Sparkling wine is one of life’s great pleasures and shouldn’t be reserved just for special occasions. For Lord Byron, it inspired poetry: “Champagne with foaming whirls, as white as Cleopatra’s melted pearls.”
Champagne, like most of the best things in life, was invented by mistake. But not the way we all think! I imagine we’ve all heard the stories about Dom Perignon opening the bottle, tasting the wine and proclaiming “I’m drinking stars!” And, of course, he’s been credited with inventing it. In truth, he spent much of his career trying to make Champagne wine that wasn’t fizzy!
We believe that wine has been made in the Champagne region of France since the time of Christ. It went through several upheavals, mostly war related, but the monastic movement in the 7th century cemented the region as a producer of wine, and the best wines of Champagne were regularly used in the coronation of kings. They came to rival the great wines of Burgundy to the south and, as in Burgundy, Pinot Noir was and is the dominant red grape of the region. In the 1600s, as they saw an opportunity to widen their markets, both domestic and export, they sought to increase quality. Here’s where Dom Perignon enters the picture. He was brought in specifically to improve quality and he succeeded spectacularly. But, at this point, Champagne wasn’t sparkling wine, at least not intentionally. It was meant to be a high quality still wine.
Things were so very different back then, in the late 1600s, and records are a little convoluted and sketchy. One thing we know for sure: in the 1600s, winemaking wasn’t very predictable and they didn’t have much control over the process. For instance, they would begin fermentation in September or October, and then the fermentation never quite finished because the cellar became so chilly that the yeast went dormant. Since the wines didn’t keep well, they were shipped by both barrel and bottle shortly after harvest and once they reached England, for instance, a very good customer then and now, the barreled wine was immediately bottled. In the meantime, the wine began to warm up in the spring and started fermenting again. Since fermentation produces carbon dioxide gas and the gas had no place to go, spritzy wine, in varying degrees was the result! This must have been a rather sorry example of sparkling wine and countless bottles burst in the flimsy glass of the time.
Dom Perignon focused his efforts on refining techniques to prevent this springtime fermentation, but the English really liked the spritzy wine and the demand grew so much that the good father ended up using his knowledge of how to prevent making sparkling wine, to developing techniques for making it on purpose.
There are older references: It’s said that wine that sparkled intentionally was first made in the 1500s by monks in the Languedoc region of southern France, before the first sparkling wine from Champagne. It was made in the way described above. There was no second fermentation, just a continuation of the alcoholic fermentation in the bottle, which meant a hazy, fizzy wine. At least in the warm, southerly climate it probably wasn’t too tart. Going even further back, there are biblical references to wines that bubbled. In Proverbs there’s a reference to “wine.when it moveth itself” and St. Matthew suggested that “Neither do men put new wine in old bottles; else the bottles break.” Perhaps these are the very first mentions of an incredible delight that came about quite by accident.
Yet another theory is that the English invented it! They certainly had great motivation-historically they are great consumers of sparkling wine. The story is that the still wines that came over from the chilly Champagne region were rather green and tart and so the English would add sugar or molasses to it to offset the tartness. Then, nature would take its course and the wine became a little livelier! They found these bubbles seductive and the effect quick and had a new reason to add the sugar.
These stories don’t contradict each other, so it may have been a combination of events. But however it came about, one thing we’re sure of is that sparkling Champagne became very hip amongst the English aristocracy and it drove Dom Perignon to stop fighting the fizz and to start to perfect it.
Evidence is scarce regarding his contributions to sparkling wine specifically, but we know that in his efforts to make the best still white wine in France, Dom Perignon brought about some very important techniques that apply beautifully to sparkling wine production. For instance, up to this time, when white wine was made of black grapes it was nearly always a pale pink, called Vin Gris. The father didn’t approve of white varieties because they seemed more predisposed to sparkle than reds and therefore he was the first, we believe, to develop techniques for producing a star-bright white wine from the black grape Pinot Noir.
According to his student, Frere Pierre, who wrote about him after his death in 1715, his refinements included harvesting the vineyard in several passes to get the grapes at the peak of maturity and inventing the traditional and very gentle Coquard press, which was designed to minimize maceration and press out very few solids. We believe he was the first master of the cuvee, blending different vineyard lots for consistency, to this day a key element in making good Champagne and sparkling wine. As an apparent perfectionist, it must have been very hard to accept that after making the sparkling wine so carefully, it was not unusual for about half the bottles to burst.
