PENETRATING THE MYSTIQUE: CHAMPAGNE MADE EASY
Paper presented by Sourish Bhattacharyya on October 30, 2004 , at the Institute of Hotel Management , New Delhi
Copyright: Sourish Bhattacharyya
Champagne, minus the hype and the hoopla, is the product of geography perfected by creative human interventions and slick marketing. The history of this sparkling wine, as a result, is replete with delicious ironies, so much so that even the teetotaller monk Dom Pierre Perignon, who’s credited with inventing the fizz actually spent all his life trying to rid his wines of unwelcome bubbles.
But how did Champagne, an hour and a half away by train from Paris, begin its dalliance with bubble?
Blame it on geography, or just thank God for it. Owing to its northerly latitudes (it’s on the 49 th Parallel) and the Atlantic’s cooling influence (the average temperature in this sunshine-challenged district as big as Belgium is 10.5 degrees C and it rains for at least 200 days in a year), Champagne experiences bitter winters, when the yeasts facilitating the process of fermentation become dormant and revive only with the onset of spring.
In the early days, when Champagne used to produce slightly pink and still wines made from pinot noir, this disrupted fermentation process resulted in immense pressure building up in the bottles – Philippe Wibrote of the Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne colourfully described it to me as the air pressure in the tyre of a lorry – causing 60-70 per cent of them to burst (today, the damage rate is one in 10,000 bottles, because each one of them is equipped to handle 20 atmospheres of pressure).
Champagne’s still wines were being served at the court of Louis XIV, so the producers were in dire need of a technological marvel, and it came in the form of thick-walled bottles with a deep punt (the indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle). Even then, till the bottle-production technology was perfected by the early decades of the 19 th century, the bottles kept bursting, though with manageable regularity. But the bubbles that could now be packed in with greater ease started acquiring a social cachet.
The bubbles also solved a quality problem haunting the wine producers of Champagne for a long time. Because of low temperatures, Champagne’s grapes find it impossible to ripen adequately to produce still wines good enough to compete with the wines of the vineyards farther south. In fact, in the 16 th century, Champagne’s producers used to dye their wines with elderberry juice in an attempt to mimic the rich colour of neighbouring Burgundy’s reds.
Bubbles, with their novelty value, had the potential to deflect people’s attention from the inferior quality of Champagne’s wines. Here’s where Dom Pierre Perignon enters the picture. (The myth of how he developed bubbles in his wine by accident and then exclaimed, “I am drinking the stars,” was popularised in 1821 by a Dom Grossard, a monk at the Abbey of Hautvillers before it was suppressed after the French Revolution.
Moet et Chandon named its prestige cuvee after Dom Perignon only in 1937.) He was a wine-maker from 1668 to 1715 at the abbey, located near Epernay in Champagne, and his lasting contribution was the art of blending wines from various parts of Champagne.
As the wine critic Robert Joseph emphasises in what I consider to be the most user-friendly guide to the wines of France, “The quality of wines that go into that blend far more important than the bubbles that have given Champagne its worldwide reputation.”
With the basics of Champagne’s sparkling wine – the blend and the bubbles – in place, all that this marvel of its time needed was a market.
The first appreciative clientele, writes wine historian Rod Phillips, wasn’t French, however, but English, thanks to the Marquis de St-Evremond, who took bottles of the drink to London when he was banished from his home country. The rarity of sparkling wine made it both desirable and expensive.
England’s best-known diarist Samuel Pepys has an entry dedicated to the drink dating back to 1679. The market had grown with enough vigour for Champagne to be producing 300,000 bottles by the beginning of the 19 th century. Even today, Great Britain is the largest champagne-quaffing nation outside France.
The only problem that remained was that of sediments of dead yeasts left behind by the fermentation process. Till the early 19 th century, each bottle used to be decanted and recorked to tide over the problem. In the process, much of the pressure (and thus the bubbles) would be lost. This niggling problem was cleared with the discovery of riddling by a young widow, Nicole-Barbe Cliquot Ponsardin, who owned the champagne house now named after her as Veuve (‘widow’) Cliquot.
Riddling involves gradually turning a bottle of Champagne upside down during fermentation so that the sediments settle in the neck of the bottle. In the early days, each bottle used to be opened so that the sediments, under pressure, shot out, and the process was called disgorgement. The bottle would then be topped up and recorked far more quickly than was possible when it had to be decanted, and only a little of the pressure was lost. The secret did not remain long with Cliquot, which explain the rapid progress of the Champagne’s sparkling wine industry in the 19 th century, with the production touching 36 million bottles in 1883.
