Grapevine: Champagne’s History: Struggling to Produce a Fine Wine

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

From the early plantings of the Romans in pre-Christian times through the evolution into a favored sparkling wine in the 17th century, Champagne was subjected to political and winemaking upheaval. Last week we left the region in the heady experimental days of Dom Perignon and the refinement of a still wine looked upon with disdain, to a sparkling wine sought by enthusiasts around the civilized world.

This week we’ll track the refinements to those rudimentary sparkling wines.

At the dawn of the 18th, century, French sparkling wine was becoming the rage in high society centers. From royalty to wealthy wine enthusiasts, sparkling wine was sought out as the king of wines.

But these wines were still inferior. The root cause was the wine itself. Primary and secondary fermentation could not mask the inferior quality of the wines themselves. As producers sought to enhance the flavor and aromas of Champagne they battled the forces of nature in the forms of fermentation, sediment, residual sugar and yeast–even the strength of the glass bottle itself.

Early progress was painstakingly slow. Even as the reputation and demand for sparkling wines grew in the upper echelon of the European market, these sales accounted for a small percentage of the wines produced. By the end of the 18th century, the overwhelming majority of production in the Champagne region continued to be still wine.

As much as the 17th century French and the British sellers each played a role in refining the secondary fermentation of Champagne wines (in which the fine bubbles of carbon dioxide are produced), so did their successors influence the continual improvements over the next three centuries.

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that several large producers achieved success in mass-producing high quality sparkling wines.

A short summary of several of these problems and the improvements achieved deserve consideration.

1. The Wine. To overcome the inherent poor quality of Champagne wines, the largest producers devised standards for blending grapes to achieve a style of still wine that would produce a high quality sparkling wine. A 21st century Champagne is typically a blend (cuvée) of multiple grapes from multiple vineyards and multiple vintages.

A particular combination (assemblage) is sought each year to provide consistency in a producer’s style. The ultimate assemblage may consist of one to three grapes from hundreds of plots of vineyards and dozens of vintages, in varying combinations–each year. Today, a winemaker’s choices for his blending palette are vast. There are 300,000 vineyards in the Champagne region, owned by 19,000 growers. The large Champagne houses purchase nearly 90 percent of their grapes from these local growers.

2. The Bottles. Early on, 20 percent or more (up to 90 percent) of all bottles burst from the internal pressure exerted by carbon dioxide. It wasn’t until the dawn of the Industrial Age in the 18th century, when coal-fired, hot kilns produced stronger glass, that this problem was finally and permanently overcome.

3. Secondary Fermentation. When still wines are bottled in Champagne, live yeast, bacteria and sediment are trapped. How to remove them once secondary fermentation is complete? The solution: 19th century Champagne houses developed and perfected a system, called riddling (remuage).

Closed bottles are placed in angled wooden racks, facing downward toward the neck of the bottle. Periodically each bottle is turned to direct the sediment to the neck. How to remove this sediment and not the carbon dioxide? When secondary fermentation is completed, the bottle neck is placed in ice brine, freezing the sediment and allowing the winemaker to remove it.

Dom Perignon, his contemporaries and successors would be amazed at the evolution of Champagne since his time. Who can resist a fine glass of Champagne that produces up to ten million bubbles and can be relied on for year-to-year consistency of style? I raise my glass to the French.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted

wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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