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by Laurel Hiestand

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What is Champagne?

Champagne is a light sparkling wine which is made only in the Champagne region of northeastern France. It is different from all other sparkling wines in the world for three major reasons. First, a wine can only be labeled as "champagne" if is made in the Champagne region of France. Second, to be called "champagne," it must be made only from the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or Chardonnay grapes which grow in that region. Third, true champagne, as opposed to other sparkling wines has to have gotten its bubbles by undergoing the fermentation process twice: once in barrels and again in bottles. Champagne can be produced elsewhere, as long as credit it given to the "methode champenoise" on the label.


Origins & History

Thirteen centuries ago, before wine had bubbles or was any color other than red, the wine of Champagne was used as a "holy wine" for religious ceremonies. Completion of the majestic gothic cathedral in Reims turned the capital of the Champagne region into a venue for royal masses and coronations. Thus, the wine of Champagne was elevated to the status of "royal wine;" and the local abbeys had the honor of becoming vintners for the French monarchy. Picture the King's entourage arriving from Paris at Reims Cathedral for a royal mass. The monarchy expected the abbeys in the region to provide wine for these joyous occasions. Imagine what a responsibility it was for the monks to produce a beverage which the King and his court would enjoy! This explains how centuries later, champagne came to be called the "wine of kings and the king of wines." However, at that time the wine produced in the region called "Champagne" was not highly respected. Even though it was red, it was less red than other wines, and there were additional problems . . . enter Dom Perignon.


Legend of Dom Perignon

The legend of Dom Perignon will forever be tied to the legend of the bubbles in champagne. Close to Reims cathedral in the Hautvilliers Abbey, a near-blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon was given the job of being its chief treasurer and cellar master. When he first took over in 1688, the wine being produced by the abbey was adequate but pale. Perignon feared that the deep red wine from the neighboring region of "Bourgogne" (Burgundy), was gaining favor with the King . The lighter red of the wine produced in Champagne was becoming a problem but was unavoidable due to the cooler climate of the region.

In this northern region of France the grapes had to be harvested early and the wine barrels became too cold during winter months. Unfortunately, even though it had not reached peak fermentation, the pinkish juice had to be bottled. After all, there was a royal demand for the product, and it was up to the monks at the abbey to deliver. But while the chilly winter had temporarily halted the fermentation process, the warmer spring climate "reawakened" the fermentation after the wine had been bottled. The result, of course, were bubbles!

Because Perignon and his abbey brothers were frustrated by the presence of the "bulles" (French for "bubbles"), they began altering the wine's chemistry by blending several types of grapes and removing the skins. What resulted was the art of blending, and the first white wine ever produced! Yet, unfortunately, this new elegant pale wine persisted in fermenting after it was bottled!

The bubbles were considered by the monks to be a serious defect in the wine, and the cause of production disasters: bottles were exploding all over the cellars! Nevertheless, Dom Perignon did not give up; and legend says that when he tasted the new lighter bubbly wine he was pleasantly surprised, and exclaimed "Come quickly, brothers! I'm tasting stars!" If the elegant bubbly could just be bottled without exploding, the monks could introduce a truly exciting new wine. Dom Perignon began by changing the shape of the bottle and using heavier glass. The stronger bottle eliminated the explosion problem, but now the effervescence of the bubbly wine persisted in blowing out the hemp and oil stoppers. Perignon turned to Spain for stoppers made of cork, and Voilà . . . the cork did it! The king's court was delighted with this new effervescent pale colored wine. The abbey's reputation was saved!

Further Innovations

Nearly a century passed before a young woman named Nicole Clicquot would implement ways to enhance bottle fermentation of sparkling wine. The "Veuve (Widow) Clicquot" took over her husband's champagne "house" at the age of 27 when he died unexpectedly, thus becoming one of the "grandes dames" of champagne, as well as a business woman far ahead of her time. In an attempt to reduce the buildup of bubbles in the unopened bottles, her cellar master began rotating the bottles slightly every day. Tah-dah!! This procedure, called "riddling," is still done today by hand in the most prestigious champagne houses.

The House of Clicquot also perfected a procedure called "disgorgement." This involves uncorking the bottles during the second fermentation to dislodge the yeast sediment that had accumulated. The bottles were stored at an angle so that sediment would settle in the neck . Upon releasing the cork, pressure forced sediment to be expelled from the bottle. An expert "disgorger" could then quickly re-cork the bottle before losing any of the precious bubbly.

Today's "methode champenoise" is a result of these centuries old practices which all began with Dom Perignon in the Hautvilliers Abbey in Reims, France. The true French way to make champagne still relies on blending grapes, fermenting the wine in bottles, riddling the bottles to reduce pressure, and disgorging the sediment from the neck. Any current producer of sparkling wine who strictly follows these procedures can legally use the expression "methode champenoise" on their label.


