1/ The invention of sparkling wine was an accident
Let’s first begin by defining wine. It’s easy : wine is fermented grape juice. 4000 years ago, Ancient greeks and romans were produicing big amounts of wine but did not understand completely the phenomenon of fermentation, as they were already noticing mysterious and tiny bubbles in the wines which quickly disappeared. They attributed these bubbles to phases of the moons or to evil spirits.
These bubbles are today well known to be related to the fermentation process. Indeed, fermentation is the transformation of sugar into alcohol and CO2, under the action of yeasts. During any winemaking process, it is therefore natural that gaz appears. However, because the containers the Greek and romans were using to ferment the grape juice were not well sealed, gaz was escaping, leaving behind a half-fizzy, half-still wine.
Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god of wine
Later, in the South of France, during the 16th century, winemakers accidentally discovered a way of producing sparkling wine. After harvest, they would crush the grapes and leave the juice in oak barrels. The juice would start to ferment but the process would stop during winter, when temperatures dropped down. The resulting wines would keep a part of their sugar, and as temperatures rose again during springtime, the fermentation would start again inside the barrels, creating a sparkling wine. This is what the French call today « méthode ancestrale » (« ancestral method »). The most famous example of such a wine is the Blanquette de Limoux, in South-West of France.
Oak barrels, used to store and age the wine
The same phenomenon was observed with great curiousity by the British around 1660 ; as French still wines were imported from France and would ferment again on the way. At first, the British were very surprised but they found that these wines were excellent, making them happier and smarter !
2/ Why Champagne is unique in the world
France, about 100 kilometers East of Paris. Therefore, Champagne wine gets its name from the regions where it was first made, and where it is still made today. In 1927, a law set up the limits of wine production within the region of Champagne (what is called AOC Champagne) and covers 35000 hectares. Because of this French law, a sparkling wine made outside the Champagne region cannot be called Champagne.
If you see « Champagne » written on the label, it can only come from Champagne region
Not only Champagne wine can only be called Champagne if it’s coming from the Champagne region, Champagne wine is also made following a unique method, called « méthode champenoise » (« Champagne method ») or « méthode traditionelle » (« traditional method »).
« Méthode traditionelle » : This method consists in producing a still base wine which is low in alcohol and neutral in taste, put this wine in a bottle, then add a liquid in the bottle called « liqueur de tirage » (made of yeasts and sugar) and close the bottle. The wine inside the bottle will undergo a second fermentation, making the wine sparkling. During 12 months at a minimum, the bottles will be matured and aged « on lees », which is the name for the dead yeast particles. These lees will give a unique taste of bread and biscuit to the Champagne wine.
Riddling, a time-consuming and essential part of « méthode champenoise
After 12 months, these lees will be progressively brought to the top of the bottle, traditionally by hand, a process called « remuage » (« riddling »). The top of the bottle will then be frozen, to form a lees ice cube, which will be ejected out of the bottle, a process called « dégorgement » (« disgorgement ») . The winemaker would then add a liquid made of wine and sugar, called « liqueur d’expédition » to make up with the wine lost in the process, then finally close the bottle again with a new cork.
Dom Pérignon, credited by some to be the inventor of Champagne
The origin of this winemaking method goes back to the 17th century with the idea that Champagne winemakers had to put their wines in bottles, instead of barrels, to better store and transport them. However, at first, the glass bottle were too fragiles and the sparkling was so strong that most of the bottles exploded. The legend says that a monk called Dom Perignon was asked by his superiors to find a solution to this problem. It is said that he introduced the usage of corks (instead of wood) to close the bottles and that he used thickest bottles coming from England. Back in 17th century, England imported most of their wines from France and were using thickest glass-bottles. The Champagne winemakers started to use these bottles to prevent them from explosion. You have to realize that there is 2 to 3 times more pressure in a bottle of Champagne than in a car tire !
3/ Champagne wine, the drink of the Kings
Sacrament of Charles X in Reims in 1825
The Champagne region has a very old and unique history. It was the place where the first King of France, Clovis, was sacred. Back then, wine was already produced there, and during that night of celebration, heavy volumes were consumed ! Until 1825, all Kings of France were sacred in Reims, the biggest city in Champagne. Each ceremony was followed by huge feasts where the Champagne wines were always consumed heavily. Everybody loved their taste and finnesse and big volumes were offered to the new Kings. It is said that Louis XIV received hundreds pints when he received the crown !
Tsar Alexander II of Russia
Champagne became very popular at the French royal court, and outside visitors loved it so much that they would bring it back to their home countries. In the middle of the 19th century, it was so popular among the Russian nobility that Louis Roederer, a famous Champagne winemaker, created « Cristal », a prestigious wine, specially for Alexander II of Russia.
Today, Champagne remains strongly associated with celebrations and special occasions, such as Christmas, New Year’s eve, birthdays, commercial successes and even sport victories.
4/ The other sparkling wines methods
Prosecco, a fruity italian sparkling wine made with the « tank method »
Now that you know what is Champagne wine, you will not confuse it with other types of sparkling wines. The « traditional method », described previously, has been heavily copied all around the world to produce wines similarly to the wines from Champagne. It is today considered as the most qualitative method in sparkling wine production, which also explains the high prices of Champagne wines. However, other methods are worth mentioning :
- The transfer method : it is identical to the Traditional method, except that after the second fermentation in the bottle, the bottles are emptied in a tank, the wine is filtered and bottled again. This method is often used in New Zealand and Australia. Instead of « Traditional method » written on the label, you might see « Bottle fermented ».
- The tank method : this method came with industrial advancements made in the early 20th century. The main difference with the Traditional method is that base wine and « liqueur de tirage » (yeast + sugar) are added together into a large pressurized tank. The wines are then filtered and bottled without ageing. This results in fruity sparkling wines like Prosecco or Lambrusco (an Italian sparkling red wine).
Pet-nat, a trendy natural sparkling wine
Other methods include carbonation, a cheap way of production involving CO2 injection into a tank or the « ancestral method », which we talked about at the very beginning of this article. Remember, this was the first way of producing sparkling wines, following seasonal changes of temperatures. It is today still used in South of France or for the production of « pet-nat », a trendy natural sparkling wine.
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