A sparkling or effervescent wine named for the Champagne region of France and that has become the traditional alcoholic beverage for toasting the New Year in Western society. Details of the first production of sparkling wine are lacking, yet wines from the Champagne region were known before the Middle Ages. The first commercial sparkling wine was produced in 1531 at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire at Limoux in Southern France, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the sparkling method was imported to the Champagne region, where the champagne sparkling wine was born. According to popular legend, the blind, French monk Dom Pérignon (b. 1640), cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers, is credited with the invention of vin saute bouchon (“wine with the jumping cork”—champagne as it was known at the time); he supposedly compared his first taste of the beverage to “drinking stars.” Champagne was the beverage of kings, such that leading manufacturers expended considerable time and energy in associating the beverage and themselves with nobility and royalty. Champagne was the chosen wine for European celebrations, and it became an important element in enhancing social status.
Although sparkling wines are produced all over the world, only those from the Champagne region of France may legally wear the name “champagne,” as stipulated in the Treaty of Madrid (1891) and reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Under the auspices of the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (formed in 1941 and now represented by the French Ministry of Agriculture), wine production from the Champagne region must follow a rigid set of rules and regulations in order to protect the economic interests of that community. Such rules include, among others, proper locations for vineyards, types of grapes to be grown and harvested, ramifications of viticulture, and regulating prices by determining how much champagne is released on the market to consumers. Thus most countries have labeling laws preventing the use of the term “champagne” on any wine not from that region in France. The United States, however, does permit its wine producers to use “champagne” as a semi-generic name, because the United States Senate never ratified the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, American wine producers may use the name “champagne” as long as the label stipulates the actual place of origin to avoid confusing consumers.
Other countries producing sparkling wines utilize special terms for their identification: for example, Cava in Spain, Spumante in Italy (Asti if made from Muscat grapes), Cap Classique in South Africa, Sekt in Germany, Crément in the Burgundy and Alsace regions of France, and Vin Mousseux in other regions of France.
French champagne is made from a high-quality blend of grapes, such as pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot meunier, or chardonnay, and is bottle-fermented in a process known as méthode champenoise. During fermentation, the bottles are stored horizontally, allowing the carbon dioxide that is generated to remain trapped in the wine, which produces the effervescence when the bottle is opened. After the wine has aged between 1.5 and three years, the bottles are turned slightly each day, a process termed “riddling,” and gradually shifted to a neck-down orientation. This latter maneuver allows the “lees” (sediment) to collect in the necks and is removed by a process termed “disgorgement,” which involves freezing a small portion of the wine in the neck and removing this plug that contains the lees. At this point a cork is inserted and is held secure by a wire cage. French champagne cannot legally be sold until it has aged on the lees for at least 15 months, and vintage champagne (see below) must age in cellars for a minimum of three years before disgorgement, although the best wineries hold bottles on the lees for six to eight years before disgorgement.
Champagne is typically a white wine, even if produced from red grapes, because the process that extracts the juice from the grapes minimizes the time spent in contact with the red skins. However, rosé (pink) wines are produced either by increasing the incubation time of the juice with the red skins or by adding small amounts of red wine during the blending.
Most sparkling wines are a blend of grapes from the current year and wines from previous years, with percentages carefully controlled such that each bottle is consistent with the distinctive style of the winery. Wines so prepared are known as “non-vintage.” In contrast, “vintage” French champagnes are produced entirely from the grapes of a single harvest; in California, however, a vintage champagne is produced from no less than 95 percent of the grapes from a single harvest. Rare types of vintage champagne are known as “prestige,” generally made from the first pressing of an outstanding grape harvest and aged longer than average. Needless to say, bottles of vintage champagne may be exceedingly expensive.
The amount of sugar added during processing determines the “dryness” of champagne, and this information is included on the label using the following terms: extra brut, brut nature, or brut zero (driest with no additional sugar); brut (very dry with 1—1.5 percent sugar); extra-sec (less dry with 1.2—2 percent sugar); sec (sweet with 1.7—3.5 percent sugar); demi-sec (dessert wine with 3.3—5 percent sugar); and doux (sweetest wine with more than five percent sugar).
