There’s one thing I’ve always known about Champagne – I love it. It’s not just the taste. It’s the sense of occasion that comes with the popping of the cork, the bubbles and the instant joie de vivre. Plus I’ve long admired it from a marketing perspective. I can’t think of another category where the branding, merchandising and general fervor created is as slick. Well maybe jewellery (would you like some metal with that Tiffany blue box?).
I knew I’d eventually make my way to the region in question and when I did I was almost more interested in the provenance of the stuff than drinking it. Almost. I learnt a few things that surprised me – and may just surprise you.
1. Bubbles in wine were originally a fault (and definitely not a selling point)
Before ‘Champagne’ came along, the Champagne region produced only still wines and nondescript versions at that. Wine with bubbles was the result of an accidental second fermentation in the bottle and more often than not the bottle would explode as a result of the pressure. Even if the bottle didn’t explode, the wine was likely to be undrinkable. At a time when winemakers didn’t understand the science behind fermentation, the sparkling stuff was a liability and certainly not a tempting proposition to drink or sell.
2. Champagne is made from three grapes
Think of the iconic wines tethered to a single terroir and often they are a single variety such as Burgundy (100% Pinot Noir grapes), White Burgundy (100% Chardonnay grapes) and Chablis (also 100% Chardonnay grapes). So it may come as a surprise that Champagne is almost always a blend of three grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Yes – two red grapes and one white. So why isn’t Champagne a red wine? Because the grapes are pressed gently during production and there’s no skin contact during fermentation which is what generally gives wine its colour.
3. Dom Perignon was NOT the granddaddy of Champagne
Not only did the Dom not invent Champagne, it’s highly unlikely he ever even made sparkling Champagne. Dom Perignon was the cellarmaster of his abbey from 1668 to 1715 when fizzy wines were widely considered faulty – it’s more likely that he spent his time trying to prevent his wines from sparkling. This is in stark contrast to the more modern persona built up around him which romanticises his role in the creation of Champagne. Certainly his still wines were highly regarded at the time, but he did not exclaim to his fellow monks to “come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”. This was in fact exclaimed in a print ad almost two hundred years after his death. But why let the truth get in the way of a compelling brand story?
4. The region didn’t initially want to produce wine with bubbles
Champagne was always a still wine region but in the first half of the 18th century the still wines of the region were not selling due to competition from other French wine regions. The locals were desperate for an edge and had noticed an international interest in sweetened wine with bubbles so begrudgingly and out of economic desperation started to produce more of the sparkling stuff.
5. Sparkling wine was not invented in Champagne
Records show that the first sparkling wines were made and sold by a Benedictine community in the Limoux region in the south of France as early as 1531, over 150 years before sparkling wine was being (deliberately) made in Champagne. It wasn’t even the Champenois who invented the méthode champenoise (the method of making sparkling wine that allows the second and final stage of fermentation to take place in the bottle). It was actually the English who first experimented with adding sugar to their ciders (and later wines) at bottling to allow a second fermentation, first documented in 1662.
6. It was a woman’s game
Did you know Veuve Clicquot actually means ‘Widow Clicquot’? Me neither. And what a widow she was. Madame Clicquot took over her husband’s business in the early 1800’s as a 27 year old single mum and turned it into a hugely successful business that managed to survive trade embargoes and snotty attitudes towards women in business. She even had time to develop a breakthrough technique for removing the sediment from bottles – riddling – still used today.
Down the road at Pommery it was a similar story. Madame Pommery had the foresight to see the potential in sparkling wines and steered her business in that direction, at the same time influencing the crowds away from sweeter styles of sparkling to Brut, a drier style which continues as the world’s preference today.
7. Champagne is not naturally sweet
Sugar was originally added to still wine to make the liquid bubbly and also mask the flavour of less than desirable wine. And it quickly gained a following which justified a price hike. These days the addition of sugar, or dosage, is more of a corrective measure to equalise the natural acid or add a touch of sweetness. Brut (meaning dry) is the most common type of Champagne drunk today and includes up to 12 grams of sugar added for balance only. Given the chance I would drink Demi-Sec (doused with up to 50 grams of sugar per bottle) all day but I suspect I’d be drinking it on my own.
8. If you thought a magnum was big….
There’s always cachet to be had for the person that rocks up to the party with a magnum of Champagne. At 1.5 litres (double a standard 750ml bottle) it adds a little je ne sais quoi to any gathering.
That’s not where it ends though. The French subscribe to the idea that bigger is better so offer Champagne as a Jereboam (3 litres), Rehoboam (4.5 litres), Methuselah (6 litres), Salmanazar (9 Litres), Balthazar (12 litres) and the grandest of them all, the Nabuchadnezzar – a whopping 15 litres, equivalent to 20 bottles. The biblical sounding names all stem from historical Kings. Nabuchadnezzar was a King of Babylon, so it seems entirely appropriate that his name should be aligned with such a heavy weight of the Champagne world.