Little bubbles in the Champagne


Little bubbles in the Champagne.

Lady riding a champagne cork (img-08) France.

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any think that Champagne is the best sparkling wine in the world. Is it true? Well, what really can’t be denied is its incredible reputation, a popularity built over the centuries.

It’s a true legend: for this reason its tiny bubbles are frequently chosen to celebrate the most important events.

As it usually happens when the perception of a product is improved by a strong psychological attachment, even if there are many valid alternatives, it will be very difficult for a contender to overcome this kind of notoriety. We’ll see what the future holds. For now, it’s important to understand what makes Champagne such a myth and which factors contribute to its great quality. To accomplish this, it’s necessary to know its history, the places where its grapes grow and the characteristics that make it so unique. Thanks to this knowledge, it’ll be possible to appreciate this great wine even more, enjoying new and unexpected flavors.

The first and the second fermentation of wine.

Grapes, yeast, wine (img-07)

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o really start appreciating Champagne, it’s important to understand first what is the ‘fermentation’: a natural process that usually starts soon after the harvest, when grape juice becomes wine thanks to yeasts. These microorganisms metabolize sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.
In the past, since it was very difficult to maintain the right temperature in cellars, the cold of a harsh autumn could have the effect to suspend their work, forcing them to enter a sort of ‘hibernation’. At the beginning of the following spring, the natural rise of heat quite often reactivated them, starting a second fermentation, also known as ‘rifermentation’.
Nowadays this ‘accident’, not accidental anymore, is triggered on purpose by adding yeasts to wine. In this respect, it’s important to remember that

the production of carbon dioxide during the second fermentation has a huge importance to make a natural sparkling wine.

Please note that carbon dioxide can be also artificially injected. Problem is that the ‘inflated’ wines usually don’t have a very fine taste and ‘perlage’.


Fermentation tank and temperature gauge.

The devil’s wine.

The devil's wine.

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f the second fermentation of wine starts inside a sealed bottle, the renewed production of carbon dioxide causes the rise of its internal pressure.
Up to the Seventeenth Century, due to the lack of knowledge and specific technologies, this represented quite a big problem, since it could led to a sudden, violent expulsion of the stopper or, in the worst cases, to a dangerous explosion.
It’s easy to understand that, at that time, this natural phenomenon was not really considered something useful, but rather an impending disaster to be avoided at all costs, an ‘accident sent by the devil’.

Not surprisingly, sparkling wine was nicknamed ‘le vin du diable’ (‘the devil’s wine’).

The real problem, far from being supernatural, was the little experience in controlling the rifermentation process and the quality of bottles and caps, unable to resist the stress.
Frequent accidents often caused great damage and forced cellar workers to wear masks and body protections to shield themselves.


Fire and flames.

Dom Perignon and the Champagne.

Dom Pérignon (img-01)

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he available information about Dom Perignon are not always very accurate, as it often happens when dealing with a myth. For example, many think that he was an alchemist: something that, in truth, is very unlikely. Despite the lack of reliable sources, it’s possible, with a certain approximation, to figure out who really was the man that, still today, is widely considered the inventor of Champagne.

The assignment in Hautvillers

Hautvillers Abbey, photo by OCTOBER ENDS (img-10)

In 1668 the young Benedictine monk Pierre Perignon was transfered to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the northeast of France. He was assigned with the important task of managing the vineyard and the cellars. This role was particularly appropriate for him since he already had a very good experience in this field: his parents were wine producers and he had spent great part of his childhood between the rows.

Dom Perignon and the second fermentation of wine

Glass of champagne.

Even if it could seem strange, especially considering who we’re talking about, recent studies show that Dom Perignon, during the early years at the abbey, was committed to prevent, rather than encourage, the beginning of the second fermentation, the process normally used to make Champagne. His task was to find a way to avoid its dangers: it seems that the abbot himself gave him this assignment, since he was worried about the explosions that put at risk the safety of his bottles and of the monks working in the cellar. Pierre succeeded: his discoveries allowed him not just to stop the second fermentation but also to control it, mastering its secrets. Thanks to this knowledge he became very expert in the procedure of making sparkling wine, using a method known as ‘Champenoise’ or ‘traditional’. It’s very important to remember that he was greatly helped by the invention of more resistant bottles and by the use of cork stoppers.

Dom Perignon and the ‘cuvèe’

Bottle of Dom Pérignon (img-02)

Most probably, the true, unique talent of Dom Perignon consisted in his innate ability to recognize and understand the characteristics and the quality of grapes. Thanks to this natural gift and to his competence, he was able to create some of the great cuvée (*1) that make Champagne so famous in the world: from this point of view, he can really be considered the ‘father’ of this incredible wine.
He is widely celebrated still today: for example, the famous winery Moët & Chandon of Epernay, has given his name to one of its best products.

Note:
*1: The French word ‘cuvée’ has several meanings: one of them indicates a blend of wines.

The British and the champagne.

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t’s quite surprising to find out how old and deep is the connection between the British and Champagne. Two English personalities in particular had a very important role in the evolution of this wine between the 16th and the 17th centuries.


