History of Sparkling Wine

Written by
Vintage Cellars
February 19, 2019
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The centuries-old evolution of sparkling wine in its various incarnations is the stuff of myth and legend, as well as sheer human ingenuity.

Everything old is new again

The adage "old meets new" can be applied to the evolution of sparkling wine. "Pét-nat" is the latest craze with hipster sommeliers, who are serving bucket-loads of cloudy, fizzy stuff that tastes more like cider than wine. But did you know that pétillant naturel (its full name) is a natural sparkling wine that pre-dates the wines of Limoux and Champagne?

It's made by allowing a partially fermented wine to finish its fermentation in a bottle - without additives such as sugar, acid, yeast or preservatives. The fizz develops as natural yeasts convert the remaining grape sugars into alcohol, creating carbon dioxide in the process, which is trapped inside the bottle. The low level of carbon dioxide keeps the pét-nat fresh.

Whilethe ancients struggled to seal the fizzy bottles, modern winemakers simply use a crown seal. The technical name for the process is méthode ancestrale. Traditionalists decry the style, saying it undoes more than 300 years of sparkling-wine innovation, but the cool crowd is embracing pét-nat’s low-tech, low-input ethos, plus, it’s suitable for vegans.

In the beginning, there was Limoux

While the Champenoise claim to have “invented” the world’s greatest sparkling wines, there's ample evidence the Limoux region (a cool valley on the Aude River, near France's Carcassonne) was making sparkling wine well before Dom Pérignon’s time.

Records kept by the Benedictine monks of the Abbaye de Saint Hilaire mention sparkling wine in 1531. Legend has it that Dom Pérignon stayed at the Abbaye de Saint Hilaire on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and was inspired to replicate the style back at his Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers near Epernay. It’s an unlikely story, but what's certain is the sparkling wines we enjoy today have evolved over hundreds of years.

A brisk English bubbly

Originally, champagne was a still wine shipped in barrels to Paris (via the all-important Marne River) for immediate consumption in the French capital’s bars and cafés.

Some barrels found their way to England, but the British found the wine sour. To help make the tart wine more palatable, English “wine coopers” added sugar to the barrels that became “brisk and sparkling”, as reported to the Royal Society by Dr Christopher Merrett on 17 December 1662.

Dormant yeast cells in the barrels “awoke” in the (somewhat) warmer English climate, converting the additional sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. It was another step in the sparkling evolution timeline.

Dom Pérignon — reaching for the stars

Many myths and much misinformation surround Dom Pierre Pérignon. He certainly didn’t invent (sparkling) champagne, which makes the quote attributed to him - “come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” - doubtful.

What is true is that during Pérignon’s time at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers (from 1668), the quality of the still, mostly red, wines being produced was of the highest quality. Pérignon separately fermented the different parcels of grapes for individual growers across the plethora of villages throughout the Champagne region.

By blending these parcels, he discovered he could create a more complex and characterful wine — a key to modern-day champagne. Pérignon also understood how to inhibit the re-fermentation of his wine in barrel, which led to deliberately allowing a second fermentation in bottle. However, many, many bottles would explode before the méthode traditionelle process was perfected.

The champagne named after Dom Pierre Pérignon wasn’t actually made until the 1921 vintage. Cuvée Dom Pérignon represents one of the great luxury champagnes, its image and quality put on a pedestal - as is Dom Pérignon’s statue outside the Moët et Chandon cellars in Epernay.

Madame Clicquot-Ponsardin — a woman’s touch     

More myths and legends surround the young widow (veuve in French) of François-Marie Clicquot (who died in 1805). Most famously, she was reputed to have carved up her kitchen table to create the riddling board to rid her champagne bottles of their cloudy (albeit flavour-enhancing) yeast lees.

While this may be another fanciful story, what is true is that by the 19th century, the blending of still base wines was commonly practised, and the addition of yeast and sugar to create a secondary fermentation was understood, the sugar carefully measured to avoid creating too much carbon dioxide and exploding Madame’s precious bottles. However, the problem of delivering the crystal-clear champagne demanded by the French court was still to be solved.

Madame Clicquot perfected the art of remuage or “riddling” by placing her bottles almost vertically in holes cut in an A-frame board (the reputed kitchen table). Over six to eight weeks, the bottles were rotated a quarter-turn every day, forcing the yeast lees into the neck of the bottle, which was then frozen and the sediment removed. Liqueur (a mixture of still wine and sugar) was then added to balance the finished wine.

With a few refinements, this is the méthode traditionelle used today. More important than her technical prowess, however, was Madame Clicquot’s ability (and tenacity) as a marketer, as she set about building her brand into one of the world’s most prestigious Champagne houses. The Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame honours her achievements.

Growing the champagne legend

While the rest of the wine world tinkered with their sparkling wine, the Champenoise set about perfecting theirs. Their innovations were many, in the vineyards but particularly in their cellars — which are the real key to the quality and style of champagne.

During the first century, Romans had dug deep pits of up to 30 metres to extract the pure chalk that comprises much of the geology of the region. Chalk holds moisture like a sponge, a defining characteristic of Champagne’s terroir. By the 18th century, enterprising merchants from the towns of Reims and Cluny had turned from wool and cloth to wine. They bought grapes and still wine from local farmers, which they blended and bottled to allow for the all-important secondary fermentation.

