Drinks

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Champagne

December 28, 2016

I can't remember when I had my first glass of Champagne—it's safe to assume it was at a New Year’s celebration, circa 1995, when a grown-up was otherwise occupied—but I can clearly remember the first moment I knew I wanted to try it. It only took about 20 seconds of watching Leslie Caron sing about it for me to decide that I had to try the drink making this woman so happy (the same logic followed for word pronunciation in My Fair Lady, which may explain why I studied English.)

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Since then, my fascination with the sparkling wine—and my reputation as someone who loves to saber it—has only grown: How can anyone not love a drink invented for celebration?

So when the opportunity arose for me to attend a Champagne tasting as part of Champagne Week, I leapt at it—and even managed to learn a thing or two from Moët specialist, Alyse Mizia, as my glass was filled—and refilled. Here are 10 surprising facts about the mysterious, bubbly drink produced in France’s most varied, yet incredibly small wine region, Champagne:

1. Champagne made in the 1800s doesn't taste anything like today’s Champagne.

Photo by James Ransom

Way back in 1668, when a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon was working at his goal to create the best wine in the world, what he was creating was nothing like the dry, brut Champagne we know and love today. Through the better part of the nineteenth century, Champagne was incredibly sweet, almost syrupy. But when Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot began exporting her Champagne to England, she discovered that the English preferred dry Champagne, so she began making two Champagnes: her original sweet Champagne, indicated by its white label, and a dry version with the yellow Veuve Clicquot label we know and drink today, which was categorized as goût anglais or “English taste.”

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As a side note, goût russe or “Russian taste” was used to classify the sweetest Champagne, which was about six times sweeter than our sweetest Champagne today. (Russia was a huge driver of the Champagne industry—Cristal is so-named because it was actually served in leaded crystal glass bottles to Russian tsars.)

Photo by James Ransom

There is still a range in the sweetness of Champagne (which comes largely from the grape juice added during its second fermentation), but as a whole, it’s much drier than its predecessors. It’s measured by dosage, or grams of sugar per liter of Champagne, from extra-brut at zero dosage, which is currently trendy, to demi-sec and doux with up to 50 dosage.

2. Champagne would be murky and yeasty if a brave woman hadn’t invented a way to get the yeast out.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

When Madame Clicquot took over her husband’s Champagne house after his death (hence the name Veuve, or “widow”) Clicquot, she became the first woman to take charge of one—but to say she rose to the occasion would be an understatement. One of her great contributions to the Champagne world was to invent a riddling rack.

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Top Comment:
“I love "true" champagne, but I'm a huge fan of sparkling wines from the states - Schramsberg being at the top of the list... and Gruet is right in there with a surprising lovely taste at a happily low price point. Santé!”
— Karen
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After Champagne is fermented once in barrels, it’s bottled and yeast is added for its second fermentation. The yeast eats the sugar, which causes Champagne’s famous effervescence, but a lot of dead yeast are left behind at the bottom of the bottle. Clicquot’s solution was to create a rack that puts the bottles at an angle, cork-side down, so that the yeast falls into the neck of the bottle in roughly two weeks and becomes a compact and easily-removable puck of yeast. Today, many houses do this process with machinery called a gyropallette, but Clicquot's method lasted for hundreds of years and is responsible for Champagne’s clarity.

3. Champagne flutes and coupes are all about decoration—to really taste it and get the most out of it, it should be drunk out of a wine glass.

Photo by Mark Weinberg
Photo by Bobbi Lin

While flutes and coupes are a beautiful way to present Champagne, they aren’t practical. Alyse explained that so many of our tasting senses are connected to smell, yet these traditional glasses prevent us from getting our noses into the glasses to get a whiff. She said that a Champagne maker once explained it to her as “going to see the orchestra with earplugs.”