Cristopher Merret (img-05) Cristopher Merret (img-05)

Cristopher Merret (1614 – 1695)

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n 1662 the English scientist Christopher Merret presented to the Royal Society the treaty ‘Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines’, in which he was the first to show the connection between the addition of sugar to a wine and the beginning of the second fermentation. He essentially theorized the ‘Champenoise’ method many years before the studies of Dom Perignon.


Sir Robert Mansell (img-06) Sir Robert Mansell (img-06)

Sir Robert Mansell (1573–1656)

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ir Robert Mansell, Admiral of the Royal Navy and member of the British parliament, was the first to mass-produce a kind of bottle that could resist to the high pressure generated by the carbon dioxide present in the Champagne. Its ‘secret’ was in the thickness and in the quality of glass, made stronger by the intense heat of coke ovens, much warmer than those burning wood.

Champagne: the places and the grapes.

Champagne landscape (5)

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he most famous sparkling wine in the world takes its name from a beautiful region in the northeast of France.
Sweet hills covered by ordered rows of vines, give life to an incredibly beautiful landscape: in this charming place, during the centuries, grapes and soil have developed a deep connection. That’s why true Champagne can be produced only here. It’s not just a ‘formality’: the particular nature of the local terrain, its exposure and the climate (all aspects of the ‘terroir’), give to this wine its unique characteristics.
Here follows a brief list of the largest and most famous production areas of Champagne:

Champagne: the places. Montagne de Reims
Even if its name is ‘Montagne’ (mountain), there are only sweet hills in this area, not higher than three hundred meters. A Pinot Noir of great quality is produced from the grapes cultivated on their gentle slopes.

Vallée de la Marne
Located just south of the ‘Montagne’, Vallée de la Marne is the largest production area in the Champagne region. There are three types of soil here: chalky, calcareous and clay. This zone is famous for its Pinot Meunier.

Cote des Blancs
This area takes its name from the color of its white grapes (‘blanc’ means ‘white’). A great Chardonnay, fundamental part of a great ‘cuvèe’, is produced in this zone.

Cote de Sézanne
Located south of the Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne is important for the production of Pinot Noir.

Aube
This area, also known as Cote de Bar, is just south of the beautiful town of Troyes. Its soil is rich in limestone. This zone is famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The ‘Champenoise’ method.

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he ‘Champenoise’ method, also known as ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’, is used to make ‘natural’ sparkling wines like Champagne.

Sugar and yeast are added to a mix of different wines, the ‘cuvèe’, so as to trigger a second fermentation. Since this process takes place inside a sealed bottle, the wine slowly incorporates the carbon dioxide produced and becomes sparkling.

Here follows a few images showing step by step this procedure:


Grapes for the champagne.

Three varieties of grapes are used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The ‘Blanc de Blancs’ is made just with Chardonnay, the ‘Blanc de Noirs’ just with Pinot Noir and Meunier.


Pressing and fermentation.

The grapes are softly pressed: the result is a very clear must, ready for the first fermentation. Selected yeast are added: they transform sugar in alcohol and carbon dioxide. The grape juice becomes wine.


Base wines for the champagne.

The main ingredients are finally ready: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Each one of these three ‘base-wines’ will enrich the Champagne with some of its typical traits.


The 'cuvée'.

A ‘cuvée’ is a mix of these three wines: their quantities may vary, depending on the desired result. The only exceptions are, as already said, the ‘blanc the blancs’ and the ‘blanc de noirs’.


The second fermentation.

The ‘liqueur de tirage’, prepared with sugar, selected yeasts and minerals, is added to the cuvèe to start the second fermentation.


Crown cap and bidule.

The ‘bidule’ is a small plastic cylinder meant to collect the residue of the dead yeast. It’s inserted in the neck of the bottle before sealing it using a crown cap.


Prise de mousse.

The bottles are placed horizontally in a fresh cellar (10°/12°c) for a couple of months: during this period the wine gets its bubbles (‘prise de mousse’). A long rest follows: during it, the taste of the wine is improved by the yeast residue (‘sur lattes’). Small rotations (‘coup de poignée’) prevent this residue from sticking to the sides of the bottles.


Remuage.

After a period of time that may vary from two up to ten years (and more), the wine is ready. The ‘remuage’ starts: the bottles are slowly rotated on both axes until they reach a vertical position. The residue of the yeast falls in the bidule. This operation can be performed both mechanically or by hand (using a ‘pupitre’).


Disgorgement.

The ‘disgorgement’ consists in opening the bottle.
Before removing the crown cap, the neck is usually immersed in a liquid at a temperature of -13°F (-25°C): this way the yeast residue freezes inside the bidule and this is easily extracted thanks to the internal pressure.


Dosage.

The opened bottle is topped up (‘dosage’) with the ‘liqueur d’expedition’. This ‘liqueur’ is made with champagne, sugar (not always) and sometimes a little bit of liquor.


Sealing the bottle.

The bottle is sealed with a cork, this is secured to its neck with a metal cage, known as ‘muselet’.


