagne” to the official list of World Heritage Sites.The Champagne UNESCO listing recognises: the historic vineyards of Hautvilliers (Dom Perignon’s village), Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Saint-Nicaise Hill in Reims, and the Avenue de Champagne and Fort Chabrol in Epernay.These historic hillsides, the production sites (with their underground cellars) and the sales and distribution centres (the Champagne Houses) – illustrate the entire champagne production process and a living tradition.
The sparkling wine known as Champagne has been made in the Champagne region since the 17th century using the méthode champenoise which involves fermenting the wine directly in the bottle to create carbon dioxide – the fizz we all know and love. If it is made anywhere else in France or the world it cannot be called Champagne.It doesn’t matter if a wine producer uses the same grape, the same blend, the same method as the Champagne of the Champagne region – it cannot be called champagne.
The legend of Dom Perignon will forever be tied to the legend of the bubbles in champagne. Close to Reims cathedral in the Hautvilliers Abbey, a near-blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon was given the job of being its chief treasurer and cellar master. When he first took over in 1688, the wine being produced by the abbey was adequate but pale. Perignon feared that the deep red wine from the neighboring region of “Bourgogne” (Burgundy), was gaining favor with the King . The lighter red of the wine produced in Champagne was becoming a problem but was unavoidable due to the cooler climate of the region.
In this northern region of France the grapes had to be harvested early and the wine barrels became too cold during winter months. Unfortunately, even though it had not reached peak fermentation, the pinkish juice had to be bottled. After all, there was a royal demand for the product, and it was up to the monks at the abbey to deliver. But while the chilly winter had temporarily halted the fermentation process, the warmer spring climate “reawakened” the fermentation after the wine had been bottled. The result, of course, were bubbles!
Because Perignon and his abbey brothers were frustrated by the presence of the “bulles” (French for “bubbles”), they began altering the wine’s chemistry by blending several types of grapes and removing the skins. What resulted was the art of blending, and the first white wine ever produced! Yet, unfortunately, this new elegant pale wine persisted in fermenting after it was bottled!
The bubbles were considered by the monks to be a serious defect in the wine, and the cause of production disasters: bottles were exploding all over the cellars! Nevertheless, Dom Perignon did not give up; and legend says that when he tasted the new lighter bubbly wine he was pleasantly surprised, and exclaimed “Come quickly, brothers! I’m tasting stars!” If the elegant bubbly could just be bottled without exploding, the monks could introduce a truly exciting new wine. Dom Perignon began by changing the shape of the bottle and using heavier glass. The stronger bottle eliminated the explosion problem, but now the effervescence of the bubbly wine persisted in blowing out the hemp and oil stoppers. Perignon turned to Spain for stoppers made of cork, and Voilà . . . the cork did it! The king’s court was delighted with this new effervescent pale colored wine. The abbey’s reputation was saved!
When we think of great Champagne houses, amongst the names brought to mind are Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Bollinger, Roederer and Perrier. These are all the names of fantastic Champagne wineries, and they are also the names of famous Champagne widows who ran their businesses in a mans world to establish these Champagne houses to what they are today.
Nearly a century passed since the inception of the bubbly wine before a young woman named Nicole Clicquot implemented ways to enhance bottle fermentation of sparkling wine. The “Veuve (Widow) Clicquot” took over her husband’s champagne “house” at the age of 27 when he died unexpectedly, thus becoming one of the “grandes dames” of champagne, as well as a business woman far ahead of her time. In an attempt to reduce the buildup of bubbles in the unopened bottles, her cellar master began rotating the bottles slightly every day. Tah-dah!! This procedure, called “riddling,” is still done today by hand in the most prestigious champagne houses.
The House of Clicquot also perfected a procedure called “disgorgement.” This involves uncorking the bottles during the second fermentation to dislodge the yeast sediment that had accumulated. The bottles were stored at an angle so that sediment would settle in the neck . Upon releasing the cork, pressure forced sediment to be expelled from the bottle. An expert “disgorger” could then quickly re-cork the bottle before losing any of the precious bubbly.
In 1858, Louise Pommery took control of the Pommery winery, at the age of 39 and with two children to care for as well. She built elaborate buildings over her cellars, and developed a brut style of Champagne that the British adored. She brought her winery from a small, multi-wine shop to a large Champagne house, respected the world over.
Almost twenty years later, Mathilde Emile Laurent-Perrier took over Laaurent-Perrier and ran it for 38 years. In fact, when the company later floundered when Methilde died, another widow – Marie-Louise de Nonancourt, purchased the house and kept it going.
In 1932, Madame Camille Olry-Roederer took over not only the Champagne business but also her family’s race horses. She kept both alive during the depression and wars. She also promoted Cristal, the top of the line Champagne available from Roederer.
Finally, Madame Lily Bollinger. She took control in 1941 – not an easy time for any Champagne house to be in operation and She doubled production of the winery.
Cheers to the women behind the success of the bubbly.
The Science behind the bubbles ………
When you see photos of elegant Champagne flutes, there is always a delicate stream of ‘champagne bubble pearls’ snaking its way up from the bottom of the glass. How does that happen?
They actually put yeast into the bottle while they are making the Champagne. The yeast does its normal function – it consumes sugar and creates bubbles of carbon dioxide plus alcohol. That carbon dioxide, being made in the bottle, is what creates little bubbles in the sparkling wine. There are approximately 58 million bubbles in one bottle of champagne.
Today’s “methode champenoise” is a result of these centuries old practices which all began with Dom Perignon in the Hautvilliers Abbey in Reims, France. The true French way to make champagne still relies on blending grapes, fermenting the wine in bottles, riddling the bottles to reduce pressure, and disgorging the sediment from the neck. Any current producer of sparkling wine who strictly follows these procedures can legally use the expression “methode champenoise” on their label.
On a closing note It may surprise you to know that the English had quite a lot to do with the success of Champagne sparkling wine. The wealthy English importers liked the taste of the bubbles in the pale wine that induced a feeling of elation and proactively sought methods to produce it. The popularity of this “happy drink” spread, and the astute producers in the Champagne region laid claim to the name and the right to be the only ones to be legally authorised to produce a sparkling wine called Champagne (ratified by the Treaty of Madrid 1981).
Elderflower and champagne cocktail (Reference imbibe)
- 5 oz. Champagne chilled
- ½ oz. vodka
- ½ oz. elderflower cordial
- soda water, chilled
- Garnish: fresh raspberries (if available)
- Combine the chilled Champagne or sparkling wine with vodka and elderflower cordial in a glass and stir.
- Top with chilled soda water to taste and garnish with raspberries.
Make your Own Herb-Infused Champagne Drink
For a super-simple drink, add a tablespoon of the herb-infused simple syrup below to a glass of champagne or sparkling wine.
Herb infused syrup
- 1/2 cup (4 oz./125 g.) sugar
- 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml.) water
- Herb of choice (see below)
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water, bring to a boil over high heat, and stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Remove from the heat, add the herb, and let stand for 1-2 hours.
- Pour the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve into a jar, pressing down firmly on the herbs.
- Cap tightly and refrigerate.
The syrup will keep for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 3/4 cup.
Choice of herbs
- 3 fresh basil sprigs, 3 inches long
- 4-5 bay leaves
- 4-5 fresh geranium leaves
- 1 1/2 tsp. fresh lavender buds
- 1/4 cup fresh lovage leaves
- 2 fresh rosemary sprigs, 3 inches long
- 3 fresh thyme sprigs, 3 inches