Drink Deep: A toast to Champagne’s unique, luscious history

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You’ve read it here before, but every year around this time, I find myself reminding people: Sparkling wine, that delightful, frothy beverage that elevates holidays and celebrations, was discovered by accident.

Many people, especially Moët and Chandon, would like you to believe that Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) invented sparkling wine. He didn’t. He probably made some, albeit accidentally, but most of the wine he made was still and red. In fact, he spent a good deal of his time trying to prevent bubbles from forming in his wines.

Before Louis Pasteur described the process of fermentation in the mid-1800s, winemakers didn’t understand that microscopic organisms called yeasts were performing a chemical conversion that turned sugar into alcohol, with the byproduct of carbon dioxide. And because they didn’t understand the process, they couldn’t control it. Wines would continue to ferment after they had been bottled, and the resulting carbon dioxide bubbles would make the wine fizzy. Not only was this considered undesirable by the consumer, but the increased pressure inside the bottle could cause an explosion, and the wine would be lost completely (along with, perhaps, an eye).

Explosive history

It was the English who first developed a taste for sparkling Champagne. They were also the first, in 1632, to craft a way of making glass bottles strong enough to minimize explosions, although even into the mid-1700s, Champagne makers could lose a large percentage of their produce through exploding bottles. Cellar masters had to wear iron masks, similar to today’s catchers’ masks, to protect themselves from flying glass shards. (They still lost eyes, though.)

Anecdotally, the odd tradition of drinking Champagne from a shoe also began in England. Some young men were carousing with a lady of the evening, and one pulled off her shoe, poured champagne in it and drank to her health. He then had the shoe dressed, battered and fried — put a little sauce on it — and served it for dinner.

Refined reputation

Today, Champagne’s reputation and its association with celebration and luxury have elevated the wine to the highest echelons of the wine world. It has also tempted some high-profile business groups to venture into the wine business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moët Hennessy back in the 1980s and now owns such legendary Champagne houses as Ruinart, Krug and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.

Of the approximately 19,000 grape growers in Champagne, only about 2,000 of them make their own wine. The other 17,000 sell their grapes to cooperatives, or more likely to the large Champagne houses — those large producers whose names we are more likely to recognize. While the wines made by these houses are nearly always excellent, in recent years, many wine lovers have sought out the minority: so-called “grower” champagnes, made by the people who actually grew the grapes. They can be quite hard to come by, especially in our little outpost of the world here in Taos, but I’ve always been able to lay my hands on one when I’ve been in the market.

The NV Gonet-Médeville Brut Champagne Tradition ($46) is made by husband-and-wife team Julie and Xavier Gonet-Médeville from their own organically farmed grapes. The three grapes of Champagne — chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier — are used in different proportions by most every house. Here, chardonnay dominates, with just 25 percent pinot noir and 5 percent pinot meunier making up the balance. The aromas are rich: buttery brioche and vanilla, with some ripe red apple. On the palate, more mineral and citrus come to the forefront, with vibrant wet stone, chalk and orange blossom carried on the lively, yet creamy mousse.

There is nothing wrong with Champagne from one of the big houses; they are famous and respected for a reason. But if you’re looking for something special, something a bit more off the beaten path, look for the initials “RM” on a bottle of Champagne (usually in very tiny print near where it says the producer’s town or region). Those letters mean “récoltant manipulant,” literally, grower producer. If you see those letters, know you’re in for a real treat.

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