Champagne good for the soul (and the heart)

The thumping of the champagne cork popping shouts “CELEBRATE! NOW! While the lively bubbles gently applaud the notion. Today we learned that like red wine and cocoa champagne reduces the chances of heart attack and stroke. As if you needed another reason to drink up! To make amends for all the holiday celebrating, I plan on drinking EXTRA champagne throughout the holiday season and into 2010.

The dignitary that it is, Champagne has a lengthy pedigree of distinction. Originating in the Champagne region of France, early Champagne did not have the glittering effervescence of today’s version.   In fact, that was a happy mistake added many years after the first Champagne appeared.

There is fossil evidence that the area of Champagne had vineyards over a million years ago. What type of wines were produced and whether they were potable can only be left to our imaginations. We do know that the Romans cultivated the land as well as winemaking until 92 A.D. when Emperor Domitian ordered all vineyards uprooted so as not to compete with wines being produced by the Italians; this order remained in effect for 2 centuries.

By the 11th century, monasteries were the owners of many pinot noir vineyards including those left behind and never reclaimed by the Crusaders. Thus, the wines of Champagne were the only ones considered worthy of gifts to God or a King. Still though, we have no bubbles.

The winemakers of Champagne sought to distinguish themselves from the fashionable wines of Burgundy, which were also Pinot Noir-centric, by creating wines of lighter color from the pinot noir grape. The colors ranged from tawny to pink to grey and were immediately popular within and outside of the region. An exiled courtier-turned-socialite named Saint-Evremond popularized Champagne wines in England. Although he had fallen out of favor with King Louis IVX, he longed for the special still wines of Champagne and had them exported to England.

FINALLY, we get to the bubbles! Those glorious, fabulous bubbles, which, as it turns out DO make us “happier” faster.  Despite the fact that the bubbles are beloved, the parentage of the bubbles is in question. Were the bubbles created by accident during a second fermentation which happened in the heat of export? Or were the bubbles in the early sparkling wines of Champagne created by Christopher Merret who added sugar to finished wines thus creating a second fermentation thus identifying the méthode champenoise in 1662? The legends and lore of Champagne are filled with intrigue!

What is known, is that about 40 years after the discovery of the méthode champenoise, Benedictine monk Dom Perginon of Abbey of Hautvillers and Frère Jean Oudart from neighboring Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons Abbey were able to refine the creation of bubbly wine using méthode rurale, in which there is no second fermentation and the wine is bottled only after fermentation is complete. This, along with their  invention of the cork cage, which prevented the cork from exploding out of the bottle allowed them to create the first versions of Champagne. Dom Perginon wines were very much in demand and thus, the first brand of Champagne was created as prior to this, wines were known only by their origins (e.g.”wine of Champagne”, “wine of Burgundy”). 

“Under pressure” is most likely the reason why few vintners chose to make their living from Champagne despite its popularity. The bubbles themselves were elusive and when they were present, the bottles often spontaneously exploded. But in 1836 réduction François it possible to determine exactly how much additional sugar was needed to produce a specific volume of carbon dioxide in the wine and the corresponding atmospheric pressure within the bottle. This discovery made mass production of Champagne possible and in the region of Champagne production of non-sparkling wines virtually disappeared.

Brut Champagne became popular after  Perrier-Jouët decided that his 1842 vintage was so spectacular that he would not add sugar to that vintage, thereby creating the first Brut champagne. After that time the Méthode champenoise was rarely used but the title Brut was not created until 1876.

So this year, while you are celebrating be sure to raise a glass for the gentlemen who ensured Champagne’s place in culinary history!

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.