Little bubbles in the Champagne.
s the champagne, as many think, the best sparkling wine in the world? Well, since this is just an opinion, depending on personal taste, it’s probably best not to generalize. What really can’t be denied is it’s incredible reputation, built over the centuries: we are dealing with a true legend. That’s probably why its tiny bubbles are frequently chosen to celebrate the most important events. As it usually happens when the perception of a product is further improved by a strong psychological attachment, it will be very difficult for a contender to overcome this kind of notoriety. There are, of course, many valid alternatives: we’ll see what the future hold. For now, it’s important to understand what makes a champagne such a myth and which factors contribute to its great quality. To accomplish this, it’s necessary to know its story, the places where its grapes grow and all the elements that make it so unique and inimitable. Thanks to this knowledge, it’ll be possible to appreciate this wine even more, enjoying new, unexpected fragances and flavors when tasting it.
First and the second fermentation of wine.
o really understand the following paragraphs, it’s important to remember that grape juice becomes wine thanks to the yeast, which metabolize sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. This natural phenomenon is known as “fermentation” and is usually started soon after the harvest.
In the past, since it was very difficult to adjust the temperature of a cellar, the intense cold of a very hard autumn could have the effect to suspend the work of these microorganisms, causing them to enter into a sort of hibernation. At the beginning of the following spring, the natural rise of heat usually reactivated them, starting a second fermentation, also known as “rifermentation”.
Nowadays this process, far from being accidental, is deliberately triggered by adding yeast to the wine. In this regard, it is important to remember that
the production of carbon dioxide due to the second fermentation, has a huge importance when making a natural sparkling wine. (*1)
*1: The carbon dioxide can be also artificially injected. In general, these “inflated” wines don’t have a very fine taste and “perlage”.
The devil’s wine.
f the second fermentation starts inside a sealed bottle, the renewed production of carbon dioxide causes a rise of the internal pressure. Up to the seventeenth century, lacking a specific knowledge and 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 to improve a wine, 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 due to the lack of expertise in controlling the rifermentation process and to the quality of bottles and caps, unable to resist to the stress. This caused quite often great damages and forced the cellar workers to wear masks and body protections not to get hurt.
Dom Perignon and the champagne.
s it often happens when dealing with a myth of the past, information about Dom Perignon may not always be accurate or coincide entirely with the facts. Suffice to say that, for example, many think that he was an alchemist: something that, in truth, is very unlikely. Despite the lack of reliable sources, it’s still possible, with a certain approximation, to figure out who really was the man that, still today, is widely considered the father of champagne.
The assignment in Hautvillers
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. This precious knowledge allowed him to carry out his assignment with a “pretty good” success.
Dom Perignon and the second fermentation
Even if it could sound strange, expecially 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. His task was to find a way to avoid the dangers caused by this process: it seems that the abbot himself gave it to him, since he was very 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 process but, more importantly, 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 quite important to remember that he was helped by the invention of more resistant bottles and by the use of cork stoppers.
Dom Perignon and the “cuvèe”
The true, unique talent of Dom Perignon consisted in his innate capacity 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 the champagne so famous in the world: from this point of view, he can really be considered the “father” of this wine.
Dom Perignon is celebrated still today: the famous company Moet e Chandon from Epernay, has given his name to one of its best champagne.
*1: The French term “cuvée” has several meanings. In relation to champagne, it’s the particular blend of wines used to make it.
The British and the champagne.
t’s surprising to find out how old and close was the relation between the British and the champagne and how important was their role in the evolution of this wine. Two people in particular, lived between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were fundamental:
Cristopher Merret (1614 – 1695)
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 point out the relation between the addition of sugar to a wine and the start of a second fermentation. In essence, he theorized the fundamentals of the “champenoise” method, several years before the work of Dom Perignon.
Sir Robert Mansell (1573–1656)
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 inside a champagne. The secret of such a resistance was in the quality of glass, made strong by the intense heat of coke ovens, much warmer than those using wood.
Champagne: the places and the grapes.
he most famous sparkling wine in the world takes its name from the region in the northeast of France where it’s produced.
Sweet hills covered by ordered rows of vines, give life to an incredibly beautiful landscape: in this charming place, grapes and soil have formed a deep bond. That’s why a true champagne has to come from here. It’s not just a formality: the particular nature of the local terrain, its exposure and the climate (all aspects of the so-called “terroir”), give to this wine the necessary characteristics.
Let’s give a quick look to the largest and most famous production areas of the Champagne:
Montagne de Reims
Even if its name is “montagne” (mountain), in reality there are only “sweet” hills in this area, not taller 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 of the Champagne region. Here the soil can be chalky, calcareous or clay. This place is famous for its pinot meunier grapes.
Cote des Blancs
This area takes its name from the color of its white grapes (“Blancs”). The most important is the chardonnay, fundamental part of a great cuvèe.
Cote de Sézanne
Located south of the Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne is important for the production of pinot noir grapes.
This area, also known as Cote de Bar, is just south of the beautiful town of Troyes. Its soil is rich in limestone. The local vineyards produce great pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.
The “Champenoise” method.
he “Champenoise” method, also known as “traditional” or “classic”, is a procedure 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.
Below, a few images show step by step the stages of this procedure:
Three grape varieties are used to produce a champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The “blanc the blancs” is made just with chardonnay, the “blanc de noirs” just with pinot noir and meunier.
