Like so many good stories, it begins with a myth.
Champagne, the world’s most famous and expensive sparkling wine, is purported to have been discovered by Dom Perignon. The legendary blind 17th century Benedictine monk was cellarmaster at Hautvillers in France when he made a startling discovery.
“Come quickly my brothers!” Dom Perignon is said to have cried upon tasting his first glass of bubbly. “I am drinking stars!”
Alas, the story is apocryphal. It never happened, though many a marketing executive would have you believe otherwise. The historical record indicates that sparkling wine was enjoyed many years before Dom Perignon took up residence in Hautvillers.
Still, the image of an old blind monk discovering the joys of vinous effervescence in the deep, dank cellars of a medieval abbey adds to the pleasure and mystery surrounding this most celebrated beverage.
Roman Tunnels and Chalky Soil
To really understand Champagne’s specialness, think first about geological serendipity.
During the Upper Cretaceous period, the Champagne region was a warm ocean teeming with life. As they lived and died, microscopic algae deposited their carcasses on the ocean floor. Over millions of years, these deposits formed beds of chalk more than 300 metres deep. Much later (in geological reckoning), after the oceans had dried, massive earthquakes pushed these chalk beds into large hills, many of them facing south.
Champagne, as we know it today, would otherwise not exist.
Some grape vines — especially Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay — produce richer tasting flavors when grown on chalky soil. As wine regions go, Champagne is quite cool, so vinifera grapes struggle to ripen. South-facing slopes capture more precious sunshine than hills facing in the other directions, sp the grapes enjoy a long, cool growing season. Sugars accumulate slowly, and grapes maintaining a daunting bite of acidity.
Two millennia ago, the Romans were quick to exploit this fact, and historians believed that cultivated vines and made wine throughout Gaul, including Champagne. But these early experiments ended abruptly around 97AD when the Emperor Domitian ordered the uprooting of vines in Gaul. Thankfully, the edict was repealed by another emperor — the son of a gardener — some 200 years later.
Yet even if they had never planted a vineyard, the Romans left an indelible mark on the region, for they loved building with chalk — a soft, malleable material that hardens when exposed to air. Roman slaves quarried the area’s subsoil for huge chalk blocks, leaving behind a labyrinth of endless cool tunnels that would later prove perfect for aging sparkling wine.
After the Romans left, not much is known about the region’s enological history until 800 AD. Louis I, son of Charlemagne and France’s first king, was crowned in the Champagne village of Reims, inaugurating a long tradition of coronations there. Some historians believe that’s why Champagne — the drink — became inexplicably linked with great events.
Whatever the reason, Champagne grew in popularity. Popes and monarchs had favorite wine villages, and Champagne was described as the “ordinary drink of kings and princes.”
But it was a still wine, and one that wouldn’t be popular today.
That’s because, as mentioned previously, grapes struggle to ripen in Champagne’s marginal climate. The resulting wines are low in sugar and alcohol, light in body, and marked by a bracing acidity, not unlike biting into tart apple. A few Champagne houses continue to make Coteaux Champenois today. In youtth, it’s barely drinkable, although it can mellow into something rich and refreshing with a decade in the bottle. But it mostly remains a curiosity.
The best way to make Champagne palatable is to transform it with bubbles which help cut the acidity, add weight to an angular body, and lengthen the flavors.
The bubbles also help drinkers get in the mood with greater haste. The frothy nature of Champagne not only tickles the tongue; it also help the wine’s alcohol head directly into the bloodstream, so imbibers feel like celebrating.
While Dom Perignon didn’t invent sparkling wine, he figured out how best to make it. According to Hugh Johnson, British wine writer extraordinaire, this Benedictine monk was “the first man to design a wine.” He created the Champagne we know today when he realized that making Champagne from different grape varieties, culled from different villages and different vineyards would create a sparkling wine that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Dom Perignon, or a contemporary, also refined the basics of what is now known as the méthode champenoise — a complicated and expensive way of adding bubbles and complexity to still wine
As with many blended wines, the three grape varieties comprising Champagne — Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay — are fermented separately in cool cellars, in either stainless steel tanks or old oak casks.
Early in the New Year, winemakers start blending the wines on a small scale to make the final cuvée, or house blend. More than 40 different lots of wine may be used to create the final blend, which will include some high-quality reserve wine culled from old stocks. It’s a complex, demanding process that relies on keen minds and discriminating palates.
Each Champagne house, like Roederer and Moet et Chandon, has it’s own distinctive style. Some Champagnes are light, elegant, and refreshing, while other houses opt for a deep, rich complex style. The permutations and combinations are endless.
By April, the still wines are blended according to the formula derived from the earlier tastings. The wines are placed in heavy glass bottles, topped up with a sweet liqueur de tirage (sugar, wine and yeast), capped and laid to rest in the cool Roman caves.
A slow secondary fermentation begins as the yeast consumes the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the wine. After fermentation is complete, the wine is left to age on its lees (dead yeast) for a number of years, which adds greater complexity to the finished Champagne.
The yeast is eventually removed by a painstaking process in the cellar. Over the periods of months, each bottle, stored in a sloping rack, is turned by a quarter each day by specially-trained cellar workers. In time, the dead yeast accumulate and collects against the enclosures. When the caps are removed, the yeast is forcefully expelled by built-up pressure, and a small amount of wine is added. The bottle is sealed with a Champagne cork.
The time and effort involved means that great Champagne can never be cheap.
Champagne is indeed a fortunate conjunction: The chalky soils; the south-facing slopes; the cool caves first created by Roman slaves; Dom Perignon blending dozens of wines to create complexity of flavor; centuries of trial and error leading to the methode champenoise — the perfect way to add bubbles and transform an acidic still wine into something that inspires sonnets.
All these factors produce a sparkling wine that is often copied, but difficult to exceed. The better Champagnes age wonderfully, and have persistent, long-lasting, pinpoint bubbles that produce a creamy texture, great length of flavor, and enviable complexity.
And that’s why Champagne has become synonymous with celebration.