Myth, Magic and History of Champagne

The history of Champagne goes back a long way and the facts are muddled in the mist of time, so in this article I am forgetting the facts and telling the story my way. When this area of France produced a low quality still white wine, much of it was exported across the sea to England. Sometimes the fermentation process did not complete and some sugar was left in the wine, caused mainly by the cold weather stopping fermentation. When the wine warmed up in spring the fermentation could start again in the bottles. This caused the wine to become sparkling. French winemakers hated these bubbles as they saw it as a flaw, but of course the English loved the sparkling wine (probably, just because the French loathed it).

Another problem with this second fermentation was that it caused bottles to explode, which both French and English agreed was not a good trait. There was a certain young monk who had just been made the cellar master of the Abbey de Hautvillers, Pierre Pérignon. Dom Pérignon is credited with being the inventor of Champagne. Although there is no proof of this, never let facts get in the way of good folklore! The wire cage was added to stop corks popping during secondary fermentation.

A young lady called Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married a wine maker call François Clicquot but she was widowed 6 years later at the young age of 27. She was then known as the widow Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot). She invented the rack that is used for riddling, the process which allows the gradual turning and moving of the bottles from horizontal to vertical. This moves the dead yeast cells and sediments to the neck of the bottle, dégorgement then takes place: the neck of the bottle is frozen and the frozen pellet of sediment is removed from the bottle; the bottle is then topped up and resealed.

The process of dégorgement weakens the neck of the bottle and allows the bottles to be opened with a champagne sabre. Napoleon’s officers are said to have opened bottles with the back of their sabre while riding out of her vineyard trying to impress the young Veuve Clicquot. I was taught this technique by Moët & Chandon at the Commodore Hotel, North Devon in a weekend course on Champagne, also in the distant past.

You cannot talk about the myths of Champagne without a mention of the champagne coupe, the saucer shaped glass which these days is less popular than the flute. The coupe is said to have been modelled on the breast of Marie Antoinette, but just to finish on an up for Les Anglais, the coupe was actually invented 100 years earlier to her – in England.