The English were already way ahead of him on that. They had embraced the beverage, but were affronted by the percentage of breakage. So, once again, they became very important in the history of Champagne by producing strong bottles made in hot, coal-fueled furnaces where the weak French bottles were fired by wood. They also came up with the idea of using cork stoppers to contain the pressure, and at some point Dom Perignon took his cue from them and reintroduced Spanish cork, improving the seal. Using corks as stoppers goes back to at least Roman times, but somewhere along the way they were replaced by wood stoppers wrapped in hemp that barely made a seal, much less kept the pressure in. Before the return of the cork, they had to drink sparkling Champagne right after bottling or drink it flat.
Things remained stable and very few advances were made in the production of sparkling Champagne for quite some time after the death of Dom Perignon, and people loved it enough to live with its unpredictability. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the word Champagne became synonymous for sparkling wine. That great century saw the birth of many of our favorite houses in Champagne such as Ruinart, Heidsieck, Taittinger, Moet et Chandon, Roederer, and Veuve Cliquot, among other greats. The name Cliquot is important to our story.
The 19th century saw the beginning of what we think of as the modern method Champenoise and at this point we begin to see that the Champagne method of producing sparkling wine was an evolution with no one hero, such as Dom Perignon, but with many key players.
The young widow Cliquot kicked it off by taking over the cellars after the death of her husband in 1805. Her pet peeve was the stubborn sediment left by the fermentation. Dom Perignon had simply put the bottles neck down in sand for awhile before drinking and then quickly let out the yeasty wine in the neck, trying not to lose too much good wine in the process. The problem with that method is that the sediment can be rather sticky and cling to the sides of the bottle, and it wasn’t very practical for commercial production. The widow Cliquot made the very first riddling rack by punching holes in her kitchen table. She also developed the technique of shaking the bottles to jar the stubborn sediment loose. Only very slight modifications to her riddling regime followed until, of course, the 20th century introduced automatic riddling machines.
Once the riddling was complete, the crude method of disgorgement practiced by Dom Perignon was finally replaced in 1884 by the freezing method that is still used today. Thanks to the very clever Armand Walfart, we learned to submerge the necks of the bottles into freezing brine so that the solids form a yeasty slush. When the temporary bottle cap is removed, the slush is released without taking much wine or carbon dioxide gas with it.
But, there was still the prickly matter of the bottle breakage. The stronger bottles were an improvement, but didn’t solve the problem. According to Hugh Johnson, 80% of the 1828 vintage was lost to breakage. The bottle was only part of the problem. The bigger issue was how much sugar to add.
Apparently, no one understood what was going on inside the bottle. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Jean-Antoine Chaptal realized that the “second” or delayed finish of primary fermentation took place due to residual sugar in the wine. He was the first to suggest that adding sugar before fermentation to increase the alcohol might be a better practice than adding it afterward. Chapitalization, of course, has been beneficial to the whole of the French wine industry to this day. Soon after, Parmentier discovered that using concentrated grape juice rather than cane sugar improved quality immeasurably. But in the same stroke, the addition of uncontrolled amounts of sweetness only increased the percentage of bottle breakage. Finally, in 1836, a pharmacist named André François came to the rescue by fine tuning the proper amount of sugar to add in order to create the spritz without breaking the bottle or pushing out the stopper-most of the time. Now, there’s a hero for you!
As recently as 1857 Louis Pasteur accurately described the function of yeast in the fermentation process. What a flurry of activity in the wine world, and critical discoveries for Champagne lovers!
With the cold, northerly climate of Champagne the wines were quite tart and so commercial producers usually added a dosage–a little sugar in wine or liqueur, to offset the acidity just before corking the bottle for the final time. Most producers still do this today, although there’s been a very recent movement toward what’s called zero Champagne, meaning zero dosage and a very dry wine.
With all of these sugar additions, whether at the beginning or end of the fermentation, we know that they were drinking sweet Champagne until about the mid-1800s. They served it for dessert, a tradition often carried on today even though the majority of the wines are dry. In the middle of the century there happened to be some very good, warm vintages beginning with 1842, and they marked the beginning of vintage dating and permitted the production of drier wine that wasn’t overly tart. A taste for dry Champagne, or Champagne Brut, began to grow. Dry Champagne is more versatile than sweet and is remarkably versatile at the table. Even with the dosage, the bracing acidity makes it extremely food- friendly and you can enjoy it with everything from popcorn to caviar, or serve it with scrambled eggs, shellfish or most any kind of cheese. What a wine!
The Champagne region survived phylloxera better than most in France, and then was seriously battered by two world wars, yet still recovered. I believe it’s with us to stay. And, of course, quality sparkling wines are made all over the world now. But, we’ll always have a special place in our hearts for Champagne, which may not have invented it, but certainly perfected it and remains the benchmark for all that sparkles today.