In the 1800s, Champagne was a sweet sparkling wine, with the sweetness adjusted to the markets in which it was sold. The Russians, for instance, preferred a residual sugar level of 300 gms per litre; the English liked it between 22 and 66 grams. The Brut (dry) style was eventually developed in 1846 for the English market by the Champagne house Perrier-Jouet. The appearance of the drink, too, was very different from its present-day light yellow-gold. It ranged from a pinkish-tawny hue often referred to as oeil de predrix (‘eye of a partridge’), to amber (because of the practice of topping up each bottle with cognac after disgorgement) and even brown (contributed by the addition of elderberry juice).
Champagne has come a long way from those early days. In the next section, I’ll attempt to demystify a drink that has acquired an almost impenetrable aura because of intelligent marketing and myth-making.
What is it about champagne that makes it the preferred accompaniment to any big event in a person’s life? How can we forget the champagne craze that swept the world during the millennium mania, which saw stocks of the 1990 vintage simply running out? We even have the example of the Cooch Behar Maharaja Nripendra Narayan’s eldest son, Rajendra, also known as ‘Raji’, drinking himself to death with Champagne, and in the process forgoing his chance to succeed his father, because his family forbade him to marry an English actress he had fallen in love with. There’s clearly a bubbly side to both life and death.
And this explains why it’s a matter of life and death for the Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), which was set up in 1941, to defend Champagne houses against the misappropriation of this prized appellation. To this end, the CIVB has fought, and won, 750 cases against interlopers, which have included the Parisian fashion house Yves St Laurent (YSL) for launching the perfume named Champagne (it was subsequently renamed Yvresse, French for ‘being drunk’), or the luxury store Harrods for selling Canadian-made mineral water for cats and dogs named Champagne, or Perrier for advertising its product in Germany as the “champagne of all mineral waters.” The CIVB turned its back on its own past, for reasons that aren’t hard to fathom, by preventing an British company from marking elderflower champagne.
The wine deserves the mystique maybe because of the effort that goes into making it. It’s a five-stage process that begins with the harvest in September-October, exactly 100 days after the earliest flowers blossom on the vines in June, a ritual that dates back to the time of Charlemagne. Vineyards across the district, spread across 34,000 hectares in over 300 villages, which normally employ one person to look after three hectares, spring to life as 30,000 grape-pickers, mostly students looking for extra pocket money, descend on the district to hand-pick the fruit that go into the bubbly.
Three kinds of grapes go into making Champagne – the white wine grape Chardonnay (which accounts for 27 per cent of the region’s production), and the reds Pinot Noir (38 per cent) and Pinot Meunier, which grows well in a cold climate (35 per cent). The bubbly, therefore, is a white sparkling wine made primarily with red grapes. Unless it’s a vintage fizz (produced from the grapes of a year declared exceptional by a champagne house, but 85 per cent of the bubbly is non-vintage), or in the rarer case of it being a single-vineyard Champagne, it’s a blend of an array of still wines sourced by the wine-maker across vintages and vineyards.
Each house has a favoured style responsible for the distinctiveness of its bubbly. Some tilt towards Chardonnay, some are loyal to Pinot Noir. It’s the blend, after all, that makes the difference. The Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial, for instance, combines 200 still wines – selected from a line-up of 700-800 – into one seamless blend.
The base of the rosé champagne celebrated by czars and rappers – out of Champagne’s annual production of 280-300 million bottles, 2-3 per cent are rosés, which explains their exalted status – is provided by a still red wine named rosé des riceys, which is made in one village in the southern part of the district, where the grapes are still crushed by human feet.
Such is Champagne’s obsession for perfection that a humongous quantity of grapes is trashed during the harvest: on an average, a hectare produces 13,000 kilos of grapes, but only 4,000 kilos make the grade to produce 2,550 litres of must, or unfermented grape juice.
What follows is the first fermentation that produces the year’s still wines, which are blended with others every April and then transferred to bottles along with the liqueur de tirage, a combination of sugar and yeast, which results in the second fermentation that produces carbon dioxide in bottles. The bottles at this stage have temporary metal caps and they are placed in racks, head down, so that the sediment of dead yeast cells can drift down to the neck of each. Each day, the bottles are given a slight twist to shake the sediments down – working in the cellars can be very good for your triceps.
