Champagne 1: A Brief History of Champagne

 

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Early sparkling wines were produced by the méthode ancestrale, with the carbon dioxide gas arising from fermentation in the bottle. The méthode ancestrale is still used in certain parts of France such as in Gaillac and Limoux in the Languedoc. But as the lees (accumulations of dead or residual yeast) are not removed from the bottle, the end product can be quite cloudy.

Historically in the Champagne, cold weather halted fermentation, which then restarted in the spring. If the wine had been bottled, the carbon dioxide gas produced by this second fermentation of sorts often shattered the bottle. And if the bottle survived intact, the result was a sparkling wine more or less similar to modern champagne. However, the Champenois considered this sparkling wine to be faulty, and even called it vin du diable (devil’s wine).

In contrast to the Champenois, the British acquired a certain taste for this accidentally sparkling wine and eventually introduced the fashion into the court of Versailles, then under the regency (1715-23) of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans. The Champenois rose to meet the increasing demand for the sparkling wine, but they found it difficult to control the process and could not source bottles strong enough to reliably withstand the pressure. 

The solutions to these problems came not from Champagne but from across the Channel. In 1662 Christopher Merret FRS presented a paper in which he correctly maintained that any wine could be made sparkling by the addition of sugar prior to bottling, and it is very likely that the English were making the wine of Champagne sparkle long before the Champenois. English glassmakers of the 17th century used coal- rather than wood-fired ovens that resulted in a stronger glass and stronger bottles. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers (lost after the fall of the Roman Empire), which provided an airtight closure with which to cap their stronger bottles and seal in the sparkle.

Six years after Merret presented his paper, Dom Pérignon (pictured) was appointed cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers. Dom Pérignon thought of sparkling wine as faulty wine, and recommended using the pinot noir grape to minimize the tendency to sparkle. At the same time, he greatly improved practices of viticulture, harvesting, and vinification, and thereby modernized the production of the wines that became modern champagne. For example, he advocated aggressive pruning and smaller yields, early-morning harvesting, the rejection of bruised or broken grapes, rapid pressing to minimize skin contact, and the discarding of the fourth and fifth presses (the so-called vin de taille and vin de pressoir).

Until the early 19th century, champagne producers did not remove the lees from the bottle. This spared any sparkle from being lost, but could make for quite a cloudy and unpleasant wine. The veuve (widow) Cliquot and her cellar master addressed this problem by developing the process of riddling to remove the lees with minimal loss of sparkle. This process, which is still in use, involves progressively moving the lees into the neck of the bottle and then ejecting it under the pressure of the wine.

The small amount of wine that is lost through riddling came to be replaced by a varying mixture of sugar and wine called the dosage, which then as today very much determined the final style of the wine. Throughout most of the 19th century, champagne was very sweet, and champagne destined for the Russian market was sweetest of all with as much as 250-330 grams of sugar. At the other end of the scale, champagne destined for the English market contained ‘only’ 22-66 grams of sugar. Today, brut with only 6-15 grams of sugar is by far the most popular style of champagne, and doux, the sweetest style of champagne, can contain as little as 50 grams of sugar.

Following the ravages inflicted by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century and a seemingly endless series of poor vintages, riots erupted in January 1911. Some producers had been making faux champagne with grapes from other French regions, and the Champenois grape growers intercepted the trucks carrying these grapes and dumped the grapes into the River Marne. To pacify them, the French government attempted to delimit the Champagne region, but the exclusion and then inclusion of the Aube provoked further riots which might have degenerated into civil war had they not been cut short by the outbreak of World War I. The Great War brought severe destruction to many buildings and vineyards, and some Champenois took refuge in the famous chalk cellars or crayères which are used to store and age champagne.

The Champenois had barely begun to recover from the wounds of war when the lucrative Russian market was lost to the Bolshevik Revolution, and then the US market to the declaration of prohibition. The Great Depression also hit sales, as did the advent of World War II. Since the end of World War II champagne has been in ever increasing demand. This has led not only to a quadrupling of production to over 200 million bottles per year, but also to a great number of imitators throughout France, Europe, and the New World and, back at home, to a controversial expansion of the Champagne vineyards…

The Children of Eris

Near to the beginning of time, Eris, goddess of strife and discord, eldest daughter of Night, gave birth to a great number of children, among them Toil, Forgetfulness, Lies and Falsehoods, Sufferings, Quarrels, Fights, Murders, and Folly or Ruin[1]. These fatherless, unloved, but immortal children of Eris are too several and alike and loathsome to tell apart, and so they are simply called the Kakodaimones or ‘evil spirits’.

