Champagne– le vin du diable! by Tyler Philp

Long ago, in an area only 100 km northeast of what is now Paris France, the Romans planted vast vineyards in the thin soil that barely conceals the chalk-based earth.  Gazing from the hilltops today over the freshly furrowed fields, white chalk streaks peer out from beneath the rich brown topsoil.  Fossils and nutrients are all that remain and only hint of the vast ocean that once concealed this land. The Roman people believed that wine was a necessity of life and that it should be available to everyone regardless of class. Centuries later, as knights dominated battlefields defending their Kings andQueens, monks tended to vines in these same vineyards producing wine for the church and coronation of French monarchy.  Throughout history, the French have cherished their wine, but they are also guilty of feverish competition with each other to produce the country’s best bottled desires. The northern region is cold and generally unsuitable for the production of wine.  In fact, Champagne is by far the coldest wine growing region inFrance and at that time, the world. To the southeast of Paris is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some of the greatest wine in the world.  Always competitive, the Champenois endeavored to craft a red wine to better their counterparts in Burgundy but they were also well aware of their own shortcomings.

GossetThe wines of Champagne were originally rose tinted, stained by the dark skins of the Pinot Noir grape.  Another striking difference from the product that we are familiar with today was the absence of bubbles. Effervescence was actually an unwelcome surprise to the French winemakers and the subject of great concern.

In cooler years, the harvest and the cold winter air arrive almost simultaneously in the north of France which restricts the potential for fully ripe fruit.  At the time, the greater unknown was that low resultant temperatures within the cellars also caused the fermentation in the great wooden vats to cease.  Ever determined, the Champenois bottled their light-bodied and pungently acidic wine; a product certainly not worthy of boasting about to their Burgundian neighbours.  But with the arrival of spring, the temperature within the same bottles began to rise and unexpectantly, the fermentation continued.  Sealed beneath the cork, the wine started to bubble and froth.  And while no one understood why, they were also unable to prevent the reaction from occurring.  As the pressure increased, glass containers by the dozen began to explode and corks ejected like projectiles.  Those bottles that remained intact would later detonate in the cellar or worse, at the table – “le vin du diable!” they exclaimed – the Devil’s wine.

Sparkling wine is the product of nature and for the longest time, the source of frustration and embarrassment for the people of Champagne.  Unable to rival their Burgundian counterparts, many felt that quality wine production in the north of France was simply not possible.  Enter historical figures: Dom Perignon and English scientist Christopher Merret. Independently, these men conducted research and experiments on the wines of Champagne, over time gaining insight and understanding.  Eventually, they were able to safely manipulate, and contain the seemingly volatile potion.

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” – Dom Perignon

Legend says that Dom Perignon exclaimed these words upon discovering sparkling wine, but contrary to popular belief, Champagnewas not invented by the Benedictine monk alone; that was nature’s accomplishment. Truth be known, it was Dom Perignon’s intention to prevent the bubbles in Champagneand to create a superior still wine the courts would prefer over their famed Burgundy. Irrespective of his intentions, Perignon’s efforts were instrumental in the development of Champagne by blending different grape varieties.  He was also the creator of the collar system used to hold the cork in place.  That system, originally a piece of string is known as a muselet and is still in use today though modern technology has replaced the string with a wire cage.

Christopher Merret’s area of expertise was the second stage of fermentation that occurs after bottling wine in the presence of residual sugar.  As an advocate of the bubbles, he discovered that secondary fermentation increased the degree of alcohol in the wine which counterbalanced the level of acidity and added complexity.  More so, Merret found that the volatility could be controlled by regulating the level of sugar and yeast.

For Perignon and Merret, their efforts were simply to make the wine drinkable, and it would be another 100 years before sparkling wine would reflect what we know and enjoy today. If only these men could have foreseen their magical bubbles becoming the most celebrated of all wines.

DosageThe byproduct of secondary fermentation, as Merret discovered, is a layer of unsightly dead yeast cells which settle at the bottom of the bottle.  Prior to serving, the wine needed decanting but this of course caused the bubbles to go flat, defeating the process entirely.  In 1818, an employee of the widow (veuve) Clicquot discovered that by angling the bottles upside-down and slowly rotating them (called rémuage or riddling), the sediment would settle in the neck against the stopper.  Then, by freezing the neck of the bottle, the block of sediment was easily removed, the bottle topped-up with a small amount of wine and sugar (dosage) to dictate the final sweetness, and the cork inserted and secured.  While less labour intensive methods yielding more rapid results do exist, this traditional process known as méthod champenoise is the technique used to craft all high-quality, crystal clear sparkling wines that we enjoy today.

When serving bubbly this New Year’s Eve (or any other occasion) and contrary to common practice, the cork should be removed with care and without a great froth of bubbles.  Simply put: a great deal of effort went in to putting the bubbles into the wine – they should not be wasted on the ‘pop’.

“Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” – Napolean

Tyler blogs at NorthOf9FineWine, you can find his reviews on WineAlign here.