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During the height of the pandemic, I penned a column on the origins of Champagne. I was rewarding myself for venturing outdoors into the unknown, adhering to the strict protocols of that time, and then celebrating my adventures with a glass of bubbly. The evolving history of Champagne, with a glass in hand, seemed appropriate for such difficult times.
The column ended in the heady days of the creation of Dom Pérignon Champagne, tracing the history 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.
As much as the 17th century French winemakers 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.
At the dawn of the 18th, century, French sparkling wine was becoming the rage in high society centers. 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. As producers sought to enhance the bouquet and flavor 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 amongst 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.
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 improvements deserve consideration.
- 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. Today’s 21st century Champagne is typically a blend (cuvée) of multiple grapes from multiple vineyards and multiple vintages.
Each year, a particular combination (assemblage) is sought to provide consistency in a producer’s style. The ultimate assemblage may consist of one to three grape varieties from hundreds of plots of vineyards and dozens of vintages, in varying combinations. 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.
- The bottles. Early on, 20 percent or more (up to 90 percent in certain reported cases) 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, high-temperature kilns produced stronger glass, that this problem was finally and permanently overcome.
- Secondary fermentation. When still wines are bottled in Champagne, live yeast, bacteria and sediment are trapped. A second round of fermentation completes the cycle. But how to remove what remains 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 an icy brine, thereby freezing the sediment. The winemaker then removes the cork and discards this sediment (dégorgement).
Dom Pérignon, 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 10 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 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.