A HAPPY ACCIDENT
No celebration is complete without a glass of bubbly in your hand. Though, this hasn’t always been the case. For centuries the winemakers in Champagne struggled to dispel the bubbles from their prized wines. What eventually became Champagne‘s defining characteristic was at first a nuisance.
But what would champagne be without them?
A thin, light-bodied wine with very little sugar and searing acidity. Not quite undrinkable, but for the modern palate it would be a challenge. For a long time this was the only kind of wine the Champenois knew. Even the great Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, (the godfather of modern Champagne) initially tried to get rid of the bubbles in his wines. How then did this mistake of a wine come to be? And how did it gain its elite stature?
THE EARLY VINES
The Romans were the first to plant vines across region, though by the 9th Century the Champenois had replanted many of those vineyards with Pinot Noir. This, in an effort to compete with the great Burgundian wines being made just to the south.
Unfortunately, geography was not on their side. The cold, northerly climate did two things to deter greatness. First in the vineyard where the grapes would struggle all season long to ripen. And then again in the bottle, when the sub-zero temperatures would prematurely halt fermentation. With the return of spring each year the yeast cells would reawaken and fermentation would resume. One of the byproducts of this “secondary fermentation” is the release of carbon dioxide, which wreaked havoc in the cellar as the immense pressure from the bubbles would cause many of those closed bottles to burst.
Adding insult to injury, the Champenois were then horrified to find that the surviving bottles contained bubbles, something considered to be a fault in the wine.
While the French preferred their Champagne to be pale and still, by the mid-1660’s the British were developing a taste for the unique sparkling wine. This was particularly true of the wealthy class and so the French, now with a buyer for their quirky bubbly, began shipping barrels of the stuff across the channel.
At the same time, advances in modern engineering were making bottling and transport possible. Coal-fired glassworks were finally able to produce bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure created by the second fermentation, and advances in molding techniques allowed for the production of identical bottles and standardized corks.
Cages were used to secure the cork, and suddenly the fizz could be contained.
THE LAP OF LUXURY
Business soon exploded, and the next century would see the emergence of Champagne’s biggest houses: Ruinart (1729), Moët & Chandon (1750), Taittinger (1753), Veuve Clicquot (1772), Louis Roederer (1776), and Piper-Heidsieck (1785). Sparkling Champagne would become known the world over and Americans, having developed a taste for the stuff while traveling abroad, would eventually become one of the biggest importers.
During the “Belle Époque” (1871-1914) Champagne went from an extravagance to a mass market luxury good. Artists like Manet and Cézanne found ways to work it into their paintings, while novelists such as Goethe, Zola, and Pushkin would constantly weave it into their stories. For the first time in the region’s history, advertisers began positioning Champagne as a celebratory drink. And it worked. Records show that in the year 1900, over 30 million bottles of bubbly were produced and sold.
AND SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE BUBBLES?
The much-disputed bubbles have now become the pride of Champagne. They’ve become synonymous with every kind of celebration from weddings to the World Series, newborns to New Years. And that is perhaps the only real shame of it all — that we regard Champagne as “something special,” reserved only for the big moments in our lives.
The qualities that made it such a poor still wine — the light body and bright acidity — are what make Champagne such an appealing aperitif. And yes, those aspects make it a particularly great pairing for specialty items like caviar and lobster. But Champagne can also go nicely with everyday foods like smoked salmon and shrimp, many egg dishes, and even buttery triple cream cheeses like Brillat Savarin or Camembert.
GOTHAM’S CHAMPAGNE SELECTIONS
Over the past few months Gotham Wine Director Josh Lit has been building up the list of Champagnes. We now offer more than forty different bottles, plus a handful of offerings by the glass and half bottle. There’s value at every price point, with labels from small Grower Champagnes, as well as from many of the big houses that made the region famous.
What’s more, we’ve added five additional by-the-glass offerings for our Holiday Brunches this season — extraordinary options rarely available unless you wanted to buy the whole bottle. (One final opportunity to celebrate the season this Sunday, December 23.)
All of this is being done to make Champagne more accessible. Yes, the holidays are a time to celebrate, and we’ll be toasting into the New Year, but even after the holidays we invite you to celebrate the small moments with a glass of bubbly.
Cheers to you and yours this holiday season!
10 THINGS TO REMEMBER ABOUT CHAMPAGNE
The three main grapes used in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
To be labeled “Champagne” the grapes must be grown within the Champagne region in the northeast of France
Champagne can either be from a specific vintage (in the best years), or a blend of many vintages (often labeled NV or MV)
The big Champagne houses buy grapes from other farmers and then blend their wine to achieve a “house style” that they try to replicate year after year. Grower Champagnes are typically much smaller producers who both grow their own grapes and make their own wine.
Grower Champagnes typically offer high quality and terrific value, a great way to experience the nuances of the region.
Champagnes will sometimes carry two specific labels: “Blanc de Blanc” which means white wine made from white grapes (Chardonnay), and “Blanc de Noir” means white wine made from red grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier).
Rosé Champagne is made one of two ways: #1, the saignée method, which is achieved by letting the clear juice to sit in the skins of the red grapes, or #2 by adding a small amount of red juice to the white juice.
You will most often see “Brut” on the label of champagnes, but there are actually six different designations of sweetness in Champagne: Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre), Brut (less than 12 grams), Extra Dry (12-17 grams), Sec (17-32 grams), Demi-sec (32-50 grams), and Doux (50 grams)
When opening a Champagne bottle, hold the bottle from the bottom and place the other hand on top of the cork. Hold the bottle at a 45 degree angle and instead of pulling at the cork, try turning the bottle back and forth from the bottom.
Don’t pop the cork. Instead try to open silently, letting out just a small puff of air.