Champagne: A Bubbly History

Champagne: A Bubbly History

During World War I the trenches of the Western Front ran right through the vineyards of Champagne, the historic French winemaking region 90 miles north of Paris. Between 1914 and 1918, heavy shelling uprooted row upon row of chardonnay and pinot noir vines, pruned short per the instructions of a 17th-century Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon. Many of the region’s residents were driven underground by the fighting, hiding out in the limestone caves usually used for the storage and manufacture of the region’s signature sparkling wine. By the time the armistice was signed in 1918, a huge portion of Champagne’s vineyards had been destroyed.

All told, the devastation of the war amounted to only a minor setback in the improbable rise of Champagne’s signature product, the bubbly beverage synonymous with traditional celebrations, modern luxury and conspicuous consumption. Champagne the place had seen battles before (Attila the Hun, the Hundred Years’ War, the Franco-Prussian conflict) and would again (World War II) but from the mid-19th century through the present day, the biggest battles over Champagne the drink involved not soldiers, but lawyers, treaties, trademark officials and scores of angry French citizens. All this for a local drink whose signature feature—its fizz—is the very thing old Dom Pérignon spent much of his life trying to eliminate.

When wine has bubbles, it’s a sign that it has continued to ferment inside the bottle. For much of the history of viniculture, this was a no-no, a mark of wine gone bad, associated with murky, unstable and unpredictable vintages. Although a few vineyards had produced intentionally sparkling wine (as early as the 15th century in Limoux in the South of France), it was only in the late 1600s that bubbly from Champagne began to be produced and respected. Wines from Champagne had a tendancy to fizz because early frosts often led to incomplete fermentation during the manufacturing process. When things warmed the following spring, some of the wine would begin to sparkle. Fizzy Champagne, in fact, was popular among the well-to-do in Georgian England before it became so in the courts and chateaus of pre-Revolutionary France. Barrels of the stuff were shipped across the channel and bottled there. In the early 1600s, English coal-fired glassworks produced bottles far stronger than anything wood furnaces could manage. By 1740 molding techniques had arrived, which allowed for the production of identical bottles and standardized corks. Suddenly the fizz could be contained.    Read more

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