Art in a Glass: The Complex Story of Champagne Through the AgesSep 09, 2022 01:22PM ● By Gina Birch
“Come quickly, I’m tasting the stars.” —Benedictine monk Dom Perignon describing Champagne
A poetic way, indeed, to describe the magic of this wine that caresses the mouth with thousands of tiny bubbles. Champagne is not only a world-class wine, but also a lifestyle, a beverage that is quintessential to celebrations and luxury. It’s art in a glass, a complex masterpiece for all of the senses.
Many people refer to any wine that has bubbles as Champagne, using it as generic term. Champagne is anything but generic. It is the gold standard for sparkling wine produced around the world.
Champagne can be made only in the Champagne region of France, and only from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. For general purposes, all other bubbles are classified as sparkling wine.
Although fizzy fermented beverages have appeared in cultures around the world for centuries, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Champagne, as we know it today, came into being.
Limoux, in southern France, lays claim to the wine appellation where bubbles were birthed. In 1531 the monks at the Abbaye de Saint Hilaire discovered the still wines they had laid down in the winter were lightly sparkling when they came to drink them the following spring.
Approximately 150 years later, a Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pérignon is said to have spent time at Saint Hilaire before heading north to Champagne. It’s in this cooler region where he is credited with refining the fermentation process, as well as the art of blending grapes. Blending is one of the components that gives a bottle of Champagne its unique flavors and complexity.
“Defining a blend is a little bit like making a great painting; it is a combination of colors and techniques, and overall, it has to be harmonious and create enjoyment, pleasure for the person looking at it. For a wine, it is similar,” says Mathieu Roland-Billecart, CEO of Billecart-Salmon, a 200-year-old, family-owned Champagne house.
“Billecart is a little bit like a Pissarro in that it uses many colors and nuances, like the parcels and type of grapes we use, and techniques, as in vinification in barrels or tanks, dosage, aging, etc., to create a harmonious wine that creates pleasure when you taste it,” Roland-Billecart explains.
Billecart-Salmon is known, among other things, for making one of the most elegant, idyllic rosé Champagnes in the world.
Champagne is one of the most complex wines to make. It begins with crafting a traditional still wine and a measure of speculation as to how it will evolve over the course of several years.
The magic comes when a yeast and sugar mix is added, igniting a second fermentation inside of the bottle, rather than in the tank. This is where the bubbles form; however, the process is far from over.
Even when fermentation is complete, the yeast cells continue to flavor the wine. The longer the wine sits—three or five years, or longer—the more complex it gets, forming those famed characteristics of the brioche on the nose and the palate.
At some point, the sediment needs to be removed, a big problem for Champagne makers in the early days. Then Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin came into the picture, as in Veuve Clicquot, the Champagne with that iconic orange label. Her entrepreneurship and chutzpah are legendary. Tilar Mazzeo chronicles the wine icon’s fascinating story in her book, The Widow Clicquot.
It was the early 1800s, and at the age of 27 she lost her husband. (Veuve means widow in French.) Looking for a faster, more efficient way to remove sediment from wine, the Widow Clicquot turned her kitchen table on its side and cut holes in it for wine bottles. She would rotate them and tilt the table a little every day. The sediment fell into the neck of the bottle making it easier to disgorge or remove without wasting wine or losing the strength of the bubbles. The process, known as riddling, is still used today.
Later in life she bought a chateau for retirement that happened to be where the train line ended. People disembarking wanted to meet the famous widow, and wine tourism in the region was born. “She is a folk hero in France,” says Mazzeo. “Her stories are legends to this day in the Champagne region.”
Another widow, Louise Pommery, also gets kudos for establishing wine tourism. Even more importantly, she is famous for changing the early flavor profile of Champagne, which at the time tended to be on the sweet side. She introduced a drier style known as brut in the mid-1800s. Besides Pommery’s iconic blue label, the Champagne house is making a delightful sparkling wine in California with the same finesse. It’s bottled with a more modern-looking white label.
Nonvintage brut is the most popular style of Champagne with American consumers, according to the United States Champagne Bureau, in association with the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne trade association. More than four million bottles of Champagne are exported to the United States annually. That’s just Champagne. Add prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain, and others, and the amount of sparkling wine consumed jumps significantly.
Champagne made its way to the United States in 1852 thanks to Charles Heidsieck, affectionately known as Champagne Charlie. After forming his own Champagne house, he set sail for America to introduce this delightful drink to the Yanks. The brand continues to thrive as one of the most decorated Champagne houses in the world.
Champagne may be the Holy Grail, but there are other regions in France, and other countries in the world, that put just as much effort, thought, and investment into crafting exquisite sparkling wines.
A majority use the same secondary fermentation and aging techniques as the best producers in Champagne, denoting the process on their label as méthode champenoise. In New Zealand it may read méthode traditionnelle. On South African wine labels, the standard is méthode cap classique, the fastest-growing category in the South African wine industry.
Sparkling wine is made in almost every region of Italy. Prosecco, however, is a different animal. It’s made using the Charmat method, where the second fermentation occurs in pressurized tanks instead of the bottle. This allows for a quicker turnaround and is one reason why prosecco is generally a more affordable bubbly beverage.
Italian producer Mionetto put crown caps on its bottles of bubbles to make sparkling wine feel more approachable. The idea is to encourage daily enjoyment of affordable sparkling wine rather than waiting for that sometimes-elusive special occasion.
Champagne makes a statement but so does the glassware it is served in. The shape of the glass makes a difference to both connoisseurs and fashionistas, for different reasons.
Riedel is a 265-year-old family glass company that has been specializing in wine glasses with scientific precision since the 1950s. Each glass design is crafted for a specific type of wine to ensure its flavor components hit the tongue at the right spot for optimal enjoyment for the ultimate drinking experience.
Maximilian Riedel, 11th-generation president and CEO of Riedel, says while Champagne flutes are iconic, they are little more than great marketing. The bubbles that travel the long narrow path up the glass are certainly mesmerizing, and the glass shape sexy, but he says, “It does nothing for the wine; you only smell the yeast.”
To smell the fruit and floral notes of Champagne, it needs to be in a bigger glass. But not too big.
As for the vintage coupe, its width is such that bubbles explode, creating foam, which Riedel says is the acidic part. “The glass is key to enjoying wine at its very best. It connects our senses to the wine,” he says.
Riedel has designed a beautiful Champagne glass, perfect for hitting all the right notes when it comes to smell and taste. If you don’t have one handy, he suggests drinking sparkling wine from a glass meant for sauvignon blanc or pinot noir to enjoy its subtleties.
Every bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine has a life of its own. The method may be similar, but styles vary greatly from simple porch pounders to those with levels of complexity that can only best be appreciated with food. These wines are not relegated to aperitivo or dessert. Some are made with structure that enables them to stand up to a main course.
It takes great effort to make Champagne and sparkling wine. Just like poetry, it can and should be enjoyed any day, all day, not just for a special occasion. These wines make any day a special occasion.
Gina Birch is a regular contributor. A lover of good food, good drinks, and a cold glass of bubbles regardless of the occasion. She is also a well-known radio and media personality in Southwest Florida.
Brut nature is the driest Champagne at under 3 grams of sugar per liter.
Extra brut has up to 6 grams per liter.
Brut is the most popular style at up to 12 grams of sugar per liter.
Extra dry, on the contrary, is not as dry, with 12-17 grams of sugar.
Sec has 17-32 grams per liter.
Demi-sec has 32-50 grams.
Sweet has more than 50 grams, meaning it’s 5 percent sugar.