‘Tis the season and for many of us, popping corks is the perfect way to set a festive mood.
The history of Champagne documents a wine that wasn’t always bubbly. Gasp! In fact, bubbles were frowned upon. And it wasn’t predominately made with white grapes as modern day bubbly is. That was frowned upon by none other than the supposed inventor of Champagne, Dom Pérignon.
In 1668, Dom Pérignon began serving as the treasurer of the Abbey of Hautvillers just north of Epernay. As treasurer, one of his duties was collecting tithes from the surrounding villages. This could be in the form form of grapes or wine, which he, as cellar master, fermented, blended and sold for twice as much as his competitors.
Naturally, the abbey flourished under this program and doubled the size of its vineyards. Dom Pérignon also worked on improving fermentation techniques at the abbey. This did not include inventing or improving sparkling wines. True story.
He did not like the refermenting process as it was spontaneous and could cause considerable damage in the cellar and as a result, hurt the bottom line.
With warming temperatures, refermentation in bottles would spontaneously occur. One bottle exploding meant nearby bottles, also under pressure, would explode and the chain reaction would begin. In the Pérignon era, refermentation in the bottle was a cellar bomb. Dom Pérignon worked tirelessly to avoid refermentation.
Dom Pérignon was also not fond of white grapes because of their tendency to re-ferment. The Abbey of Hautvillers wines were made from Pinot Noir and were not sparkling except by accident.
He also advocated heavy vineyard pruning for low yields, early morning harvesting, no trodding on the grapes to minimize maceration and blending, above all, blending during crush was important to the flavor of this light pink wine.
So, if Dom Pérignon inventing Champagne is the stuff of fairy tales, who did perfect the techniques to make this elegant, sublime wine?
Champagne, as we know it now, came to be two centuries after Dom Pérignon. The techniques of modern day Champagnes were 100 or so years in the making. The first major step, taken by a woman, came at the dawn of the 19th century.
Veuve Clicquot was founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron. Philippe’s son, François Clicquot, married Barbe Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 and died seven years later, leaving his widow (veuve) in control.
In the 18th century, she was 27 and CEO. Her first year at the helm, she shipped 110,000 bottles of Champagne. Russia took delivery of 25,000 of those bottles. Russia, until the start of World War I, was the major Champagne buyer.
Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance, the house made many changes in fermentation and storage that made mass production of Champagne possible. In the early 19th century, with the assistance of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, they made many advancements in méthode champenoise.
Veuve Clicquot invented the riddling rack. The rack is used to this day to shake (remuage – also a Clicquot invention) the yeast into the neck of the bottle before dégorgement (an important technique of ejecting the dead yeast cell plug).
After all the sediments were ejected, a small amount of wine was added, sweetened to a specific degree to prevent explosions. This took place in the first ever crayeres (chalk caves, formerly quarries) –another important oenological improvement.
In 1810, she created the first vintage champagne. Much later it was named for her – La Grand Dame. Moet y Chandon’s vintage champagne is called Dom Pérignon. Today, vintage champagnes are only made from the best grapes from the best vineyards in the best years.
Yes, the production of quality sparkling wine is labor intensive. It begins in the vineyard with hand harvesting. Rarely are the grapes mechanically harvested which would unnecessarily break the skins and bruise the fruit resulting in more phenols and color in the wine before fermentation.
Grapes are generally harvested earlier than other regions before the fruit sugars fully develop. Since sparkling wines under go two fermentations – one to make the alcohol and one to make the bubbles, higher fruit sugars would result in higher alcohol and low acidity.
In the first fermentation, carbon dioxide is released and in the second fermentation, it is trapped in the bottle making tiny bubbles or perlage, if you want too sound like a sommelier.
In addition to Champagne, there are sparkling wines from French Champagne houses in California: Louis Roederer’s Roederer Estate, Moët Chandon’s Domaine Chandon, G.H. Mumm’s Mumm Napa and Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros.
And one of my all time favorites is Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma. In 1982, the Spanish Ferrer family purchased 250 acres in Carneros and planted it to Pinot Noir. The Ferrer family owns the largest sparkling wine facility in the world – Freixenet.
In the Great Northwest, Oregon’s Argyle began in Dundee with the 1987 vintage. Today, they produce at least ten sparkling wines from the traditional grapes and methods. Also in Oregon, is Soter Vineyards, a long time Pinot Noir expert. These two are worth the search.
Washington State also produces very affordable sparkling wines well worth your hard earned dollars. Domaine Ste. Michelle produces boatloads of brut in the Méthode Champenoise.
Mountain Dome Winery opened in September of 1984 at the foot of Mt. Spokane. The former family owned winery produced both vintage and non-vintage bruts. Things changed in 2006 with the death of owner/winemaker Michael Manz. The winery is now owned by Don Townshend, who also owns Townshend Cellars.
Finally, there is Treveri Cellars, a newer winery making sparkling wine from the traditional and nontraditional sparkling wine grapes such as Syrah, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. They do méthode champenoise very well!
Brighten your holiday festivities with a bottle of bubbly. Nothing is more iconic to ring in the holidays.
Cheers! and Happy Holidays!