The typical bubbles of champagne result from effervescence when the liquid is poured into a dry glass. Natural imperfections in the glass provide nucleation points for bubbles to form; over time, the surface tension of the liquid smoothes out such imperfections. For continuous bubble formation, the champagne glass must be etched by the manufacturer or consumer using acid, laser, or an etching tool; alternatively, cellulose fibers remaining in the glass from the wiping/drying process also provide nucleation sites and hence continuous bubble formation. Because the carbon dioxide bubbles create considerable pressure and unopened bottles have been known to explode without warning, such events occurring in the days of early wineries were attributed to works of Satan.
Champagne is usually fermented in bottles of two sizes, a standard bottle of 750 milliliters (six glasses) or a Magnum of 1.5 liters (12 glasses). Bottles of other sizes are generally named for biblical figures and are filled from standard bottles or Magnums: Benjamin (187 milliliters, 2 glasses); Split (375 milliliters, 3 glasses); Jeroboam (three liters, 24 glasses); Rehoboam (4.5 liters, 36 glasses); Methuselah (six liters, 48 glasses); Salamanazar (nine liters, 72 glasses); Balthazar (12 liters, 96 glasses); Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters, 120 glasses); Solomon (18 liters, 144 glasses); Sovereign (27 liters, 216 glasses, the size for christening ships). Of interest is the fact that the tradition of christening ships with champagne originated in France in the eighteenth century and replaced red wine that had been formerly used as a bygone symbol of human blood. Such a custom recalls the practice of ancient Vikings, who sacrificed victims on the prows of ships so that the spirits of those victims would protect the vessels. In other facts of trivia, the average bottle of sparkling wine has about 49 million bubbles, and a 20 fluid-ounce bottle of champagne was specially made by Pol Roger for Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England.
Since champagne bottles are under pressure, the corks may spontaneously pop and become flying projectiles (according to Guinness, popped corks can be projected as far as 177 feet). Therefore, bottles should always be pointed away from other people when opened. Bottles are opened by first removing the foil around the cork and pulling down the wire loop. With a towel draped over the bottle, one hand is placed over the cork while the other hand loosens the wire cage without removing it. The cork and cage are then held together with one hand, while the other hand grasps the bottle by its base and rotates the bottle, not the cork. Whereas opening champagne bottles is often portrayed as accompanied by a loud “pop” with abundant spewing of beverage under pressure, most wine connoisseurs recommend opening bottles carefully and gently such that the “pop” is hardly audible and the contents are not wasted.
Champagne is traditionally served cold, around 43 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, to preserve the effervescent capacity, and may be chilled in ice buckets made especially for this purpose. Champagne is also traditionally served in stemware that include “flutes” (tall, narrow, and straight-sided); “tulips” (narrow with rims curving inward); “trumpets” (narrow, with rims flaring outward); and “coupes” (shaped like saucers, they are the least effective in preserving bubbles and aroma). More bubbles may be produced by using crystal stemware, which is rougher than glass, and by holding the glass by the stem, which keeps the beverage as cool as possible.
The Champagne region of France boasts over 100 champagne houses and 15,000 smaller winemakers, who collectively produce over 300 million bottles each year. Nearly 60 percent is sold in France with the remaining exported primarily to the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. About one billion bottles are collectively held in stock during the aging process.
Each French champagne label includes an abbreviation that implies specific information about the type of winery that produced the bottle in question. The abbreviations are: CM (Coopérative de manipulation) — The producer is a member of a co-operative that utilizes the grapes from growers who are also members; all grapes are pooled together. MA (Marque auxiliaire) — A brand name owned by someone other than the producer or grower. ND (Négociant distributeur) — The producer sells under his own name. NM (Négociant manipulant) — The producer purchases the grapes from independent growers. RC (Récoltant coopérateur) — Member of a co-operative who places his own name on champagne produced by the co-operative. RM (Récoltant manipulant) — The company grows its own grapes and produces its own wine. SR (Société de récoltants) — Association of growers, but not a co-operative, who also make a shared champagne.
See also Drinking.
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