4. When buying expensive Champagne, you should ask if you can have a bottle from the restocking room.

When buying Champagne, especially those in a clear glass bottles (like Ruinart), you should ask if you can buy one from the store's back room rather than from the shelf, as Champagne starts to degrade in quality when it's exposed to light (hence, Champagne caves) so buying it straight out of its shipping box will ensure a higher quality.

5. Champagne shouldn't be saved too long before drinking it.

Alyse said that when she tells people what she does, the most common response is, “Oh I have a bottle of Moët I’ve been saving for a special occasion!” to which Alyse always responds, “Tonight is a special occasion—drink it!” She explains that every bottle that hits the shelves has been aged to its peak—the Champagne house has already done the work for you, so as soon as you buy it, it’s perfect to drink.

So while many assume that Champagne only gets better with years of age, the opposite is true for many bottles, depending on their blend of grapes. Champagne is made out of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. All Champagne must be aged for several months for it to be called Champagne, but for bottles intended to be aged longer, there is often more Pinot Noir in the blend, as these are stable grapes that help with the aging structure. Veuve Clicquot, for example, uses 50 to 55 percent Pinot Noir, but only about 30 to 35 percent Chardonnay, so it can be kept longer than other bottles.

Chardonnay grapes, on the other hand, are added for roundness of palate and subtle flavors, but do not age well at all. So a Champagne like Ruinart, which is 100 percent Chardonnay, or a Dom Perignon, which is made primarily from Chardonnay, should be enjoyed as close to when you bought it as possible.

6. You shouldn't store Champagne in the refrigerator.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

My grandma—a fellow member of the We Love Bubbly club—told me once to always keep a bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator, in case you have to celebrate. While the thought is very sweet, it may be better said, “Keep a bottle of Champagne in the back of your closet, so you only have it to put it in the refrigerator to briefly chill if you have something to celebrate.

Alyse explained that when Champagnes are kept in the refrigerator, the cork dries out and shrinks so that the carbonation is able to escape, and other smells and flavors can get in. And Champagne (and all wine) should always be stored on its side to keep the cork damp and ensure a tight seal.

7. The best Champagnes come from warm and dry harvests.

Photo by Benoit Tarlant

The particularly warm and extremely dry summer we just had may not be a happy indicator of Mother Earth's condition—but it's good news for Champagne. To put it simply, heat equals ripeness, which equals sugar, and dryness means grapes won’t be water-logged by too much rain, and will be more concentrated in flavor. During these good years, Champagne houses will often release special vintages, after aging them for 7 to 10 years, so the 2006 Moët was just released. Keep your eye out for the 2015 ten years from now—rumor has it, it’ll be worth the wait.

8. Some better Champagnes don't have a vintage, and some of the best are actually blends made from several years.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

I think if I had to impersonate a Champagne sommelier, I would say (in a nondescript, vaguely European accent) something like, “Oh yes, this is a brilliant 2005,” but I wouldn’t be fooling anyone. Just like there are great years, there are also not-so-great-years (2005 being one of them), but Champagne houses still need to release a Champagne that tasted like last year’s Champagne. To do this, expert Champagne makers create blends from the sometimes hundreds of vineyards and vintages they have access to, then only release the aforementioned vintages when the year allows them to.

For history buffs—and those paying attention—German winemaker-turned-Champagne-maker named Joseph Krug was the first to practice this philosophy of moving away from the vintages employed by winemakers and setting forth to make the best wine every year, by borrowing from past years.

9. Champagne wouldn't exist without clay.

The Champagne caves at Moët. Photo by Giulo Nepi

One of the elements that makes Champagne such a unique growing region—200 days of rain aside—is the clay in the soil and deep under the earth. It leads to some of the best growing conditions and also aging conditions. The reason so many aging caves are underground (Krug's is actually in a warehouse) is because clay creates the perfect conditions for Champagne to rest: It maintains the perfect level of moisture, absorbs shock so the bottles don’t get shaken, and stays cool.

