Soulful and Ethereal
Jan 15, 2015 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
The story behind the creation of Champagne is not as romantic as you might think. In fact, it was quite frustrating for the Champenois of the 17th century, who were in direct competition with their southerly neighbors in Burgundy. Both were turning out Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Both were competing for the endorsement of kings, queens, nobles, and popes. Champagne, however, has always been at a severe disadvantage being located at the northern limits of fine wine production, where there is no guarantee grapes will ripen fully each year. This cold weather conundrum also proved to be influential in the accidental discovery of one of the world’s most extraordinary wines.
Beyond frustration, the birth of Champagne was actually dangerous for shippers and devastating for producers. The winter weather would halt fermentation before it was complete and, assuming the wine was finished, the winemaker would bottle and ship it off to its destination. When warmer spring weather arrived, fermentation would begin again in bottle and since the glass bottles of the time weren’t designed for such pressure, the bottles would explode. In a given year a producer could lose more than half of their production.
Dom Perignon, the cellar master at a monastery in Hautviller, actually spent his days and nights trying to keep bubbles out of Champagne, contrary to popular belief. Sadly for him, he had no success in his lifetime, but the work he did advancing modern viticultural practices—picking grapes early to preserve aromas, scaling back yield sizes, vinifying each vineyard plot separately, and making white wine from red grapes—helped solidify him as one of the most recognizable names in the wine world and ultimately led to locals embracing the bubbles, rather than continue to fight them.
It took two centuries to perfect the technique known as methode champenois, or the Champagne method in which a secondary fermentation takes place in bottle leaving carbon dioxide trapped in the wine. From there, demand grew quickly among the nobility and the emerging upper-middle class—from a regional production 300,000 in 1800 to 20 million in 1850. Jean Remy Moet’s friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte helped expand his family brand, and occupation by Russia after the War of the Sixth Coalition extended Champagne’s reach even further. Moet exclaimed at the time, “All of those soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow. I’m letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country.” Boy was he right.
The wine became a symbol of celebration, so much so that it seemed to create its own unique personality, distinct from all other wines, the very essence of which was happiness. Winston Churchill once said of his favorite Champagne, Pol Roger, “I could not live without it—in victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it.” Indeed there is cause for celebration, because it is the most painstaking and difficult of all wines to create.
Champagne achieved its allure through years of trial, error, and fine tuning of the house style, which is the non-vintage bottling you see most prominently on the shelves. To create this, each winemaker will select upwards of 60 still wines from various plots in the surrounding villages and blend them together, along with a bit of reserve wine from previous vintages, to maintain a consistent taste. That’s why your favorite Champagne will taste the same year in and year out, with some slight variation. In addition, the non-vintage wine spends a minimum 15 months (but usually longer) resting on its lees, which is another bi-product of secondary fermentation. The lees are, simply put, dead yeast cells which add complexity and richness to the champagne as it rests. For vintage Champagne, it ages a minimum three years, the best of them well over five, before being released. Vintage Champagnes aren’t released with any regularity, with many houses choosing to release only in the best vintages (2002 and 2004 being two to look out for right now). It is these wines that producers put their heart and soul into; wines with ethereal aromas indicative of the growing year along with hints of the famed chalky soils that separates Champagne from all others. It is worth the money to experience the vintage wines of Krug, Salon, Pol Roger, and even Dom Perignon for an experience like none other. You will understand exactly why Winston Churchill called his favorite Champagne house, “the most drinkable address in the world.”
Matthew Anderson is a manager at BIN 604 Wine Sellers in Baltimore, Maryland.