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.
The main ingredients are finally ready: each of these three “base-wines” (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) will give some of their characteristics to the champagne.
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 so-called “liqueur de tirage” is made with sugar, selected yeast and minerals: this particular mix is added to the cuvèe to start the second fermentation.
A “bidule” is a small plastic cylinder destined to collect the residue of the dead yeast. It’s inserted in the neck of the bottle before sealing it using a crown cap.
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. The taste of wine is improved by the yeast residue (“sur lattes”). Small rotations (“coup de poignée”) avoid it from sticking to the bottom of the bottles.
After a period of time that may vary from two up to ten years (and more), the wine is ready. The so-called “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”).
The “disgorgement” consists in opening the bottle.
Before to remove the crown cap, its 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 is easily expelled thanks to the internal pressure.
The opened bottle is topped up (“dosage”) with the so-called “liqueur d’expedition”. This “liqueur” is made with champagne, sugar (not always) and sometimes a little bit of liquor.
The bottle is sealed with a cork, this is secured to its neck with a metal cage, known as “muselet”.
CHAMPAGNE: CHARACTER OF THE GRAPES
o really understand a wine, it’s necessary to know the character of the grapes used to produce it:
Typology: white grape.
Origin: Mostly Cote des Blancs.
Aromas: Flowers, fruits (peach, exotic fruits, lemon), minerals (chalk).
Chardonnay gives to a champagne finesse and elegance.
Typology: red grape.
Origin: Mostly Montagne de Reims, Cote des Bar.
Aromas: Fruits (red berries).
Pinot Noir gives to a champagne body and structure.
Typology: red grape.
Origin: Mostly Valèe de la Marne.
Aromas: Red berries, currant and cherry.
Pinot Meunier gives to a champagne roundness and softness.
CHAMPAGNE: A SOIL RICH IN CHALK
hat makes champagne so special? What makes its smell and taste so unique? This sparkling wine is the sum of many different elements: the nature of the terrain is probably the most important. It’s stony, whitish, apparently not good for a plant … but a grapevine is not any plant, it’s different, giving the best when the conditions are difficult. Year after year, its roots dig deeper and deeper, taking from the ground and giving to the grapes. Champagne is the result of a soil rich in chalk: something immediately clear when drinking it. An aroma so typical to become the distinctive element of this great wine.
THE SUGAR IN A CHAMPAGNE
erms like “brut” and “dry” express the sugar content of a sparkling wine. The list below shows the exact amount for each of these words:
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 THE BOTTLES OF CHAMPAGNE
efore Dom Perignon, the bottles of wine were closed with primitive wooden plugs, secured by wraps made with cloth and wax. Many think that the Benedectine monk was the first to use corks: something that, according to recent studies, 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
om Perignon secured the corks to his bottles with a hemp string, using a procedure that needed great strength and skill. In time, iron replaced hemp, since it is was more durable. The first pre-formed metal cage, the “muselet”, was invented in the mid-nineteenth century.
THE BREAST OF THE MARQUISE
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”, this sparkling wine is often served in a “coupe”. Legend wants that its 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
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. That’s because it’s the first where some bottles of this wine are depicted. (more information here: Wikipedia Link).
THE MARTINOTTI / CHARMAT METHOD
he so-called “Martinotti” method, also known as “Charmat”, is quite different from the “traditional” one: the second fermentation is started in a steel tank hermetically sealed. The sparkling wine is bottled only after the process is complete. Please remember that this method can’t be used to produce champagne.
“REMUAGE” ON A “PUPITRE”
s already explained in a previous paragraph, once a champagne is ready, the so-called “remuage” starts. This procedure consists in a slow rotation of the bottle on both the axes that ends when it reaches the vertical position. This task can be performed both manually or using a machine. When it’s performed manually, a “pupitre” is normally used: it’s a wood frame with rows of round holes. A different inclination corresponds to each row.
ICE AND SALT
little trick to lower the temperature of champagne very quickly: it consists in adding some salt to a bucket full of ice, this way it will melt much faster than usual. The resulting water will be so cold to cool a bottle in no time!
THE RIGHT FOOD FOR THIS BEVERAGE
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 in this page marked with the “webfoodculture” logo, belong to Webfoodculture.
The following images are in public domain:
©:1 (*) – Dom Pérignon (Wikipedia Link)
©:2 (**) – Bottle of vintage 1999 Dom Perignon (Wikipedia Link)
©:3 (*) – “Le Déjeuner d’huîtres” by Jean-François de Troy (Wikipedia Link)
©:4 (*) – Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour (Wikipedia Link)
©:5 (*) – Cristopher Merret, unknown artist (Wikipedia Link)
©:6 (*) – Sir Robert Mansell, unknown artist (Wikipedia Link)
©:7 (**) – Lieviti Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, image belonging to Masur (Wikipedia Link)
©:8 (*) – Grape-Shot, unknown artist, 1915 (Wikipedia Link)
The following images are under Creative Commons License and belong to their authors:
©©:9 (CC3.0) – Hautvillers Abbey. Image owner: OCTOBER ENDS (Wikipedia Link)
©©:10 (CC2.0) – The flags of England and the United Kingdom. Image owner: THOR (Wikipedia Link)
(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.
(CC2.0) Creative Commons 2.0.
(CC3.0) Creative Commons 3.0.