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by Laurel Hiestand

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What is Champagne?

Champagne is a light sparkling wine which is made only in the Champagne region of northeastern France.
It is different from all other sparkling wines in the world for three major reasons:

First, a wine can only be labeled as "champagne" if is made in the Champagne region of France.   Second, to be called "champagne," it must be made only from the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or Chardonnay grapes which grow in that region.   And third, true champagne, as opposed to other sparkling wines has to have gotten its bubbles by undergoing the fermentation process twice: once in barrels and again in bottles. Champagne can be produced elsewhere, as long as credit it given to the "methode champenoise" on the label.


Origin & History

Thirteen centuries ago, before wine had bubbles or was any color other than red, the wine of Champagne was used as a "holy wine" for religious ceremonies. Completion of the majestic gothic cathedral in Reims turned the capital of the Champagne region into a venue for royal masses and coronations. Thus, the wine of Champagne was elevated to the status of "royal wine;" and the local abbeys had the honor of becoming vintners for the French monarchy. Picture the King's entourage arriving from Paris at Reims Cathedral for a royal mass. The monarchy expected the abbeys in the region to provide wine for these joyous occasions. Imagine what a responsibility it was for the monks to produce a beverage which the King and his court would enjoy! This explains how centuries later, champagne came to be called the "wine of kings and the king of wines." However, at that time the wine produced in the region called "Champagne" was not highly respected. Even though it was red, it was less red than other wines, and there were additional problems . . . enter Dom Perignon.


Legend of Dom Perignon

The legend of Dom Perignon will forever be tied to the legend of the bubbles in champagne. Close to Reims cathedral in the Hautvilliers Abbey, a near-blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon was given the job of being its chief treasurer and cellar master. When he first took over in 1688, the wine being produced by the abbey was adequate but pale. Perignon feared that the deep red wine from the neighboring region of "Bourgogne" (Burgundy), was gaining favor with the King . The lighter red of the wine produced in Champagne was becoming a problem but was unavoidable due to the cooler climate of the region.

In this northern region of France the grapes had to be harvested early and the wine barrels became too cold during winter months. Unfortunately, even though it had not reached peak fermentation, the pinkish juice had to be bottled. After all, there was a royal demand for the product, and it was up to the monks at the abbey to deliver. But while the chilly winter had temporarily halted the fermentation process, the warmer spring climate "reawakened" the fermentation after the wine had been bottled. The result, of course, were bubbles!

Because Perignon and his abbey brothers were frustrated by the presence of the "bulles" (French for "bubbles"), they began altering the wine's chemistry by blending several types of grapes and removing the skins. What resulted was the art of blending, and the first white wine ever produced! Yet, unfortunately, this new elegant pale wine persisted in fermenting after it was bottled!

The bubbles were considered by the monks to be a serious defect in the wine, and the cause of production disasters: bottles were exploding all over the cellars! Nevertheless, Dom Perignon did not give up; and legend says that when he tasted the new lighter bubbly wine he was pleasantly surprised, and exclaimed "Come quickly, brothers! I'm tasting stars!" If the elegant bubbly could just be bottled without exploding, the monks could introduce a truly exciting new wine. Dom Perignon began by changing the shape of the bottle and using heavier glass. The stronger bottle eliminated the explosion problem, but now the effervescence of the bubbly wine persisted in blowing out the hemp and oil stoppers. Perignon turned to Spain for stoppers made of cork, and Voilà . . . the cork did it! The king's court was delighted with this new effervescent pale colored wine. The abbey's reputation was saved!

Further Innovations

Nearly a century passed before a young woman named Nicole Clicquot would implement ways to enhance bottle fermentation of sparkling wine. The "Veuve (Widow) Clicquot" took over her husband's champagne "house" at the age of 27 when he died unexpectedly, thus becoming one of the "grandes dames" of champagne, as well as a business woman far ahead of her time. In an attempt to reduce the buildup of bubbles in the unopened bottles, her cellar master began rotating the bottles slightly every day. Tah-dah!! This procedure, called "riddling," is still done today by hand in the most prestigious champagne houses.

The House of Clicquot also perfected a procedure called "disgorgement." This involves uncorking the bottles during the second fermentation to dislodge the yeast sediment that had accumulated. The bottles were stored at an angle so that sediment would settle in the neck . Upon releasing the cork, pressure forced sediment to be expelled from the bottle. An expert "disgorger" could then quickly re-cork the bottle before losing any of the precious bubbly.

Today's "methode champenoise" is a result of these centuries old practices which all began with Dom Perignon in the Hautvilliers Abbey in Reims, France. The true French way to make champagne still relies on blending grapes, fermenting the wine in bottles, riddling the bottles to reduce pressure, and disgorging the sediment from the neck. Any current producer of sparkling wine who strictly follows these procedures can legally use the expression "methode champenoise" on their label.


