Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk in Hautvillers, near Reims in France. To his annoyance, he accidentally invented champagne in the 1660s, while trying to improve the abbey’s white wine.
Perignon had been making a batch late in the season and thought that the fermentation had stopped, so he bottled it. However, some yeast remained alive and became active again when the weather warmed up, causing a second fermentation inside the bottle. When he opened a bottle, he was disgusted to find that it had gone “bad” but drank some anyway. His reaction? According to legend, he blurted out, “I’m drinking stars!” Still, he considered the bubbles were an unwelcome “impurity” – that is, until people tried the wine and asked him to try to repeat the accident. With experimentation, Perignon came up with the process still used today.
Although sparkling wine in America is often called “champagne,” it is not technically that. By definition, true champagne comes from the Champagne district of France. The varietal can be chardonnay, which is white, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (red), or some combination thereof.
Most wines only go through one fermentation, but sparkling wine goes through two. The first takes place in big vats for two to three weeks. After that, the winemaker puts the wine in its bottle for the second fermentation and adds a sugar-yeast syrup to it before “corking” it with a temporary crown cap, like those used on soda pop bottles. Inside the sealed bottle, carbon dioxide can’t escape and gets trapped in the wine, waiting for a release in the pressure to make its escape.
It then waits a long time – six months to two years. Only one problem: Over time, the yeast dies and sinks to the bottom of the bottle, making an ugly sediment.
How do you get it out without losing the carbonation? By “riddling.” For six to eight weeks, winemakers rack the bottles upside-down and occasionally turn them so the yeast settles against the caps. When it’s time to disgorge the sediment, the upside-down bottles go into a super-cold brine. The sediment freezes in the neck, forming an icy plug. When the winemaker pries off the bottle caps, pressure inside ejects the frozen plug.
Since there’s now some wine missing from the bottle, the winemaker determines how sweet to make the champagne by topping the bottle of with a blend of sugar syrup, white wine and sometimes brandy. A little sugar makes a brut; increasing amounts of sugar make a sec, a demi-sec, or a doux.
For centuries, champagne was a nightmare for glassblowers. With all that pressure building up inside, a good proportion of bottles exploded in wine cellars. Winemakers began the practice of closely inspecting every bottle upon arrival. The ones that were clearly irregular were set aside for uncarbonated red wine. The others were tested by smartly banding them together. Any that broke were charged to the glassblower; the ones that survived were deemed strong enough. Still, this was a less than foolproof method.
The exploding bottle crisis hit its peak with the vintage of 1828. Weather conditions that year resulted in extra sugar in the grapes, super-charging the fermentation process. It was a booming, bang-up year for champagne makers as 80 percent of the vintage burst its bottles.
How explosive can a champagne bottle be, you ask? Ever have a blowout on a ten-speed bicycle? The pressure inside a champagne bottle is normally 90 pounds per square inch, about the same as a high-pressure bike tire – however, in 1828, the pressure was even higher than that. With shards of jagged, wine-soaked glass flying in all directions, spending time in a wine cellar became more dangerous than going to war.
As a result of the 1828 fiasco, a French chemist invented the sucre-oenometre, an instrument that measures sugar content in grapes. With its use, the champagne bottle breakage rate went way down. But “way down” is a relative thing: 15-20 percent of all champagne bottles continued to explode in storage. Wine stewards adapted their own strategies. They began storing champagne in isolated nooks and routinely wearing wire masks when in the cellar. Nowadays, that’s not usually a problem.
Does champagne get you higher faster than unbubbly wine? Yes, and there are two reasons for it. The first is chemical: The carbon dioxide in the bubbles of the wine speeds the alcohol into your bloodstream quicker. The second reason is contextual: People don’t usually drink champagne unless they’re celebrating something, and the giddiness of the moment can have them half-drunk even without the direct effects of the alcohol.
One last thing: although it’s fun to pop the cork, it’s not a great idea. Every year, popping corks blind eyes, knock out teeth and do damage to valuable furnishings. Furthermore, you lose a lot of wine and carbonation. The best way to open champagne is to hold the cork firmly and release the gas not with a bang, but with a whisper.
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