The pop of the cork, the fizz of the bubbles, the clink of the flutes; is there any greater encapsulation of joy and celebration than a bottle of Champagne?

Ah, Champagne. No beverage better encapsulates joy and celebration. No beverage is held in quite so high regard. From a tiny corner of France, the unique wines produced in the Champagne region are so famous that the area’s name has become an unintended by-word for all sparkling wines, to such a degree that laws have had to be created in order to protect the purity of the term. 

But what exactly makes a Champagne wine? When and how was it first created? And why is the liquid – unremarkable in many ways – such a global phenomenon?

A delicious mistake

The origins of Champagne are based just as much in myth and legend as they are in fact, but the leading theories nonetheless hint at the true goings-on of the wine’s early years.

The Champagne region was used by the Romans for purposes of winemaking as early as the 5th century. At the fall of the empire the area’s wineries were overtaken by monks, who quietly went about producing their wines for centuries. Over these centuries rivalries developed – the monks of Champagne, it was said, were jealous of the monks of Burgundy, who enjoyed conditions that produced particularly rich red wines. The climate of Champagne lent itself more to the production of white wine; which was at the time thought to be an inferior product.

The first sparkling wine was created entirely by accident – it came about when monks bottled a wine before the initial fermentation had ended. Few bottles of the time could handle the pressure that this early Champagne built up, and the exploding bottles led to bubbles being considered a fault. The monks referred to it as “the devil’s wine”.

It was until the late 1600s, with the development of stronger bottles and the more reliable secondary fermentation technique, that the wine began to be produced on purpose. It would take until the 1800s for the public to develop a taste, but when that happened the verdict on the wine was resounding – from regional production of 300,000 bottles in 1800, by 1850 production had increased to 20 million bottles. Today the region sells more than 300 million bottles worldwide.

What's in a name?

Many legal structures exist that reserve the word “Champagne” for wines produced in the Champagne region, and with uniquely Champagne winemaking processes. The use of the word internationally is dependent on each country’s laws and their enforcement, but over 70 countries, including almost all of the world’s major wine producers, have agreed to refrain from using the term on wines produced outside the eponymous region.

''It wasn’t until the late 1600s, with the development of stronger bottles and the more reliable secondary fermentation technique, that the wine began to be produced on purpose.'' 

The méthode champenoise 

A very particular method is used by the winemakers of Champagne to produce their famous product. It is called méthode champenoise, and was created, somewhat surprisingly, by English scientist Christopher Merret. After primary fermentation and bottling of the wine – generally a blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – a second fermentation process is triggered in the bottle by adding yeast and sugar. Fermentation takes 1.5 years for non-vintage wines, and three years for vintage. A process called “riddling” is undertaken during fermentation, which involves shaking, tipping and/or turning the bottles daily to collect the sediment on the underside of the cork. Once fermentation is complete the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the pressure from within the bottle pushes the frozen sediment out, before a cork is quickly inserted to retain the pure Champagne and an appropriate amount of carbonation.

The famous names of Champagne 

Most sparkling wine drinkers will be well acquainted with the famous producers of Champagne. Each is held to a particularly high standard, so you can be guaranteed a fantastic wine no matter which label you choose. In order of bottle production, the biggest Champagne wineries are: 

  • Moet & Chandon

  • Veuve Clicquot

  • Nicolas Feuillatte: 10 million

  • Laurent Perrier: 7 million

  • Dom Perignon: 5 million bottles (vintage years only)

  • G.H. Mumm: 5 million

  • Piper Heidsieck: 5 million

  • Pommery: 5 million

  • Taittinger: 5 million

The most unique of mouthfeels 

The combination of early picked, naturally sweet grapes and added sugar for fermentation makes Champagne a particularly sweet wine. Primary flavours of citrus, peach, white cherry, almond, and a hint of charcoal will invade the palate. Intensely dry and with a high acidity, the experience can be best described as “sharp”. Freshly shucked oysters, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs make for the perfect champagne food pairings, as do nuts.

Champagne titbits 

  • Have you got a spare $2 million? Then you’re of the required means to invest in an Alexander Amosu-designed bottle of Goût de Diamants Champagne.

  • The chalky soils of Champagne, so adept at growing grapes, are actually the remnants of an ancient inland sea bed.

  • Champagne is bottled at 90psi – almost three times the pressure of your car tyres. This allowed one lucky cork to set a distance popping record of 54 metres!

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