Champagne landscape (7)

Frank Sinatra (img-09)

THE GRAPES OF CHAMPAGNE

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o really understand Champagne, it’s necessary to deepen the knowledge of the different grapes used to make it:

Chardonnay;

Typology: white grape.

Origin: Mostly Cote des Blancs.

Aromas: Flowers, fruits (peach, exotic fruits, lemon), minerals (chalk).

Chardonnay gives to Champagne finesse and elegance.

Pinot Noir;

Typology: red grape.

Origin: Mostly Montagne de Reims, Cote des Bar.

Aromas: Fruits (red berries).

Pinot Noir gives to Champagne body and structure.

Pinot Meunier;

Typology: red grape.

Origin: Mostly Valèe de la Marne.

Aromas: Red berries, currant and cherry.

Pinot Meunier gives to Champagne roundness and softness.

CHAMPAGNE: A SOIL RICH IN CHALK

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hat makes Champagne so special? What makes its smell and taste so unique?
This famous sparkling wine is the sum of many parts: the nature of the terrain where its grapes grow is one of the most important. It’s stony, whitish, apparently not good for growing a plant … but a grapevine is not any plant, it’s different, giving its best in difficult conditions. Year after year, its roots dig deeper and deeper, taking from the ground and giving to the grapes.
Champagne is the fruit of a soil rich in chalk: something evident when drinking it.

CHAMPAGNE AND SUGAR

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erms like ‘brut’ and ‘dry’ indicate the sweetness of a sparkling wine. Here follows a list of these terms and the corresponding amount of sugar:
Less than 3gr./liter: Brut nature;
Between 0 and 6gr./liter: Extra brut;
Between 6 and 12gr./liter: Brut;
Between 12 and 17gr./liter: Extra dry;
Between 17 and 32gr./liter: Dry;
Between 32 and 50gr./liter: Demi-sec;
More than 50gr./liter: Sweet;

CORKS FOR CHAMPAGNE BOTTLES

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efore Dom Perignon, the bottles of wine were closed with primitive wooden plugs and secured using wraps made with cloth and wax. Many think that the Benedectine monk was the first to use corks: according to recent studies, this may not be true. It seems in fact that the ancient Romans already knew them, a knowledge lost after the fall of the Empire.

A ‘MUSELET’ TO SECURE THE CORK

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om Perignon secured corks to bottles using hemp strings, with a procedure requiring great strength and skill. In time, iron replaced hemp: the first pre-formed metal cage, known as ‘muselet’, was invented in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.

THE BREAST OF THE MARQUISE

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ven if the ‘flute’ is widely considered the best type of glass to serve Champagne, since its elongated form allows a perfect view of the ‘perlage’ (the bubbles), this sparkling wine is often served in the ‘coupe’. Legend wants that its particular shape was inspired by the breast of the Marquise de Pompadur, the beautiful lover of King Loius XV of France, the ‘Sun King’.

CHAMPAGNE IN A PAINTING

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he painting ‘Le Déjeuner d’huîtres’, made in 1735 by the French artist Jean-François de Troy and representing a toast during a nobleman’s feast, is very important in the history of Champagne because it’s the first showing some bottles of this wine (more information here: Wikipedia Link).

THE MARTINOTTI / CHARMAT METHOD

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he ‘Martinotti’ method, also known as ‘Charmat’, is quite different from the ‘Champenoise’ since the second fermentation starts in a steel tank hermetically sealed instead of a bottle. Please note that this method can’t be used to make Champagne.

‘REMUAGE’ ON A ‘PUPITRE’

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hen Champagne is ready, the procedure know as ‘remuage’ starts. This consists in a slow rotation of the bottle of wine on both the axes that ends when it reaches the vertical position. This task can be performed both manually or using a machine. When performed manually, a ‘pupitre’ is generally used. It’s a wood frame with rows of round holes: to each row corresponds a different degree of inclination.

ICE AND SALT

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little trick is frequently used to quickly lower the temperature of Champagne (or any other beverage). It consists in adding salt to a bucket full of ice. This way the ice melts very fast and the water is so cold to cool a bottle in no time!

Beverages.

THE RIGHT FOOD FOR THIS BEVERAGE

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hampagne is the perfect match for many kinds of food, for example shrimps:
The acidity and the saltiness balance their sweet tendency.

Another very good pairing is with Parmigiano Reggiano:
The acidity balances the sweet tendency of the cheese.
The effervescence and saltiness balance its fat.




The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Dom Pérignon (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (**) – Bottle of vintage 1999 Dom Perignon, image by PlatinumSunlight (Wikipedia Link)
img-03 (*) – ‘Le Déjeuner d’huîtres’ by Jean-François de Troy (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Cristopher Merret, unknown artist (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Sir Robert Mansell, unknown artist (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (**) – Lieviti Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, image by Masur (Wikipedia Link)
img-08 (*) – Grape-Shot, Lordprice Collection, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-09 (**) – Frank Sinatra, image by W.P. Gottlieb, NYC, 1947 (Wikipedia Link)

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

img-10 – Hautvillers Abbey, image by OCTOBER ENDS (Wikipedia Link)

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.