Pop and fizz, tiny pearlescent bubbles of celebration. Another year has begun, and the drink of choice to commemorate a joyous moment of camaraderie and excitement? Champagne: The iconic bubbly and companion to all momentous occasions universally. How did this wine beverage become so synonymous with celebrations? At what moment did Champagne become the standard of luxury, status, and elegance? A short trip through the history of arguably the most mythical of wine producing regions may provide the answers to the questions surrounding the legend of a sparkling wine accident from France.
It was the Romans who first planted grapes in the vineyards of Champagne. The name “Champagne” was given to the area due to the similarities between the rolling hills in this part of France and the area of Campania in the south of Italy. Although the Roman-produced wines were popular from the start, they were not of the effervescent variety. Original wines from Champagne were mostly still red and rosé wines. The area eventually turned into the high holy ground when French monks made the area around Reims, the main city in Champagne, a place for monasteries. It was not until the 17th century that the monk, Dom Perignon, became the first to “discover” the famed méthode Champenoise process that created the first sparkling wines of Champagne.
Dom Perignon, a monk whose given name was actually Pierre, was born in 1638. At the age of 20, he took the vows of a Benedictine monk and soon became the administrator of the monastery of Hautvillers. Due to the fact that Pierre was actually blind, he required the help of a Brother Phillipe in order to produce a very rich yield at the monastery vineyard. Armed with a keen sense of smell and an impeccable palate, Dom Perignon was able to tell exactly where the grapes came from and how to blend them for a superb wine product. He labored hard at exacting the wine making process for his monastery. Eventually, and accidently, Perignon discovered the second fermentation necessary to create the effervescence we associate with sparkling wine. At the age of 60, his hard work paid off, and Champagne as we know it today was created. Dom Perignon died in 1715, and was buried amongst his vines on site at Hautvillers; a fitting tribute to the man who brought us bubbly.
The wine houses of past and present that produce a signature Champagne have often spent years refining a recipe, and they utilize many methods to hide trade secrets in order to maintain the magic behind the bubbles. The Cuvée, or blend, of the allowed Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier should be the ultimate tribute to the style and grandeur of the region.
So what is the essence of this libation? What is it that makes the art of drinking Champagne the most luxurious pastime delight of prince and paupers alike? Perhaps it is simply the impeccable product of the rigid wine laws that govern the way that Champagne is produced and labeled. The “high quality” denotation only belongs to those wines actually made in the region under the very particular twice fermented, méthode Champenoise. Champagne is elusive, even mythical; its creation by a blind holy man named Perignon on the hallowed grounds of a monastery, and the process to produce sparkling perfection by removing sediment caused by the second fermentation fashioned by an infamously disgusted widow with the last name of Clicquot (the other Champagne story). Is it the excitement in the refreshing pop of carbon dioxide escaping a chilled Chardonnay tomb that we crave? Do we drink for the story behind the bottle, or do we drink for the story we create with one?