According To The French

From the "Encyclopédie des Vignes au Plaisir", these are some common mistakes people make with champagne.

Dont's For Chilling Champagne
  • Do not over chill the champagne: although it should never be warm, it worse for it to be icy or nearly -frozen.
  • Do not under fill the ice bucket: you'll wind up chilling only half the bottle; add cold water to ice cubes to make sure the bottle is well submerged; this also makes it easier to put the bottle back into the bucket.
  • Do not try to chill two bottles in a bucket; it is better to leave the second bottle in the refrigerator in an insulated container.
  • Do not chill the glasses ahead of time, either by filling them with ice cubes or crushed ice; you're not making a martini! It will have a negative effect on the release of the bubbles and the bouquet of the champagne.

Dont's In Handling The Bottle

  • Don't hide the label and wrap the bottle in a towel like it's a newborn baby. This contemptible practice actually began in Parisian nightclubs as a way to conceal the label of a cheap champagne so as not to reveal to the customer that he or she was being charged for a more expensive bottle of the bubbly. But you will still want to have a napkin or towel on hand to wipe off excess water from the bottle when you remove it from the ice bucket.
  • Never return an empty champagne bottle to the ice bucket upside-down! It shows an utter lack of respect for the prestigious beverage you have just consumed, and worse yet, a tactless disregard for the companions you have just shared it with.
  • Don't swirl the champagne in the glass like a pretentious wine connoisseur! The French call this "champagne battering", because swirling the bubbly in the glass will only succeed in compromising in thirty seconds the bubbles that took at least three years to produce.
  • Don't be a "locker room" champagne batterer! When serving this elegant sparkling beverage, don't be a Super Bowl or World Series champion who shakes the bottle senselessly in order to squander its contents by spraying it on your co- champions instead of drinking it.

Traditions, Folklore & Hints

Sabering The Bottle

It's a French tradition that if you have a stubborn cork, you should not give up: if you can't dislodge a recalcitrant cork from a bottle of good champagne, you can do what the "Hussards" (French mounted soldiers of the Napoleonic era) did: they used the reverse edge of their saber to break the neck of the bottle. Hence, the French expression "sabrer la bouteille"- literally "saber the bottle" came about, illustrating the French belief that it is better to destroy a bottle than to do without champagne! Obviously we no longer go to these lengths to open a bottle but if you have a stubborn cork, rather than use your saber, use "The Champagne Opener" .

Removing The Wire From A Cork

According to experts, if you can remove the wire in five and a half twists, you are about to open a top quality bottle- "the real thing." Actually it's not necessary to remove the wire in order to pop the cork. Simply loosen the wire and grip the head of the cork with "The Champagne Opener" then gently twist back and forth. Let Chant´┐Że show you how.

What To Drink From

According to all makers of champagne and sparkling wines, you should drink this effervescent delight from a tall fluted glass which allows the bubbles to circulate. But wasn't the champagne "coupe" (a wide mouthed goblet) a French invention? Some believe that the shallow, bowl shaped champagne "coupe" was modeled in the shape of Marie Antoinette's (the wife of Louis the Sixteenth) breast. Others believe that it was created to commemorate the breast of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the preceding king, Louis the Fifteenth. No matter whose breast was the inspiration for the shallow drinking vessel, all experts agree that it should never be used to serve champagne or sparkling wine. Save it for ice cream or sorbet.

And if you're lucky enough to be the owner of fine crystal, be sure to use it: the irregularities in this elegant glass actually keep the bubbles alive longer.

How To Drink Champagne

Follow the advice of Colette, the French writer (the author of Gigi) and don't drink your champagne too rapidly.  According to Janis Lightner of the Miramonte Winery in Temecula, California, if you drink it too fast, you will swallow all the bubbles and they will go into your bloodstream too quickly - which for many of us results in a headache. This can be avoided by taking small sips and letting the bubbles dissipate in your mouth before you swallow. Try it! You will prolong the enjoyment of your champagne, and you'll feel much better tomorrow!

What To Serve With Champagne

Champagne and sparkling wines have a great deal of versatility. They can be served throughout the day and throughout a meal as well. The driest ones are excellent with elegant appetizers such as oysters and caviar. The semi-dry sparkling wines are suitable for brunch, lunch, salads, and some dinner entrees. The sweeter sparkling wines are always recommended with desserts.

