In the beginning was the word, and the word was Sparkling Wine. The word was pronounced for the first time by Christopher Merret, whose treatise entitled “On the Process of Secondary Wine Fermentation”, published in 1662, is the cornerstone of the fascinating world of wines full of sparkles, foam, fun and joy. Dom Pérignon, who, according to the legend, is said to have appeared several years later in my opinion is a half-legendary figure. We won’t talk about him here, as he had enough of fame and glory.
The word was soon followed by magic. Yes, it was magic, all these cellars, covered with darkness and full of shades, bottles glittering in the light of torches, the mystery of the metamorphosis the wine had to undergo before it became champagne and the iron mask you had to put on to enter the cellar. It was an absolute must, because at the beginning of the XIXth century four bottles of sparkling wine out of five still could literally go off…
And then, and then… “cherchez la femme”! For you should know that the honor of discovering the sparkling wine and making it famous belongs to women. Here, for instance, you have the story about the great Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, who made a breakthrough by making herself a place in the world of business in the time of Napoleon and produced a special crystal clear and transparent sparkling wine called champagne.
It was Louise Pommery who granted the world with the brut champagne, which is so popular and well-known nowadays. The popularity the champagne enjoyed at the time was not as wide as you probably can imagine and, what is also important to note, it used to contain much more sugar which was added in big quantities aiming to hide all kinds of taste defects of grapes, often picked in a hurry, and the flavour of yeast. Louise Pommery made it dry and drinkable. By the way, if you prefer pocket champagne bottles of 0.2 l, you will surely be interested to know that it was also one of her inventions, and hence, but again, we owe them to her.
These two women did it: they enlarged the geography of the champagne having won British and Russian markets. Moreover, the first bottles are already crossing the Atlantic. The sparkling wine‘s winning the world!
There were also other women: Elisabeth Bollinger and Camille Olry-Roederer who made themselves the ambassadors of the brand and won the popularity for their sparkling brainchild. By the way, at the end of the XIXth century the champagne Laurent-Perrier also had the prefix veuve (the widow) as the enterprise was run by the widow Mathilde Perrier. It was Mathilde the Widow who saved her beloved sparkling wine on the dangerous way across the reefs of phylloxera that devastated and barely killed all the French vineyards during the First World War.
However, the world shall not live by women alone, as great and as fragile as they may be. Now it’s about the champagne.
So, how is it made? Plenty of sun, a bit of fantasy and imagination, hard work and a drop of magic: here it is. We would have never known its exquisite taste but for French charm, female zeal and English glass industry, that allowed to keep the beating heart of the wine inside the bottle.
Of course, there exists not only French but also Italian, Spanish, English, and, sounds terrible, German champagne. The only thing is that if a sparkling wine was not made in France, it cannot be called champagne. It’s just a sparkling wine.
As you can see, the sparkling wine may come from different countries but there exist only three principal methods of its production. They are all complex and time-consuming, for all of them are called to transform the “quiet” wine into the bubbling sparkling wonder, which is rich in carbon dioxide. These bubbles appear in the liquid naturally as a result of interaction of sugar and yeast with the emission of carbon dioxide. Even the residue on the walls of the glass is natural as well, since having consumed all the sugar contained in the grapes and lacking further resources to survive, the bacteria die and leave traces.
Let’s start from the very beginning.
The whole thing started long ago with the so-called rural or ancestral method, when the wine was exposed to fermentation only once in a corked bottle and had a dull colour (since all the residue was left inside), an unpredictable taste and an unequal concentration of gas. As a result, the final product was always more or less a surprise. Even now there are manufacturers who produce wine applying this method. Depending on the region this kind of wine can be filtered or mixed with similar wines to acquire a better taste. It’s interesting as an experiment but if you are looking for a bottle of high quality wine, choose something more traditional, otherwise you may be disappointed.
The second method is not that ancient as the first one, although we may surely call it classical. In this case the production of sparkling wine is the result of the secondary fermentation of the liquid indoors in the bottle placed for a certain period of time in a special room with the adjusted level of temperature and humidity. It is also necessary to replace the old cork with all the residue accumulated on it and to find a new one. This method is described in a set of well-sounding although complicated terms which are difficult to remember. It is important to know that the classical method is applied not only for the production of high quality champagne but also for French Cremant, some Italian sparkling wines (Franciacorta, Trente, Oltrepo Pavese), Spanish sparkling wines Cava, as well as some German and English sparkling wines.
The third method was developed for industrial mass wine production. It is way less romantic but accessible and really promising. It is the so-called tank or Charmat method, allowing to expose the liquid to secondary fermentation in huge neutral tanks, where the quiet wine becomes sparkling, after what it is bottled. This method is applied for the production of the biggest part of sparkling wines, in particular, prosecco, so popular now in our part of the world.
You surely remember the so-called Soviet sparkling wine, don’t you? The Soviet Union invented and developed a continuous tank method of production of sparkling wine, where the entire process took only twenty-six days and allowed thus to start making wine at a global level delivering it all over the country in sufficient quantities. Just like Henry IV is said to have wished that each family in France could afford buying a chicken for a holiday, the Soviet government wished that each family could afford buying a bottle of champagne for the New Year Eve.
There is also another method similar to the one applied for the production of lemonade and various bubbling drinks for kids, but we won’t tell about it here since we are discussing much more respectable matters.
What is the secret of taste of the sparkling wine? But again, it lies in these small charming bubbles coming up at the surface. The French Academy of Sciences made a number of complex experiments and found out that the special fragrance the champagne has become famous for, was mostly concentrated in the bubbles. Now you can understand why a bottle of champagne should be opened with great care and almost noiselessly, as well as why we are so fascinated by the movement of bubbles in the glass and, finally, why, if you want to make your wine bubblier, it is necessary to wipe the glass with a cotton towel before pouring the liquid.
There are different kinds of sparkling wine, and the gas filling for each of them may also be different, so if the wine is not bubbly enough, it is not always a defect, someone’s wrong manner to pull out the cork or a bad karma. Actually, you can find out how strong the gas filling is having read the information on the label. Spumante is not a way of production of sparkling wine, as you probably believe, it’s nothing but an Italian name for a sparkling wine containing an expected level of carbon dioxide. As for frisante, it is a light and less bubbly version of sparkling wine. French sparkling wines can also be light, in this case they are called pétillants.
The world of sparkling wines is a universe including more than one sparkling system, which is permanently changed and developed. New brands arise, and the sparkling wine keeps winning the hearts of new admirers. I would like to finish with the words of Elisabeth Bollinger: “I drink it when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone, but if there is someone I can share it with, a glass of champagne is a must. I do not drink champagne only when I don’t feel like drinking at all.”