The Devil's Wine
It is safe to say that no other style of wine – no other beverage in modern history for that matter – is more associated with the celebration of the human spirit than champagne. From births to departures, whether down the street or across the river Styx, christenings of babies or ships before their first voyage, birthdays, weddings, graduations, nominations and, of course, the marking of a new year – bubbles have been there to add the sparkle to our journey through life. And it all started as a mistake, as a result of human ignorance; nature intervened and turned an error into a festivity. In the late 17th century, the monks of Champagne, who in those days often doubled as wine makers, wanted to compete in the art of wine making with their counterparts in Burgundy. Their intention was to make still wines. Unaware of the importance the ambient temperature plays in the process of fermentation, they… (fortunately) failed. Stopped by the cold temperatures of late autumn the unfinished fermentation awakened with the warmth of spring inside the prematurely bottled, corked, and laid down bottles of wine. The resulting CO2 that built up inside the bottles was too much for the traditional corks and thin glass to withstand, turning them into ticking bombs. The corks shot out as if possessed. Bottles exploded, causing chain reaction of destruction. The cellar tending crew had to wear metal helmets to avoid injuries. Of course, it must have been the devil himself who caused it. “The devil’s wine” or as the French monks called it: “le vin du diable.” Rather than the impossible task of getting rid of the bubbles, one monk in particular by the name Perignon, apparently unafraid of the devil’s wrath, decided to tame the fiend by using thicker glass, and “caging” corks with a wire wrap. The modern bottle of champagne was born and from then on, slowly champagne has become the most celebrated libation in the world. Did you know that there are about 49 million bubbles in a 750ml bottle of champagne? The three classic grape varieties used in the making of champagne are Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Meunier (red), and Chardonnay (white). By law, a sparkling wine can be labeled champagne only when it comes from the demarcated French region of Champagne. All other sparklers are called simply sparkling wines. So if you don’t want to outrage a snotty sommelier at your next visit to a fancy restaurant, use these terms accordingly. If made by the same laborious process of inducing secondary fermentation in individual bottles as used in champagne but made outside the region, the wine will most likely carry the terms “méthode traditionnelle,” “méthode ancestral” or “méthode champenoise” printed on its label. It is usually a good indicator of great quality to value product. Cava, a Spanish version of a sparkling wine made by the “méthode champenoise” is a great example and Raventos I Blanc is my favorite producer. California offers some superb alternatives to champagne, as well, sometimes for a fraction of the price. Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg, and Mumm of Napa are a few wineries worth mentioning. The French category of “crémants” is another option. These days it is almost impossible to talk about champagne without mentioning the act of “sabering,” a dramatic way of opening a bottle of champagne by “cutting” the very tip of the bottle with a sword or any tool with an edge. I once sabered a bottle of bubbly with a shovel and a large spoon. It’s the high pressure inside the bottle that allows for this to happen and if successful the resulting feeling is quite exhilarating. Don’t try that at home.
According to legend, it was Napoleon’s cavalry that gave birth to this ritual. To celebrate their victories in war, they would use their battle sabers to decapitate bottles of champagnes handed to them while riding their horses. It proved to be the fastest and least cumbersome method. The pressure in a champagne bottle is around 90 pounds per square inch; three times the amount of pressure in an average car tire. As mentioned earlier, the making of champagne is a much more time-consuming and labor-intensive process than the production of still wines. In addition to basic fermentation, a bottle of champagne goes through additional stages of secondary fermentation, remuage/riddling, disgorgement, dosage, and recorking. Historically, all of these stages were performed manually. These days, technology allows us to mechanize some steps of production speeding up the process, taking away from sentimental nostalgia without compromising the quality. The longest recorded flight of a champagne cork was 177 feet. Label terms you’ll find useful while selecting your next bottle of champagne. Blanc de Blancs: wine made exclusively from white grapes. In the case of Champagne, it would be 100% Chardonnay, but elsewhere, other regional white grapes can be used. Blanc de Noir: white wine made exclusively from red grapes. In the case of Champagne, it will be either Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier, or both. Non-vintage: when grapes from multiple vintages are used to make the wine. Most champagnes are non-vintage. Vintage: when grapes from one particular year, usually because of its outstanding quality of fruit, are used to make the wine. These normally come at a much higher price and the vintage will appear on the label. Levels of sugar added to champagne from driest to sweetest: Brut Nature or No dosage (no sugar, very dry), Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux meaning sweet. There is also a fairly new category of champagnes called “grower champagne.” It is equivalent to “estate wine” – wine that comes from the grapes of the vineyards owned by the winery which makes it. Historically, big champagne houses purchase the grapes from vineyard owners from all over the region, monopolizing the industry. A few decades ago, some ambitious vineyard owners decide to challenge big champagne labels by launching their own bottling operations using grapes from their own land. You’ll recognize that category by locating the letters RM (short for Recoltant Manipulant) somewhere on the label. This category often offers slightly less expensive wines that embody more terroir-driven style reflecting their distinct macro-climate characteristics and wine making techniques. The largest commercially produced bottle of champagne is 15 liters of wine (20 bottles). It’s called a Nebuchadnezzar. Wine in general has been firmly embedded in the evolution of human civilizations playing a crucial part in our culture – both arts and sciences. Champagne’s notoriety in particular has been unmatched. From its “devilish” accidental birth and its turbulent, shaping years of adolescence guided by the historic, dynamic personalities like Dom Perignon and Madame Veuve Clicquot, its presence at the courts of despotic Tzars, all the way through Marilyn Monroe’s champagne filled baths and Jay-Z’s Cristal-infused rapper orgies. Let’s not forget though that aside from all the glitter, foam, and “blinking’ controversy, champagne at its best can be a sensually riveting experience offering a plethora of styles and wide range of flavors. In its youth, it offers bright and invigorating aromas enhanced by its magically tingling effervescence. With age, especially in older vintage champagnes when the bubbles dissipate and the flavors develop rich, decadent notes, champagne drinks more like a still wine. Once I enjoyed a 55-year-old bottle of Bollinger and it was epic. So whatever the occasion, whether outrageously bombastic or poetically intimate, enjoy your champagne with reverence and thoughtfulness because a lot labor has been invested in each bottle. Author’s favorite sparklers for the holidays: Vintage Champagne: Bollinger RD (recently disgorged), Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Rosé Champagne: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, Krug Rosé Brut Grower Champagne: Ulysse Collin “Les Perrières” Blanc de Blancs, Val Frison “Goustan” Blanc de Noirs Non Champagne/Méthode Champenoise: Raventos I Blanc Cava Spain, Roederer Estate L’Ermitage (vintage) Anderson Valley California, Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs (vintage), Antech-Limoux Crémant de Limoux Cuvée Eugénie France (vintage), Domaine Longlois-Château Crémant de Loire France