When To Drink Champagne

Thanks to its association with royalty and ceremonies, champagne is the traditional wine for celebration of any kind, but especially the launching of ships, hot air balloons, and the New Year. Whether you're celebrating a major event, minor event, or being alive in general- or like Napoleon, consoling yourself after a defeat- you have joined the world's bon vivants in choosing this beverage. Savor the effervescence which began so many centuries ago in an abbey wine cellar. You have exercised excellent judgment in using "The Champagne Opener" to help you effortlessly partake of the bubbly. You will still hear the exciting "pop" of the cork without annoyance, embarrassment, or injury. You will not have to "sabrer la bouteille." A vote santé! Don't forget to make a toast- to anything or anyone- before you take your first sip!

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty." - Madame Bollinger, one of the "grande dames" of French champagne (1884-1977)

Champagne Trivia

  • There are approximately 58 million bubbles in one bottle of champagne.
  • The pressure in a bottle of champagne is 90 pounds per square inch, about three times that in your automobile tire.
  • A flying cork can travel up to 50 MPH with enough force to cause permanent eye damage.
  • In 2000 California produced approximately 59 million bottles of champagne.
  • In 2000 France produced approximately 327 million bottles of champagne.
  • In 2000 California consumed approximately 32 million bottles of champagne.
  • In 2000 Washington D.C. had the highest per capita adult consumption of champagne in the U.S.- about 2.4 bottles per adult.
  • In 2000 Hawaii and Illinois consumed about 1.7 bottles per adult.
  • In 2000 California consumed about 1.4 bottles per adult.

Famous Champagne Quotes

    "Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."

Napoleon Bonaparte, 18th century French conqueror (1769 - 1873)

    "Come quickly . . . I'm tasting stars!"

Dom Pierre Perignon, French Benedictine Monk, (1638 - 1715) when he first tasted his newly created champagne.

    "He who doesn't risk never gets to drink champagne."

An old Russian proverb.

    "Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right."

Mark Twain, American humorist and novelist (1835 - 1910).

    "I had taken two finger-bowls of Champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound."

F. Scott Fitzgerald, American short story writer and novelist - author of "The Great Gatsby" (1896 - 1940).

    "Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector..."

Graham Greene, British writer. (1904 - 1991)

    "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

Madame Bollinger, one of the "grande dames" of French champagne (1884 - 1977).

    "Champagne is the only wine that enhances a woman's beauty."

Madame Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. (1721 - 1764).

    "Here's to Champagne, the drink divine, that makes us forget all our troubles; It's made of a dollar's worth of wine, and three dollars worth of bubbles."


    "My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne."

John Maynard Keynes, American writer (1883 - 1946).

    "Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of Champagne."

Paul Claudel, French poet, playwright and diplomat (1868 - 1955)

    "Champagne is the one thing that gives me zest when I feel tired."

Brigitte Bardot, French actress (1934 - living). Said 6 months after her 60th birthday.

    "There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne."

Bette Davis, American actress (1908 - 1989) in the 1943 film "Old Acquaintance".

    "If the aunt of the vicar has never touched liquor, watch out when she finds the champagne."

Rudyard Kipling, British author (1865 - 1936).

    "I'm only a beer teetotaler, not a champagne teetotaler."

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright. (1856 - 1950).

    "Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance, I reply, In my mother's womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne, the food of Aphrodite."

Isadora Duncan, American dancer (1878 - 1927).

    "Champagne and orange juice is a great drink. The orange improves the champagne, and the champagne definitely improves the orange."

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. (1921 - living).

    "Le Champagne ne se boit pas, il se déguste. Il ne faut pas l'avaler goulûment. On doit le déguster avec mesure dans des verres étroits, à gorgées espacées et réfléchies". Translation: "Champagne should not be drunk, it should be tasted. One should not swallow it greedily. One should taste it slowly in narrow glasses, in well-spaced, thoughtful sips."

Colette, French author, (1873 - 1954).

    "Remember, gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne!"

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, (1874 - 1965).

    {Champagne} " gives you the impression that every day is Sunday."

Marlena Dietrich German actress (1901 - 1992).

    "In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening."

Willie Gluckstern, wine broker and author of the "Wine Avenger" (born in the 20th century - his age is a secret)

    "The word Champagne' is so full of meaning, so desirable that it has always provoked envy."

Spokesperson for the CIVC (The Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne), France.

    "Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content and sufficient champagne."

Dorothy Parker, American poet and short story writer (1893 - 1967).

About the Author

Laurel Hiestand lives with her husband, Richard, in Monrovia, California.  
Both teach French and being avid wine connoisseurs can usually be found wine tasting
at the Wine of the Month Club on Friday evenings.


(We do apologize that many of the links listed below have become invalid
since researching the 'History of Champagne'.)




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Last Update: March 2019