Not all bubblies are Champagne: what you need to know about the wine of kings 2
Champagne houses in the village of Ay. Photograph by Terry JS
Food & Drink

Not all bubblies are Champagne: what you need to know about the wine of kings

From a flat, pale drink served during the crowning of the kings of France in the 17th century to the sparkling bubbly enjoyed today, Champagne has emerged as a wine of celebration.
Jay Labrador | Nov 23 2018

No wine says celebration like Champagne. There are, of course, other bubblies out there and some have even been so shameless as to appropriate the name Champagne. But for New Year’s, weddings, ship christenings, and Formula 1 winners, there is no substitute for the real thing. Although much of it is sprayed and showered in times of victory, Champagne is a serious wine that deserves respect.

Let us be clear about what Champagne is as the name tends to be used loosely to refer to any sparkling wine. Champagne is sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region, located less than a hundred miles northeast of Paris. The permitted grapes used in its manufacture are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The wine must be produced using the so-called methode traditionelle, which induces a secondary fermentation by the introduction of sugar and yeast in the bottle, resulting in a sparkling wine.

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Moet & Chandon Imperial

The fame of Champagne was due to its association with the kings of France. The great Cathedral of Reims in the north of the region was the traditional site for the crowning of the king. The festivities following the coronation were hosted by the Champenois and, naturally, the wine served was Champagne. Up until the 17th century, the wine was not the brilliant, bubbly beverage we know today. Sources speak of pale and tawny wines, and they were definitely not sparkling. Harnessing the  carbon dioxide produced by fermentation and the imprisonment of the gas in  the bottle to be released as a fine stream of bubbles when the cork is popped owes much to the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon.

 

Sparkling wine had surely been made before, as carbon dioxide is a byproduct of fermentation in the winemaking process. Dom Pérignon, therefore, did not invent sparkling Champagne, contrary to myth. Nevertheless, he was the first to produce a perfectly clear white wine from red grapes (referred to as blanc de noir or “white of black”), and perfected the art of blending wines from different vineyards to produce a consistent and superior product (the precursor of today’s non-vintage Champagnes). He used stronger glass, which could withstand the pressure generated by the gas in the bottles, and he used corks to seal the bottles. Dom Pérignon is honored today by the mammoth firm of Moët & Chandon, which has named its prestige cuvee and arguably the most famous Champagne of all after the influential monk.

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Bollinger Special Cuvee NV Champagne

Although famous in France, Champagne became a worldwide phenomenon in the early 19th century. The defeat of Napoleon saw the victorious armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia occupying the towns of Champagne. Although they did much damage to the region, they also took back home with them a taste for the wine, so markets were opened in Eastern Europe.

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Louis Roederer Champagne Cristal 2002

The Russian Imperial Court, in particular, had an insatiable thirst for the wine, which was happily sated by the firm of Clicquot, led by the formidable Veuve (widow) Clicquot. The house of Roederer got in on the act as well and produced the first prestige cuvee for the czar. Thus was born Roederer Cristal, so called because the bottle was not ordinary glass but clear crystal. Wines destined for Russia were also extremely sweet. It was the English who had a taste for dry Champagne and, fortunately for us today, the English taste prevailed.

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Veuve Clicquot (Brut NV, Brut Rose NV, Vintage 2008 and Vintage 2008 Rose)

Today, the trade is dominated by a few famous names. Moët & Chandon remains the largest house. Bollinger is famous for being the choice of James Bond. Veuve Clicquot and Krug are stablemates of Moët in the luxury goods company LVMH. Roederer continues to produce the czar’s Champagne Cristal, although the bottle is no longer crystal and the wine is no longer sweet. The name Heidsieck appears in the name of three companies—Charles Heidsieck, Heidsieck & Co. Monopole, and Piper-Heidsieck. Charles Heidsieck was famous in the 19th century as “Champagne Charlie,” selling his wine in the United States. Perhaps the most exclusive of all is the tiny house of Salon, which only makes wines in years it deems perfect. It has produced less than 40 wines in its 90-year history.

 

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol 5 2012.