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.)
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:
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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