Once, many ages before ours, the Titan Prometheus[2] stole some fire from the gods in the stalk of a fennel plant and, taking pity, gifted the fire to mortal man. Zeus, the father of all the Olympian gods, punished Prometheus by bounding him to a cliff overlooking the great sea. Each day a giant eagle tore at his liver, only for the organ to regenerate overnight and to be re-eaten the next day.

Not content with punishing Prometheus, Zeus moved to punish mankind. Thus he ordered the creation of Pandora[3], a beautiful evil fashioned with softest clay and appointed with seductive gifts from each of the Olympian gods. One day – in innocence rather than malice – Pandora lifted the lid of the great jar that contained the Kakodaimones and unleashed the children of Eris onto mankind. By the time she could replace the lid, all the Kakodaimones had fled, and only poor Hope remained at the bottom of the jar.

Many generations of mortals came and passed. One fine spring, Zeus asked all the gods and demi-gods to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the soon-to-be parents of the soon-to-be hero of the Achaeans, the great Achilles. All, that is, except for Eris, who had not been forgotten but ignored, and who exacted her revenge by tossing into the party a golden apple inscribed with the message, ‘To the Fairest One’. As Eris had no doubt expected, the three most beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, began to quarrel over the apple.

To settle their dispute, Zeus appointed the hapless Paris, Prince of Troy, to pick out the fairest of the three. Hera tried to bribe Paris with a gift of the political art, Athena promised him skill in battle, and Aphrodite tempted him with the love of she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. By picking Helen over wisdom and war, Paris enraged Menelaus and the Achaeans, who set out in a thousand ships to deliver Helen from Troy. With the war that came, came the downfall not only of Paris, but also of his royal house, peoples, and city of Troy, ancient Troy, razed to the blood-soaked ground of the once fertile plain of Scamander.


[1] Ponos, Lethe, the Pseudologoi, the Algea, the Neikea, the Hysminai, the Phonoi, and Aite.

[2] The name translates as ‘Forethought’.

[3] The name translates as ‘All-gifted’.

Emperor Hadrian faces death

Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

P. Aelius Hadrianus Imp.

Gentle little soul, fluttering, flickering,
Guest and companion of my body,
Drifting, descending for parts
Dark, forbidding, and barren,
Linger still to play once more on these sunlit shores.

Translated by Neel Burton

The Oxford Course on Wine

James Flewellen (author of the Oxford Wine Blog) and I are pleased to announce a new summer school on the appreciation of fine wine, to be held at Exeter College, Oxford between the 11th and 17th of August 2012.

Amongst the highlights of the summer school are a focus session on champagne, our own ‘Judgement of Oxford’ in which you will blind taste some of the finest wines from around the world, and a friendly and informal blind tasting match to round-off the week and put your newly-acquired skills to the test.

You can find out more about the Oxford Course on Wine by visiting our brand new website (just click on the picture above) and/or by writing to us. For now we are keeping a mailing list of people who might be interested in the course, so thank you for letting us know if you would like to have your name added to this list.

Thank you also for forwarding the link to friends and colleagues. We have decided to cap off numbers at 18 to keep the group intimate and ensure that there is plenty of wine to go around, but if there is a lot of interest we may well look into doing a re-run of the course.

Cheers!

The Cloud, by PB Shelley

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

Recipe for Tiramisu

Ingredients (serves 6)
1. 3 eggs
2. 3 tablespoons caster sugar
3. 3 tablespoons marsala wine or madeira or sherry
4. 250g mascarpone
5. savoiardi (lady fingers) biscuits
6. amaretti biscuits
7. expresso coffee
8. cocoa

Instructions
1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites
2. Beat the yolks together with the sugar and gradually fold in the mascarpone and marsala wine
3. Beat the whites into stiff peaks and fold into the above mixture
4. Layer a dish with a small fraction of this combined mixture
5. Make expresso coffee, ideally in a cafetière
6. Dip the savoiardi and amaretti biscuits into the coffee and lay them out in the dish (see picture below)
7. Add a second layer of the combined mixture
8. Add a second layer of coffee-soaked biscuits
9. Add a third layer of the combined mixture
10. Dust with cocoa
11. Put in the fridge for at least 2 hours

Thanks to James Flewellen, author of the Oxford Wine Blog, for teaching me this wonderful recipe.

The second layer of the mascarpone mixture is about to go on