To accommodate the maturing bottles, they tunnelled between the old Roman chalk pits to create deep, cool cellars or crayères. There is now a network of more than 200 kilometres of crayères beneath Reims, with similarly deep cellars under Epernay, the production heart of Champagne (Reims being the more historic, cultural hub).

The merchants, many from Germany, with names such as Bollinger, Heidsieck, Krug and Mumm, controlled the making and marketing, but they needed grape growers for the rapidly expanding champagne market. While many worked well together, some unscrupulous merchants began buying wine from outside the Champagne region. The sourcing of grapes from Aube (near the historic market town of Troyes) gave rise to tensions, riots and deaths in 1911, before a resolution was made to include that region.

World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression held back the formal creation of the champagne appellation, which was ratified in 1936. Today, the region’s 34,000 hectares are held by almost 16,000 growers, and the complex matrix remains between those who grow the grapes and those who make and market the wine. Champagne is big business, with annual production at nearly 300 million bottles and grape prices heading towards AUD$10 per kilo.

How champagne is made

Three grape varieties define champagne: two red, one white. Chardonnay is the white, mostly grown in the aptly named Côte des Blancs. Pinot noir is the hero red grape planted on the hilly Montagne de Reims and in the Aube (or as it’s now known, the Côte des Bar). Pinot meunier (or more accurately just meunier) is considered champagne’s workhorse variety but as it covers about one-third of the region’s vineyards, it’s a very important grape. Meunier flowers later and ripens earlier than pinot noir and so it is planted in the more frost-prone Marne Valley.

Frost is a problem in Champagne, as is hail, untimely rain and cool seasons. To overcome the wide disparities in the region’s harvests, the astute chefs de caves (as the chief winemakers are known) blend the grapes from the current vintage with the still wines reserved from previous years. Creating this complex mosaic is the key to the quality and character of non-vintage (NV) champagne, which makes up more than 80% of the region’s production. Wines that carry a vintage date can only be made with grapes from a single harvest.

Adding to the intricacies of champagne, most wines are clear, not red, as you might expect from them being made with the red grapes of pinot noir and meunier. The trick lies in harvesting whole bunches (all champagne grapes are hand-picked) and gently pressing the bunches to extract the juice without any taint from the (red) skins. Champagnes labelled as blanc de blancs are made from chardonnay grapes, while blanc de noirs are made from red grapes.

Champagne’s hallmark complexity depends on the length of time it's held in those deep, cool chalk cellars – typically at about 10°C. It’s mandatory to hold NV products for 15 months, while vintage champagnes require a minimum of three years’ cellaring. Most Champagne houses age for twice
these requirements, the 2012 GH Mumm, for example, which is Maison Mumm's 60th vintage, spent four years on its flavour-enhancing yeast lees. It’s the biscuity yeast lees character that adds the final layer of complexity to prestige champagne. Guarding that prestige is another task.

Building the champagne brand

The French are excellent image makers, be it for fashion, cosmetics, food or wine. Bordeaux is widely considered the world’s top region for cabernet-based reds, Burgundy for pinot noir and chardonnay, and the Rhône Valley for syrah and grenache. And, while the quality of these wines is undeniable, it’s been a history of brilliant marketing that has added the cream in terms of prestige and price.

Champagne takes that concept a step further, its very name now synonymous with frivolity, luxury and panache. Scroll around any of the websites of the major Champagne houses and the compelling images of revelry, beauty and glamour are ubiquitous.

“Champagne” is offered by a waiter with a tray of flutes at state functions, birthdays, balls and the races. Some will be the “real thing”, but more than likely it will be a local bubbly. And that’s the issue for the Champenoise — the word “champagne” has been appropriated by wineries around the world.

The governing body of the champagne industry, known as the Comité Champagne, has fought hard to protect its precious name, but you can still buy a Californian “champagne”. While Australia dropped the word 30 years ago, “Australian sparkling wine” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as champagne — even if the wine’s quality is similar.

The Spanish have solved the problem by creating cava, and the Germans have their sekt, but the rest of the world is still struggling with an alternative name. The Comité Champagne’s battle is far from won.

The new world order

There’s another challenge to champagne - the sheer quality of “new world” sparklings, be they from the USA, New Zealand or, especially, Australia. In 2018, House of Arras chief winemaker Ed Carr earned the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships, the only non-Champenoise to be so honoured. This is an endorsement of Australia’s sparklings: we use the méthode traditionelle and grow the same grape varieties; it’s only our terroir that is different.

Parts of southern England, however, have a similar terroir to the deep chalky soils of Reims, where they resurface across the English Channel as the white cliffs of Dover. Climate change has aided (marginal) English grape-growers, with Champagne Pommery releasing an English sparkling wine under the Louis Pommery label. Vive la difference!

A greater challenge to champagne is prosecco, the Italian sparkling from the Veneto region. Prosecco is tank-fermented, rather than undergoing its secondary fermentation in bottle, which makes it quicker (and cheaper) to make and market. The main grape variety is glera, which is now planted in Australia. Although the Prosecco DOC (the Italian appellation system) was only declared in 2009, the Italians have been busy trying to protect the name. The abundance of Australian “proseccos” suggests their efforts have failed.

So, while champagne remains at the pinnacle, the pressure is on, whether from other French sparklings (known as crémant), cava, sekt or prosecco. Italy also has some fine méthode traditionelle sparklings under the Franciacorta DOCG, and Australian sparkling wines are on top form - we just need a sexier name.