“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 when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.” – Lilly Bollinger, President of Bollinger Champagne, 1899-1922
There has probably never been so cherished, universally regaled, and storied a beverage than sparkling wine. Some of this pomp can be attributed to its association with European royalty throughout the 17th to the early 19th centuries, but its popularity with the well-heeled led to increased production and greater availability, allowing the refreshing, nuanced wine to serve as the de facto drink for life’s special events, or, if you second the emotion from Lilly Bollinger above, for celebrating the special event of just getting up in the morning.
And the whole thing was pretty much an accident. If we take a non-purist view that the word “Champagne” can be used generically for any sparkling wine, then its history probably dates back quite a ways. We will get to a monk named Pierre in a bit, but the first Western record of sparkling wine dates to 1531, and occurred when a group of Benedictine monks bottled wine before fermentation had finished. This was near Carcassonne in southern France, nowhere near the Champagne terroir, and 100 years before the fabled patron monk of Champagne was even born. Also, it was, in fact, an English scientist and physician, Christopher Merret, who first documented that wine-makers could achieve a second, bubble-producing fermentation by adding additional sugar to finished wine.
This second fermentation approach was basically overlooked for a few centuries. Sparkling wines produced in France on a non-accidental basis got their bubbles from something called methode rurale, which relied on bottling wine before the initial fermentation was complete. What became known as the methode champenoise, which now typically includes the second addition of sugar AND yeast, wasn’t used until the 19th century.
Six years after Merrett’s chemical discovery, in 1668, monk Pierre Perignon, or Dom Perignon, became the cellarer at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers in Champagne, where he did indeed refine the still potentially disastrous methode rurale process, legitimizing the experimental brew with a sharp eye on quality, and experimenting with multiple varietals from multiple vineyards in the mix. Much of his impact on Champagne is creative storytelling. His role as a kind of posthumous celebrity spokesman and historical touchstone can be credited with boosting the wine’s popularity, however, and with the establishment of the Champagne region as its spiritual home. Of course, he is forever sainted on the label of Champagne house Moet & Chandon’s prestige expression, and has been since 1921.
Still, it took a few centuries for the drinking public to not consider a wine with bubbles as a flawed wine. Champagne as we think of it today, a purpose-made white or rose sparkling wine, began getting its legs under itself in the early 19th century, coincident with the adoption of the second-fermentation methode champenoise, the availability of sturdier bottling stock, and the 1844 refinement of the champagne cage, or muselet, to keep the corks from popping when you didn’t want them to.
The terminology of traditional Champagne, while slightly confusing in its density, can in fact deliver a wealth of information to help you understand and appreciate the wine, and better yet, throw a net over what you like to drink when the occasion calls for it. Here are just few key concepts:
Blanc de blancs vs. Blanc de noirs
Blanc de blancs champagnes are produced from 100% Chardonnay grapes, hence the “white from whites” meaning. Blancs de noirs are generally produced from the Pinot Noir grape, the Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. Four other grape varieties are allowed to be included in Champagne production in the strictest interpretation of the regulations, but they are little used: Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris.
Vintage vs. Non-vintage
Vintage Champagnes are bottled in particularly favorable growing years, or so-called “good years,” and are 100% composed of grapes from that year. As for non-vintage Champagne, while most usually feature a majority base of a single year, they are blended with 10% to 15% of older wine (a much larger percentage is technically allowed). Non-vintage Champagne constitutes the majority of global production—and the designation isn’t necessarily a quality indicator. This type of champagne represents the estimable and painstaking work of expert blenders and generally offers an expected, consistent flavor, style, and quality. For more defense of blending, read on.
While this term can also apply to flat wines, the term is most commonly associated with some of the Champagne world’s most famous and desirable bottles—and, of course, it always refers to a blend. Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Krug’s Grande Cuvee, Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siecle (bearing the telling marketing phrase, “Recreating the Perfect Year”) and many other top hits are all prestige cuvees. While it may not be strictly kosher, some houses refer to cuvee blends of recognized vintage-year potions as “vintage cuvees.”
And let’s not forget Grower Champagnes.
Brut vs. Extra-dry
With the exception of so-called brut-zero Champagnes from small cult producers like Tarlant, a blend of sugar and additional wine is added to Champagne after barreling and before bottling to adjust relative sweetness, as well. There are six different terms used to designate dryness vs. sweetness in the Champagne lexicon, though brut or extra-dry versions are most common.
Brut is by far more available generally, and its popularity began when the Perrier-Jouet house opted to reduce added sugar to their 1846 vintage bottles destined for export to England. So: another British link to the history of France’s most famous export. It might be owing to a stereotypically French obfuscation that the sweeter version of Champagne you’re likely to come across is called “extra-dry.” But if you spot a bottle, do yourself a favor and take it for a spin. Many, many bubble-heads prefer its sweeter taste, and it is in fact probably closer to historical Champagnes, which evidenced a notably more dulcet flavor as a rule.
White vs. “Pink”
For far too long, “pink” Champagne was viewed as an overly feminine, even novelty, product. Do not make the mistake of underestimated the benefits of a little extra skin contact, however. There is a dedicated cadre of aficionados who will tell you that if you are drinking a quality sparkling rose, you are often drinking the finest exemplar of the Champagne terroir. The house of Veuve Cliquot has a long-standing rivalry with some other makers regarding who was first to the pink parade, but regardless of heritage, sparkling rose is created by two methods: Via the lesser-used saignee method, the juice of dark Champagne grapes rests with its original skins for a bit, imparting the blush color and fruitier, earthier flavors. Via the d’assemblage method, makers expertly add still red wine to sparkling wine cuvee. With the renewed popularity of rose wines in general, more and more drinkers are open to rose Champagnes, which are often excellent alone, but are also bit more flexible than traditional Champagnes in terms of food and wine pairings.
How to Say the Names
And finally, here’s an excellent video on how to pronounce the major houses.