According To The French

"Encyclopédie des Vignes au plaisir", These are some common mistakes

people make with champagne.




Traditions, Folklore & Hints


It's a French tradition that if you have a stubborn cork, you should not give up: if you can't dislodge a recalcitrant cork from a bottle of good champagne, you can do what the "Hussards" (French mounted soldiers of the Napoleonic era) did: they used the reverse edge of their saber to break the neck of the bottle. Hence, the French expression "sabrer la bouteille"- literally "saber the bottle" came about, illustrating the French belief that it is better to destroy a bottle than to do without champagne! Obviously we no longer go to these lengths to open a bottle but if you have a stubborn cork, rather than use your saber, use "The Champagne Opener" .



According to experts, if you can remove the wire in five and a half twists, you are about to open a top quality bottle- "the real thing."


According to all makers of champagne and sparkling wines, you should drink this effervescent delight from a tall fluted glass which allows the bubbles to circulate. But wasn't the champagne "coupe" (a wide mouthed goblet) a French invention? Some believe that the shallow, bowl shaped champagne "coupe" was modeled in the shape of Marie Antoinette's (the wife of Louis the Sixteenth) breast. Others believe that it was created to commemorate the breast of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the preceding king, Louis the Fifteenth. No matter whose breast was the inspiration for the shallow drinking vessel, all experts agree that it should never be used to serve champagne or sparkling wine. Save it for ice cream or sorbet.

And if you're lucky enough to be the owner of fine crystal, be sure to use it: the irregularities in this elegant glass actually keep the bubbles alive longer.



Follow the advice of Colette, the French writer (the author of Gigi) and don't drink your champagne too rapidly.  According to Janis Lightner of the Miramonte Winery in Temecula, California, if you drink it too fast, you will swallow all the bubbles and they will go into your bloodstream too quickly - which for many of us results in a headache. This can be avoided by taking small sips and letting the bubbles dissipate in your mouth before you swallow. Try it! You will prolong the enjoyment of your champagne, and you'll feel much better tomorrow!


Champagne and sparkling wines have a great deal of versatility. They can be served throughout the day and throughout a meal as well. The driest ones are excellent with elegant appetizers such as oysters and caviar. The semi-dry sparkling wines are suitable for brunch, lunch, salads, and some dinner entrees. The sweeter sparkling wines are always recommended with desserts.



Thanks to its association with royalty and ceremonies, champagne is the traditional wine for celebration of any kind, but especially the launching of ships hot air balloons, and the New Year. Whether you're celebrating a major event, minor event, or being alive in general- or like Napoleon, consoling yourself after a defeat- you have joined the world's bon vivants in choosing this beverage. Savor the effervescence which began so many centuries ago in an abbey wine cellar. You have exercised excellent judgment in using "The Champagne Opener" to help you effortlessly partake of the bubbly. You will still hear the exciting "pop" of the cork without annoyance, embarrassment, or injury. You will not have to "sabrer la bouteille." A vote santé! Don't forget to make a toast- to anything or anyone- before you take your first sip!

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

- Madame Bollinger, one of the "grande dames" of French champagne (1884-1977)



Napoleon Bonaparte, 18th century French conqueror (1769 - 1873)

Dom Pierre Perignon, French Benedictine Monk, (1638 - 1715) when he first tasted his newly created champagne.

An old Russian proverb.

Mark Twain, American humorist and novelist (1835 - 1910).

Graham Greene, British writer. (1904 - 1991)

Madame Bollinger, one of the "grande dames" of French champagne (1884 - 1977).

Madame Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. (1721 - 1764).


John Maynard Keynes, American writer (1883 - 1946).

Paul Claudel, French playwright (1868 - 1955).

Brigitte Bardot, French actress (1934 - ) Said 6 months after her 60th birthday.

Bette Davis, American actress ( 1908 - 1989) in the film Old Acquaintance.

Rudyard Kipling, British author (1865 - 1936).

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright. (1856 - 1950).

Isadora Duncan, American dancer (1878 - 1927).

Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. (1921 - ).

Colette, French author, (1873 - 1954).

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, (1874 - 1965).

Marlena Dietrich German actress (1901 - 1992).

Spokesperson for the CIVC (The Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne), France.

Dorothy Parker American poet and short story writer (1893 - 1967).


About the Author

Laurel Hiestand lives with her husband, Richard, in Monrovia, California.   Both teach French and being avid wine connoisseurs, they are usually found wine tasting at Monrovia's Wine of the Month Club on Friday evenings.





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Last Update: April, 2012