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Celebrating Champagne

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” so goes the supposed quote from Dom Pierre Pérignon, the 17th century French monk who supposedly invented Champagne. Neither assertion is correct, though the monk did play an imporatnt role in developing the modern day version of the bubbly tipple, most notably by perfecting a method of extracting a palatable white wine from red wine grapes (but he actually tried to get rid of the fizz, which was seen as an imperfection). As for the quote, that comes from a late 19th century Champagne ad, so expect it to be appear, above a photograph of Pérignon, in your Facebook news feed sometime soon.

 

Ocean waters once covered the soils of the Champagne region in northern France, retreating around 70 million years ago to reveal great swathes of chalk deposits. Ten million years ago, a series of enormous earthquakes spewed into these plains an abundance of nutrient rich marine sediments, quite literally laying the foundations for the legendary tipple. The Romans first fully realised the region’s fertile potential, growing everything from grains to grape, and though it has been a wine-producing area for the best part of 2,000 years, until the exploits of Pérignon, the area was most revered for its high quality wool.

 

For centuries, Champagne was actually considered a substandard vino, as the growers laboured in vain to reproduce the ripeness of grapes which blossomed in the warmer regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. In the end, makers simply embraced the shortcomings of their climate, and Champagne became a celebration of its lack of ripeness, the acidity and bubbles further adding to its character. Now it has become the ultimate symbol of celebration. We can thank the Europeans for that.

 

“After the French Revolution, it became a part of the secular rituals that replaced formerly religious rituals,” Kolleen M. Guy, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of When Champagne Became French, tells Live Science. “You could christen a ship without a priest, for example, by using the ‘holy water’ of Champagne… In a secular society, we want to mark both the joy and sanctity of the occasion. Champagne does this symbolically, but also visually, since it overflows in abundance and joy.” Royalty, she goes on, also fell for its sparkling allure, which was said to have positive effects on women’s beauty and men’s wit.

 

Today, it’s even used to judge economies, with sales a surprisingly accurate indicator of global consumer confidence. “Champagne very much follows the mood of the economy,” Joël Claustre, head of Champagne at Searcys, London, tells the BBC. Last year, international shipments of the drink reached a record $7.6 billion, before that, the best year was 2007, just before the global financial crisis. “I think the masses are, in a way, now drinking Champagne more than they used to be,” continues Claustre. “This is exactly what we want — I think [it] should be something everybody could drink.”

 

 

Fizzing with Enlightenment: Some Champagne Facts

 

  • The majority of Champagnes are the result of blending three grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
  • Brut, the most common Champagne, is dry, sec is off-dry, and demi sec is medium sweet.
  • There are three tiers of quality, luxe cuvées are the best, followed by vintage and non-vintage.
  • Keep an eye out for Champagnes from 1989-90, ‘95-’96 and ‘98 to stock your cellar like a pro.
  • It’s best kept in the dark, and when you buy a bottle ask if you can have one from the shop’s back room rather than the shelf.
  • Only so much Champagne can be produced per year—the natural limit is in the region of 350 million bottles.
  • Asian nations are the fastest growing markets, with sales rising 29% in Taiwan in 2015, and 31% in South Korea.
  • Cristal Champagne takes its name from the tendency of Russian tsars to be served their fizzy stuff from crystal glass bottles.
  • A 100ml glass of Champers will produce around 100 million bubbles and not go flat for four hours.
  • The best way to open a bottle of bubbly, explosion-free, is to twist the bottle not the cork, and certainly don’t force it out with your thumbs.
  • Each year, flying Champagne corks kill more people than sharks do.

 


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces