Champagne is really too far north to make good wine. This large area of flat fields punctuated by chalk hills and crossed by deep rivers reminded invading Roman soldiers of the Italian region of Compania and so they gave the same name to their new home. Those soldiers brought and planted grape vines. Over time the name has transmuted to Champagne. It is north of the fine wine region of Burgundy and east of, and close to the French capital of Paris.
In the late 1600’s the region was much colder than now, Europe was slowly recovering from a mini ice-age and the winemakers of Champagne were having problems. They’d pick their grapes; press and ferment them and when the fermentation finished the wine would be bottled and stored in their cellars. But come the following spring the bottles would begin exploding and those very few that didn’t were found to contain cloudy wine that fizzed up foaming its way out of an opened bottle.
The monasteries and abbeys that owned the land and vineyards and which made the wine wanted a solution. Brother Pierre Perignon was appointed treasurer of the Abbey of Hautville in 1688 and was responsible for the wine cellars and vineyards which were a major source of income. Perignon, whom later centuries have given the credit for inventing the sparkling wine we know today as Champagne, was an expert who made many improvements in winemaking in the area. He also realised that the reason bottles were breaking in the spring was that the warmer weather was restarting fermentation that had halted at the onset of winter, not because it had finished, but because it was too cold for the yeast to work.
But it was to take more than 100 years before modern Champagne came about. Advances in technology in England had enabled glassmakers to produce much stronger bottles. Wine could ferment in these bottles without them breaking, but it was pretty hit and miss and the dead yeast cells left behind made the wine cloudy.
The first advance was to ensure wine finished fermentation naturally, then to put it into one of the new strong bottles and add a measured dose of yeasts and sugar to induce a controlled second fermentation within the bottle. During fermentation yeasts eat sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. When no sugars remain, the yeasts die and fall to the bottom of the bottle as grey gritty dust.
The cold northern wine lands of Champagne struggle to ripen grapes and unripe grapes produce a thin acidic low alcohol wine which is ideal as a base for a sparkling wine. More alcohol is produced during a second fermentation, so a low alcohol wine to start with was ideal. Because the bottle is sealed all the carbon dioxide generated during the second fermentation is trapped, dissolved, in the wine. When the wine is eventually opened the lowering of the pressure releases the gas which forms as bubbles and rise to the surface.
The problem of removing the dead yeast cells was also solved around that time by a process that is known around the world as the champagne method. Bottles would be inverted on to their neck while being gently shaken. Dead yeast falls down to rest on the closure. The neck of the bottle is then frozen solid, the closure whisked off and pressure inside the bottle from the fermentation shoots out a plug of ice holding the dead yeast. The lost wine is be replaced with more wine, usually sweetened, and a cork hammered in. Now there is a bottle of clear bright sparkling wine.
The Champagne needs to rest to let the newly added sweet wine to meld with the rest of the contents. And here is another reason why Champagne has been able to specialise in sparkling wines. Those chalky hills have been hollowed out by man over many centuries and provide thousands of miles of constant climate cool cellars for aging wines.
The major reason for Champagne’s fame is its location at the crossing of major north-south and east-west trade routes, between the rich lands of Flanders, Switzerland and the Rhine. It is close to France’s capital and near to the port of Calais so Champagne could easily be sent to London and the rest of the world.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.