12 Entertaining Champagne Facts for 2012

New Years isn’t New Years without a flute of effervescent champagne. The pop of the cork and the cling of the flutes are the perfect sounds to start a new year. Without that magical sparkling wine from Champagne, France, New Years would not have that same mix of excitement and elegance. Of course, each New Years conversation inevitably touches upon the champagne. So let’s get you prepared with some facts and secrets about champagne.

  1. The invention of champagne was an unwanted accident!
  2. Champagne bottles were once dangerous time-bombs!
  3. Flying champagne corks are still dangerous!
  4. Champagne used to taste like sugary soda!
  5. The British were coinventors of champagne!
  6. English nobility’s love of champagne made it popular in France!
  7. Dom Perignon didn’t even like bubbles in his wine!
  8. Dom Perignon didn’t give champagne its bubbles but he did give champagne its color!
  9. A rack signaled the arrival of modern champagne!
  10. A single bottle of champagne is a blend of many grower’s harvests!
  11. Growers’ Champagne has taken off!
  12.  There are more bubbles in a bottle of Champagne bottle than stars in the sky!

1. An Unwanted Accident

Champagne comes from an accidental imperfection that wouldn’t go away. Because the region of Champagne is the most northern French wine-making region, the fermentation process was often interrupted by the cold weather. The yeast wouldn’t finish fermenting the wine’s sugar in the barrel and when spring came and the yeast would start fermenting again in the bottle. This created carbonation and lots of pressure. For more than a millennium, winemakers of Champagne have attempted to prevent the second fermentation.

2. Dangerous Champagne Bottles

It wasn’t only because they liked traditional wine and champagne was different. These winemakers had good reason to stop the secondary fermentation and carbonation. Not only was it not the preferred style of wine, wine bottles frequently couldn’t take the pressure from this secondary fermentation. One bottle would explode (a dangerous prospect in itself). This could cause a catastrophic chain reaction where the other fragile bottles would burst too, risking people’s lives and destroying the wine. One burst could cause 90% of the bottles to burst.

3. Bullet Corks

The cork can travel very fast off a bottle of champagne. It normally shoots away at 40mph, but it can fire at 100mph and can hurt someone. Be responsible when removing the cork.

4. The Days of Champagne Cola

Champagne was very sweet in 19th century, sometimes more than 10 times as sweet as the average brut is now. The amount of sugar back then is around as sweet as a sugary soda. Today, brut champagnes, the most popular type of champagne, have low sugar (or extra extra dry), around 1.5% or less. The British led the push for a dryer wine and eventually brut (or dryer than dry) became the preferred champagne. Also, the improvement in the quality of the champagne has made Champagne houses less likely to cover up faults in the wine with sugar.

5. British Tinkering with Champagne

In the creation of Champagne, the British are nearly as important as the winemakers of Champagne. In 1662, before Dom Perignon “invented” sparkling wine, Christopher Merret, a British scientist, revealed the process by which a sparkling wine is produced. British wine bottles were stronger than French one as the British ones were produced in coal-fire factories instead of glass using wood-fire ovens. Using British bottles, the threat of explosion no longer existed, paving the way for modern bubbly.

6. The Brits Love the Bubbles

The British also were the first to take a liking to the sparkling wine from Champagne. In the 1600s, a lot of wine from Champagne was shipped to England to be bottled. As England is cold, the Champagne fermented again in the bottle creating Champagne. The English fell in love with this wine and it became popular with nobles and poets alike. Soon the popularity spread to French nobility too. The British loved it so much that English dandies in 1800s prided themselves in polishing their boots with champagne.

7. The Real Dom Perignon

Don’t believe the Dom Perignon legend, because, in polite company, you may eat your words. Dom Perignon, the famous Benedictine monk from the 17th century, is not the father of Champagne. Champagne, as we know it, came around in the early 19th century. He actually tried to prevent the second fermentation that happens in the wine bottle that causes carbonation.

8. Dom Perignon’s Colorful Contribution

Dom Perignon is still a wine-making pioneer. Before Perignon, wine from Champagne had a pale pink color. His innovations changed that. He started the process of blending grape before pressing. He also popularized ending the Champagne tradition of pressing wine in by stomping, so that the red grapes could produce a white wine. This gives champagne its signature color even though Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are both black/red grapes.

 9. The Widow’s Rack

Modern champagne owes a lot to Widow Clicquot. Around 1813, Madame Clicquot Ponsardin, whose champagne house exists to this day, introduced riddling which gave the winemaker control over the second fermentation of champagne. Before this, champagne was very sweet, had large bubbles and was full of sediment. Her invention of a wine rack called pupitres, which held the wine bottle upside down, changed all that. The champagne now went through a process of riddling where the bottle was turned daily so the dead yeast (source of sentiment) collected near cork. Then the area around the cork was frozen, the dead yeast was removed (disgorgement) and some wine/sugar was added to replace what was taken.

 10. A Happy Mix

There are 15,000 growers in Champagne, producing three grapes (pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier) for their signature sparkling wine.  However, only a few houses produce Champagne and almost all the grapes come from independent growers. The Champagne houses, Moet, Veuve Clicquot, etc., are expert blenders of grapes from many different growers.

 11. The Craft Beer of Champagne

The French, in particular, have taken an interest in champagne produced by growers. Much of champagne is now produced in a factory like setting (as it is labor intensive), where the winemaker doesn’t handle each individual bottle. Growers Champagne gives back that intimacy and it goes against the general trend of French Champagne of complex blending. Growers Champagne, however, only makes a very small portion of the Champagne exports.

 12. A Dizzying Number of Bubbles

Even though in truth there are more stars than bubbles, you could spend several lifetimes counting the number of bubbles in a single bottle of champagne. In fact, there is normally between 44 and 57 million bubbles.

 Video: Here is a demonstration of Degorgement, the traditional way of removing the lees (dead yeast) from champagne.


Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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A Little Extra Treat:

To build a pyramid for a Champagne cascade, the following structure is preferred:
Base level=60 glasses
First level= 30
Second level= 10
Third level= 4
Fourth level= 1