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It all starts with that first taste

Champagne: did the British really ‘taste the stars’ first?

Styles and Varietals  /  Jun 10  /  BY Jez Fielder

Champagne: did the British really ‘taste the stars’ first?

by Jez Fielder

There's hardly anything more one could do to upset the French if you're Anglo-Saxon. Questioning their right to regularly strike, demanding someone work through their lunch, or lambasting smoking habits would almost certainly result in indignation, but the idea that Champagne -- that quintessential French cultural flagship -- was in fact invented by the British would be enough to provoke all out war.

But could there be an argument to say it's true?

The good news for those who enjoy international conflict is yes.

The ubiquity of bubbles

Sparkling wine is big business in many countries in the 21st century, but nowhere is it as ubiquitous as it is in France. There's the super-affordable 'cremant', which is sparkling wine made in France outside the Champagne region. These are made in the same way as Champagne (called Methode Traditionelle which means the second fermentation takes place in the bottle) but cannot be called that due to its place of origin. You'll find examples of these all across France, from Alsace to Bordeaux, but perhaps the most enthralling versions are found in the Loire and in Burgundy, due to their proximity to the Champagne region and the similarity in key areas of the terroir.

There's also other sparkling wines such as Vouvray in the Loire, made with Chenin Blanc, and Clairette de Die in the Rhone Valley, made from the grapes Clairette and Muscat.

But Champagne is the big daddy of them all. There's even a film about it out this week.

Defended by PDO law

The rulings that have protected the champagne label from being used incorrectly are manifold. Fending off numerous challenges from international sparkling winemaking areas such as the United States and Russia has taken up a lot of court time. In Autumn 2021, the European Court of Justice clarified the rules during a challenge by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) against a chain of Spanish tapas bars. The CIVC -- the body that represents the trading interests of Champagne producers -- sprang into action to prevent the chain from using the term "champanillo", which translates as “little champagne", as they said it infringed the right of a product covered by a protected designation of origin (PDO).

The truth about 'Dom'

Dom Perignon was a French Benedictine Monk (check out our History of Wine article for more monks and their contributions to wine as we know it) who, according to legend, invented sparkling wine.

The Statue of Dom Perignon in Epernay, France

But he didn't.

In DP's day, bubbles in wine were seen as a fault and were actually a real menace to the winemaking monks at St Peter's Abbey in Hautvillers. Therefore it is highly likely that the quote "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!" that has been attributed to Dom Perignon at the moment of his 'invention' is apocryphal and more likely the result of Champagne marketing in the 19th Century.

But here's a thing.

According to a fascinating piece of research by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, Dom Perignon was an early proponent of organic winemaking. As well as being instrumental in the use of appellations, his list of winemaking rules included forbidding the use of foreign chemicals.

Organic Champagne from Larmandier-Bernier

So how did the bubbles happen?

The grapes were probably harvested in late summer, and then would sit in barrels to ferment. However, Champagne is the most northerly winemaking area of France, and when the weather cooled off in the autumn, the drop in temperature would be enough to stop the fermentation process. This means that not all the sugars in the liquid had been converted to alcohol.

The wine is bottled and the monks would wait. Tick, tick, tick...

BOOM!

It's springtime. The weather warms up. The yeast also wakes up and starts generating carbon dioxide inside that bottle. After the process has built up, the bottles would pop, at best, but could also explode, setting off a massive series of pops and explosions in the cellars, which was incredibly dangerous for anyone nearby.

What's this got to do with the British?

Christopher Merrett was an English scientist who delivered a paper entitled Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines to the Royal Society in December 1662 (1668 was the year Dom Perignon was transferred to Hautvillers).

Merrett describes winemakers adding quantities of sugar and molasses to make the wines drink "brisk and sparkling."

His interest in physics also extended to glassmaking, and he understood that bottles would have to be reinforced if this second fermentation process were to take place inside the bottle. And you only have to pick up a bottle of the good stuff to feel its weight today.

Champagne today

Total shipments of Champagne in 2021 rose to 322 million bottles, an increase of 32% over 2020 according to the CIVC. This export boom also saw a switch at the top as the US became the number one export market for the first time, ahead of the UK.

While it's true to say the UK has played a part in the genesis of sparkling wine, and now has a burgeoning bubbly scene itself, Champagne will always have that special, classical, profile. And although climate change is seeing a lot of land being bought in southern England (especially by the French) for sparkling wine, the history and extraordinary terroir of the Champagne region still remains the king of the bubbles and central to French society as a whole. It's everywhere in France, and any excuse is a good one.

British comedian Eddie Izzard notes this in this show 'Definite Article'.

"They have loads of it and celebrate all the time: You've just crossed the road, Champagne! You've come out of a shop, Champagne! You've leaned over a bit, Champagne!"

Whether you're celebrating crossing the road, or something more extravagant, why not try our special collection.

Happy Popping!

Jez Fielder

Jez Fielder

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