Interestingly enough, the bottom of the ocean has some of the same qualities of clay: Earlier this year, 170-year-old Veuve Clicquot was recovered from the Baltic Sea, and its flavor (age aside) was largely uncontaminated—the cool, dark, and very moist conditions of the sea kept it in good care.

10. Many of the largest Champagne houses—and most of those mentioned in this piece—are all owned by the same company.

Photo by James Ransom

Champagne has long been an industry with many internal ties between companies: Madame Clicquot was the great-granddaughter of Nicolas Ruinart, and there are relationships between houses and growers that have existed since the 1700s. Today, some of the best brands included Dom Perignon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, and Krug are all owned by the mega-brand, LVMH.

What are some of your favorite facts about Champagne? Are you running home to open a bottle? Tell us in the comments below!

This article originally appeared on November 13, 2015. We're re-running it now because with New Year's Eve right around the corner, champagne might well be in your future.

26 Comments

Meredith R. April 15, 2016
After reading the comments about different champagnes, I wondered if anyone remembered that Mireille Guiliano who wrote "French Women Don't Get Fat" was (not sure if she still is) CEO and director of Champagne Veuve Clicquot. Just a fun fact!
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. April 15, 2016
So interesting—I didn't know that! Thank you for sharing!
 
ChefJune December 29, 2016
I don't believe she is still affiliated with Veuve Clicquot any more.<br />
 
KathyW December 21, 2015
"There is still a range in the sweetness of Champagne (which comes largely from the grape juice added during its second fermentation)"<br /><br />The sweetness doesn't come from the grape juice added during the second fermentation. It comes from the dosage which is added after the second fermentation, riddling, and degorgement are done.<br /><br />Enjoyed the article!
 
Scribbles December 19, 2015
We love champagne and drink it at least once a week and more often if we can. As you mention, Chandon is the US Moet and we really enjoy their champagne. On occasion we will purchase a more pricey bottle. As for the folks who are belittling the article, it's a fun piece and fun to think and drink champagne...don't be so critical, there is always something to learn from everyone.
 
ginah December 19, 2015
Love this article! So fun to read about the history and get some practical and fun tips for storing and enjoying! If you're looking for something domestic, you should try Gruet Winery. They use method champenoise and are out of New Mexico! http://gruetwinery.com/
 
pamb December 19, 2015
We are big 'champagne' drinkers in my family. Really, sparkling wine, process, cava, but whatever. My husband always jokes :"why do you people love to celebrate everything?" because we'd just as soon open a bottle of Cava as wine when we all get together.
 
BJ December 18, 2015
Would have expected you to mention NM and RM. I think these differences, well, NM is implied, but not explained really, are pretty important.
 
I_Fortuna December 18, 2015
I only have champagne occasionally and enjoyed your article very much. <br />I used to buy my champagne from Trader Joe's when I lived in California. They used to carry a $4 bottle of French champagne that I loved and was able to enjoy more often. Inexpensive champagnes can be very loved. : )
 
Arthur December 18, 2015
Great article! And good job at being modest: waay more than 10 things! And even more knowledge shared by the comments even though these wise gentlemen should remember even though their knowledge is great, it's all about the delivery. Peace and shared knowledge to all. ATBM
 
Connie T. December 18, 2015
I have had (almost) every kind of champagne from expensive to cheap. I prefer the cheap stuff: The Andre's, the Cook's, etc. They are just as nice, and I don't have to spend my retirement on bubbly since my hubby and I like to endulge a few weekends a month.
 
Andrew M. December 18, 2015
I am confused by your reference to Clay as the over riding factor in the soil type. The underlying geology of the champagne region is chalk, not clay There is a small percentage of clay in the top soil but this plays a small part in the flavour composition of the finished product. The Romans excavated the vast cavern under the Champagne region for construction purposes. These caverns provide excellant storage for the developing product, with their constant humidity and temperature. The vines roots grow down into the chalk and provide the mineral backbone for champagne, not the clay. .
 
Andrew M. December 18, 2015
I
 
Larrywinestuff December 13, 2015
While a applaude any article encouraging the normal drinking of sparkling wines, the author does a disservice by making it French centric. And, actually Brother Dom's contribution was the invention of the kick to the bottle to keep it from exploding. The sparkling wine was known for some time. The problem, the bottles exploded from the pressures. Sadly, overall, from an information perspective, shallow article.
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. December 14, 2015
Yes Dom made several amazing contributions to the sparkling wine industry to create Champagne, which was more effervescent and sweeter than the sparkling wines that already existed—he completely reworked both the recipe and the bottles and process. Thankful that he did!
 
I_Fortuna December 18, 2015
I think this article was not meant as a snob article but to be generally informative for newcomers and such. If one wants a more informative or involved work, I suggest that a book on the subject might be the best work for deeper meaning.
 
Mikkel B. November 22, 2015
You can easily keep good chardonnay for many years. It actually has better storage potential than pinot noir and menuer. So its not true when you write the opposite. <br />Another fast is that the big houses like moet etc is all about branding. You pay for the name on the bottle <br />Instead you should buy champagne from the small family owned producers. <br />Here you pay for whats inside the bottle and not name.
 
Scott R. November 21, 2015
I have always loved Veuve Clicquot, it's my favorite reasonably priced champagne, but I do also like Cristal when I can afford it.
 
Andrea S. November 18, 2015
Yes, many of the big houses are owned by the same company, but there are hundreds if not thousands of smaller recultant manipulant who make fantastic champagne.
 
Rebecca November 17, 2015
Love this article and love the comments! New bubbly to try thanks!
 
Karen November 13, 2015
Great article! While I new a few of those facts... many were new... that's the thing about sparkles... they always offer a new surprise. I love "true" champagne, but I'm a huge fan of sparkling wines from the states - Schramsberg being at the top of the list... and Gruet is right in there with a surprising lovely taste at a happily low price point. Santé!
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. November 13, 2015
Yes those are great! And Moët's California counterpart, Chandon is actually pretty good as well—and at a much lower price point!
 
ChefJune November 13, 2015
Gruet is one of the great hidden treasures of the American wine market. You cannot beat it for price. And to think it comes from New Mexico! Who'da thunk??? OTOH, my favorite American sparklings are made by Iron Horse in Sebastopol, CA - the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley. They cost more than some, but imho they are as good as any Champagne. I joined their wine club because I wanted to be able to experience all their cuvees, many of which are produced in such small amounts they're only available at the vineyard.
 
Meagan B. December 21, 2015
I second Iron Horse sparklings! Visited there while I was in Sonoma this past Sept. Some of the best sparklings I've had. One of their sparklings was created for the White House.
 
ChefJune November 13, 2015
Yes, I am! Running home to open a bottle this evening, that is! What a lovely piece, Leslie.<br />Champagne is my favorite beverage, and we never wait for a special occasion to drink some. :) Your article reminded me of a former associate who received a bottle of '85 Dom for a gift. She put it in the fridge, and I cautioned her against leaving it too long. A year later, I noticed it was still in the fridge, and she poo-pooed the idea that she should store it elsewhere. Several years after our association had ended, I heard she brought out the bottle to share with a very special man only to find it had turned to vinegar (or some other unpleasant liquid). Couldn't help laughing...<br />And for those of you planning a trip to Paris, I must remind you that Reims is only 45 minutes away on the TGV. I highly recommend a day trip (if you can't manage longer) to visit a couple of Champagne houses. And be sure to read the wonderful book "Champagne," by Don and Petie Kladstrup. You'll have an even greater respect for the wine and the Champenois.
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. November 13, 2015
Thank you for sharing that story—very funny and a lesson to us all! And I will definitely add it to my list—I started "Widow Clicquot" and "Wine and War" this week. Such an interesting subject—I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Cheers!