Champagne. It christens ships, cements friendships, commemorates special occasions, honors achievements, and, with a resounding pop, brings life to any gathering. And, really, how else could the phrase “pop the question” have come about without the joyful sound of a Champagne bottle being opened?
The History of Champagne
Champagne’s charisma comes with a fanciful origin story involving a 17th century monk named Dom Pierre Perignon who, upon taking his first sip of the fizzy brew he’d accidentally created, declared, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars.” Though beautiful and romantic, the tale is almost certainly not true. For one thing, in France at that time, wine with any effervescence was considered unfit to drink. Then there is the matter of timing.
Recently uncovered documents show that for more than 30 years before Dom Perignon made his “discovery,” English wine importers had been using sugar, molasses, and brandy purposefully and effectively to coax bubbles into the still wine they had imported from France. Apparently, the British enjoyed their wine with a bit of sparkle. In Champagne, though, winemakers continued to fight against those pesky bubbles. It was a losing battle. The region’s cold winters literally forced the wine to carbonate. As the centuries went on, tastes began to shift.
Understanding how Champagne went from plonk to precious requires a bit of a dive into France’s history. The story gets going in 1027, when King Henry I declared the town of Reims, which is located in the heart of France’s Champagne region, as the official site for the coronation of all future kings. Since the wine served at these celebrations was produced locally, it quickly became associated with royalty.
Enter King Louis XIV, who began his reign in 1643 at the age of 4. At some point, Louis acquired a taste for the region’s sparkling wine and decided he would drink nothing else. By the 1730s, the trend had caught on and the royal court was consuming more than half of the sparkling wine produced in Reims. The Sun King was so enamored with his effervescent toddy — which at the time was achingly sweet — that he decreed that only wine from Reims could be sold in bottles, rather than the more traditional casks. Beyond giving the city a veritable monopoly on the export of sparkling wine — it tended to lose its fizz in casks — the ruling gave Reims’s wine the cache of being approved by the king. Before long the sparkling wine from Reims was in high demand.
Though sales floundered during the French Revolution, the die had been cast. Champagne, drink of kings, was officially the drink of celebrations. To this day, nearly every wedding includes a toast with Champagne or sparkling wine.
How Champagne is Made
Once wine drinkers had developed a taste for Champagne, winemakers had to figure out how to standardize its production. Champagne starts out just like any other wine — ripe grapes are crushed and fermented, then aged in oak casks or stainless-steel tanks. At a time determined by the winemaker, the wine is bottled and either aged a bit more or shipped to customers or retail outlets. Champagne goes through a slightly different process. Bottled with a temporary cork, the wine is left to ferment a second time — this is when the bubbles magically appear — and age for a minimum of 15 months. Next, it’s placed on special shelves that hold it at a 45-degree angle, with the neck facing down.
During this period, the bottles are rotated a bit every day, a process called “riddling,” which helps move the dead yeast toward the cork end of the bottle. When the winemaker determines that the Champagne is ready for the next step, the temporary cork is removed and the yeasty mess is blown out or disgorged. Before the wine is recorked, the volume lost in disgorgement is replaced with dosage, a sugar mixture that determines the sweetness of the final product. The whole process, which is called methode champenoise, was, in part, created by none other than Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin, who, at the age of 27, was widowed and took over the family wine business. Not only did she streamline the production of Champagne, but, in the early 1800s, she ran a blockade to deliver her sweet, fortified tipple to the Russian czars, who adored it. Her feat made her wine, called Veuve Cliquot, a legend. It’s no wonder it’s the first choice for many Columbia brides.
“When it comes to quality, that second fermentation in the bottle is what makes all the difference,” says Tony McNeill, wine buyer for Morganelli’s. “The wording has begun to evolve; these days, many producers are using the term methode traditionnelle or, particularly in South Africa, classique, instead of methode champenoise.”
Wine production in France is strictly controlled by the government; in Champagne, seven grape varieties are permitted to be grown. Chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier comprise the blends of 99 percent of Champagnes. The other four, pinot gris, pinot blanc, petit meslier, and arbane, have rare supporting roles. Champagne made from red grapes is called blanc de noirs, which literally means white from red; blanc de blanc is made from white grapes.
But what really sets Champagne apart is how the grapes are blended and the resulting wine aged. “In Champagne, winemakers don’t just blend grape varieties but wines from different vineyard sites — called crus — as well,” says Mary Gorman-McAdams, director of New York’s International Wine Center. “With more than 300 crus to choose from, expert blenders create a complexity to Champagne that is unlike any other sparkling wine.” Mary says that aging has a lot to do with Champagne’s unique taste profile as well. “Even non-vintage cuvees spend at least 24 to 36 months on the lees — leftover yeast particles — which is way longer than most other traditional wines,” she says. “This gives the wine a chance to develop the biscuity, epicurean notes that make it so special.”
Since Louis XIV’s reign, Champagne and sparkling wine from around the world have become increasingly popular; according to Nielsen IQ, it’s been the fastest growing wine category for the past two years. One reason is variety. Unlike most wines, which have limited flavor profiles, sparklers run the gamut, from dry to sweet, fruity to yeasty, and pale straw in color to deep ruby. Extra brut or brut natural has the least residual sugar; demi-sec is the sweetest. In between, in order of rising sweetness, are brut, extra dry, dry, and sec.
