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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bombs, Bubbles & Benedictines - A Pithy History of Champagne

Champagne has long been considered the beverage of choice for holidays and celebrations, marking special occasions with a sense of prestige. But it wasn't always that way. Wars, disease and exploding bottles have all taken their toll on Champagne’s rocky road to the 21st Century.

The name Champagne is derived from a Latin root word, ‘campania’ meaning 'field,' and in 92 A.D. these fields of vineyards in the Champagne region of France were to be uprooted by order of Emperor Domitian, however many acres were secretly kept and cultivated. The Emperor wasn’t terribly bright, not understanding the potential value of land as land in Champagne today is pricy - between $1 and $1.5 million Euro per hectare, according to Champagne Ayala, whom I visited recently. Of course the Church got involved (somehow they always do) and as their power grew, vineyards were donated to monastic orders. And that is why the Dom is associated with Champagne.

The Vineyards of Ay, Champagne, France
Two monks capitalized on the trend of sparkling wine in the late 1600s. Jean Oudart and Dom Perignon (yes he was a real person) and both began experiments with second fermentations inside the bottle in order to produce a sparkling wine. Dom Perignon is credited with sourcing grapes from a variety of vineyards and blending wines to produce consistency, not with inventing Champagne. But as with all new endeavors, fermenting wine in a bottle had its price. It was known that sugar and yeast needed to be added to produce the second bottle fermentation, however the amounts were never exact and bottles routinely exploded, resulting in an average loss of 30% of inventory, not to mention shards of glass embedded in your skin. But in 1836, a pharmacist determined the exact amount of sugar and yeast needed to produce the necessary carbon dioxide, corresponding to the atmospheric conditions of the bottle and bottle thickness. Finally there was a high degree of reliability of Champagnes. Good and prosperous years lay ahead...sort of.

About 1863 a North American aphid (phylloxera) paid an unexpected visit to the vineyards of France. The little yellow aphid lived on the roots and leaves of vines and slowly, steadily ruined everything. Within 15 years nearly half of France’s vineyards were destroyed. The solution was to graft French vines onto phylloxera-resistant North American rootstock. Needless to say, much of France was appalled at having to accept help from America but it worked. The replanting of vineyards began and Champagne returned to greatness…sort of.

At Champagne Ayala
During World War I vineyards became battlefields, cellars were looted and, with the advent of prohibition in America and the fall of Imperial Russia, the export market hit rough times and the demand for Champagnes halted. Champagne eventually rebounded from the hardship, but then World War II arrived and once again France's countryside was devastated – it was déjà vu all over again.

Riddling at Champagne Bollinger
Today everyone knows the names Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Dom Perignon, even Korbel and Champagnes retain their regal position. American sparkling wine (not called Champagne as that’s a registered brand name) is also of excellent quality and American houses like Schramsburg, Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros and others compete with France's best. Not to mention Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain and sparkly wine from across the globe. So this year, as you toast family and friends, remember the long struggle it took to get those bubbles in your stemware…and be grateful that you don’t have to pick shards of glass out of your skin.

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