• February 2016

Champagne: A Love Story

How did champagne become synonymous with celebration? That’s the topic we tackle in this month’s Wine column. For it would be a sad Valentine’s Day to not have the opportunity to pop a bottle of bubbly. Where did this effervescent concoction come from?

Here are a few fun facts to get the party started:

  • The Romans were the first to plant vineyards in this area of northeast France.
  • When Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in 987 at the cathedral of Reims, it was located in the heart of the region. He started a tradition that brought successive monarchs to the area, but the early wine of the Champagne region was a pale, pinkish vino made from Pinot noir.

  • According to the Oxford Companion to Wine: “The northerly climate of the region made it tough to sustain the viticulture. Cold winter temperatures prematurely halted fermentation in the cellars, leaving dormant yeast cells that would awaken in the warmth of spring and start fermenting again. One of the byproducts of fermentation is the release of carbon dioxide gas, which, if the wine is bottled, is trapped inside the wine, causing intense pressure. The pressure inside the weak, early French wine bottles often caused the bottles to explode, creating havoc in the cellars. If the bottle survived, the wine was found to contain bubbles, something that the early Champenois were horrified to see, considering it a fault. As late as the 17th century, Champenois wine makers, most notably the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon (1638–1715), were still trying to rid their wines of the bubbles.”

  • The British began developing a taste for the sparkling version of Champagne — especially the royals and wealthy. Following the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715, the court of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans made the sparkling version of Champagne a favorite among the French nobility. More Champenois wine makers attempted to make their wines sparkle deliberately, but didn’t know enough about how to control the process or how to make wine bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure.
  • It was the house of Veuve Clicquot that took the lead in developing the méthode champenoise, which made it possible to produce sparkling wine on a large scale. These included Krug (1843), Pommery (1858) and Bollinger (1829).
  • Today the region’s 86,500 acres (35,000 ha) produces more than 200 million bottles of Champagne with worldwide demand prompting the French authorities to look into expanding the region’s Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) zone to facilitate more production.

So pop the cork and enjoy your next bottle of bubbly!

Sources:

  • The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition. pp 150–153. Oxford University Press, 2006
  • Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pp 210–219 Simon and Schuster 1989
  • The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (4th Edition)
  • 1000 Years of Annoying the French
  • Wikipedia