By law, only sparkling wine from France’s Champagne region can be labeled as Champagne. This even includes sparkling wine from other parts of France, which is called cremant and is produced using the same method as Champagne. “Cremant is a delicious alternative to Champagne, but without the high price,” says Ingrid Chambas, vice president and sales manager at Aleph Wines in Columbia. “It may not have the cache, but it has the quality. Langlois is a great example. It’s from the Loire Valley, which produces some of the best wines in the world, and the company is owned by Bollinger, which makes some of the most respected Champagnes in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that!”
Tony with Morganelli’s also finds that cremant is a terrific option. “Any cremant, be it from Alsace, the Loire, or Burgundy, is delicious,” he says. “If you love bubbles, they’re a great option for weekday dinners.”
Spain calls its sparkling wine cava. Though originally comparable to Champagne — cava employs the methode champenoise and is aged on the lees — a flood of cheap cava in the 1980s gave the wine a bad reputation. Today, many top cava producers are using regional designations such as Penedes and Corpinnat to set their quality wines apart from headache-inducing cheap cavas.
Behind Champagne, perhaps the best-known imported sparkler is prosecco, which has been produced in northern Italy for more than 100 years. High quality prosecco will be labeled prosecco DOC, which guarantees its “controlled designation of origin” status; DOCG prosecco is a step above. Unlike Champagne, prosecco’s lively bubbles are infused while the wine is in a large steel autoclave, a method called charmat/martinotti, or the tank method, which was developed specifically to capture the fresh fruitiness of the glera grape, which is the basis of most prosecco.
American wine producers are riding the wave of bubbly’s popularity as well. Although most American sparklers are made using the methode champenoise, some use the tank method, which delivers a fresher, more fruit-forward wine.
A few California wineries have partnered with French Champagne houses — American grapes, French know-how — to produce their sparkling wines. These partnerships, like Domain Carneros and Taittinger, Domaine Chandon and Moet, and Mumm Napa and GH Mumm, produce high-quality sparklers. But that’s not the only way to produce well-balanced bubbles. Banshee Winery recently introduced Ten of Cups, which is a French-styled blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier.
“Ten of Cups is aged on the lees for a minimum of 24 months, so it’s persistent on the palate and creamy on the finish, with hints of toast,” says winemaker Alicia Sylvester. “Bubbles are inherently celebratory and can make a weeknight at home feel like a Saturday night out. It’s hard not to be in a good mood when bubbles are on the table.”
How to Drink Champagne
Though Champagne is often served in a tall, tulip-shaped flute, many Champagne lovers prefer to use a traditional chardonnay or Burgundy glass, both of which have slightly narrowed rims that will concentrate the aroma of the wine. Whatever you choose, remember that sparkling wines aren’t just for toasting. Bubblies pair remarkably well with salt and fat, making them a natural partner for everything from filet mignon to fried chicken and potato chips. Surprisingly, the most challenging Champagne pairing is dessert. “Champagne is dry, so it generally isn’t a great partner with a sweet dessert,” says Tony. “If you really want to serve Champagne at the end of the meal, go with something sweeter, like a demi-sec.”
Vintage Champagnes made from red grapes can easily stand up to a grilled steak. “With food or without, Champagne is a celebration in a bottle,” says Ingrid. “We all need to drink more of it.”
Champagne and sparkling wine aren’t just terrific on their own — they add pizzazz to cocktails as well.
Banshee Ten of Cups Autumn Mimosas
Makes 6 to 8 festive cocktails, a fun spice twist on the classic mimosa.
1 bottle apple cider, chilled
1 bottle of Banshee Ten of Cups, chilled
½ cup granulated sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons cinnamon
Place the cinnamon sugar in a shallow bowl or dish; pour the maple syrup into a second shallow dish. Dip the rim of each glass into the maple syrup; let the excess drip off, then dip the rim into the cinnamon sugar. Repeat for each glass. Fill each glass halfway with the chilled apple cider, then top off with the chilled Banshee Ten of Cups. Garnish with an apple slice.
Hunter Cone at Black Rooster in West Columbia developed this pretty sipper as a variation of a classic mojito — but also paying homage to another classic, the Pimm’s Cup. “It’s light and refreshing, but with body and not too much sweetness,” he says of this complex drink. “The Becherovka is a Scandinavian spirit, originally from the Czech Republic, that adds a bit of earthy spice.”
1½ ounces Banks 5-year-old rum
½ ounce Pimm’s No. 1
¼ ounce Becherovka
1 ounce cranberry and rosemary shrub
½ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce grenadine
Fresh rosemary and cranberries
Muddle mint with ice in a shaker glass; add remaining ingredients except sparkling wine and shake to mix. Strain into a tall, ice-filled glass and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with rosemary and cranberries.
A slightly sweeter take on the classic Aperol spritz. The unusual order in which the ingredients are combined allows for easier mixing.
3 ounces Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse liqueur
2 ounces prosecco or good-quality sparkling wine
2 ounces unsweetened grapefruit-flavored seltzer
Fill a large goblet halfway with ice. Gently add the prosecco, then the liqueur. Push in the grapefruit slice to mix and top with the seltzer. Garnish with rosemary.
You’ll want to use good Champagne for this classic aperitif.
½ ounce top-quality crème de cassis
Champagne, well chilled
Long, thin strip of lemon peel
Pour the crème de cassis into a Champagne flute or wine glass. Fill with Champagne and garnish with the lemon peel.