At any time, the underground cellars of Champagne, carved out of the chalky sub-soil (some as far back as the Roman times), hold about 900 million bottles. In these underground vaults – the underbelly of Epernay’s famed Avenue des Champagne, no wonder, has been likened to a gigantic Gruyere cheese, criss-crossed by the cellars of nine leading producers – temperature and humidity control is not a problem: it’s a constant 10-12 degrees C and 80-90 per cent humidity down there, just right to insulate the yeast in the bottles from the eccentricities of the weather. Moet et Chandon, the largest producer of bubbly, owns 28 kms of cellars, 35 to 105 feet below the Avenue. The network of cellars across the region adds up to 250 kms.
When a champagne house is ready to release its stock – the process can take up to three years for a non-vintage fizz and five years for a vintage bubbly (it can stretch for 10 years when a company earmarks a particular vintage as a prestige cuvee) – the neck of each bottle is dipped into a brine solution to freeze the sediment that gathers around it. Then the metal cap is removed and the sediment, along with some frozen wine, is pushed out by the carbon dioxide. A dollop of wine and sugar, called a dosage, is added to make up for this loss, and then the bottled is sealed with real cork. It’s not as complicated as it sounds because the entire process is mechanised.
To know whether the bubbly you’ve ordered at a restaurant is the Real McCoy, look out for the word ‘ Champagne’ on the cork. Similarly, the label must have a registration number designated by the CIVC. To help you navigate a region with 200 champagne-producing houses, the initials ‘NM’ on the label tell you that the bubbly is the product of a champagne house; ‘CM’ is for cooperatives and ‘RM’ is for individual growers, who are doing thriving business, at their cellar doors or through mail order, among connoisseurs tired of the predictable styles of the big houses.
The label also tells you about the residual sugar content of the champagne that you’ve just bought. A Brut Nature will have no sugar at all; an Extra Brut has 0-6 gms per litre; Brut, 6-15 gms per litre; an Extra Sec or Extra Dry, 12-20 gms per litre; a Sec, 18-35 gms per litre; a Demi Sec, 25-50 gms per litre; and a Doux, 50 gms per litre. As for the alcohol content, it’s 11 per cent by volume for a vintage fizz; 12 per cent for its non-vintage cousin.
Thanks to the celebratory nature of the drink (although serious attempts are now being made by champagne houses to pair fizz with food to tide over the post-millennium depression in the world market), much of the champagne turned out every year is consumed within a week or two after its release. But, as The New York Times wine critic Frank J. Prial out, “ Champagne definitely ages well. It’s not just to everyone’s taste or pocketbook when it does.” An auction of vintage champagne that took place in London in 1998 proved this point. The vintages auctioned were Pol Roger 1892, 1914, 1921 and 1934; Heidsieck 1907 (recovered from the wreck of a ship destined for Russia in 1916 but torpedoed along the way by a German submarine in the Gulf of Finland); Krug 1947, 1949, 1959 and 1961; and Veuve Cliquot 1937 and 1947.
Finally, a word about bubbly that comes with the initials ‘R.D.’ (as in the case of Bollinger, James Bond’s favourite brand in the movies), which stands for ‘recently disgorged’. Disgorgement, as I’ve mentioned above, is the final stage in the making of Champagne, in which the sediment is removed from each bottle before it receives its dosage, or sweetening, and final cork. The sediment, or lees, is composed of dead cells of the yeast that originally caused the wine to ferment, but it also adds to the wine’s body and age.
In an R.D., the lees is not released within the stipulated time; instead, the wine is allowed to age with the lees. Bollinger’s 1985 R.D., released in 1997, was disgorged after 12 years on the lees; the 1981 was released in 1999 after 18 years on the lees. The 1914 Pol Roger was disgorged in 1944, a good 30 years after it had been first bottled, and it apparently continues to be in excellent condition.
FINALLY, SOME SERVING TIPS
Before wrapping up, let me share the prevailing wisdom on storing and serving wine. It’s interesting to note that my presentation follows Sandy Verma’s juggling act with wine cocktails. When I asked Philippe Wibrotte of CIVC to comment on Buck’s Fizz, he shook his head and said: “People making Champagne can only regard it with pity.” In a world where old rules are being re-written, I believe people like Sandy must keep inventing Champagne cocktails that go beyond Buck’s Fizz and Kir Royale. But rules have to be followed to enhance our enjoyment of what connoisseurs like to call the “emperor of wines.”
The best way to cool a bottle of Champagne is to keep it at the bottom shelf of the refrigerator three or four hours before it is to be served. Then, 20 minutes before the big moment, chill it in an ice bucket topped up with ice cubes and water.
When you’re opening the bottle, take care to twist the clasp six times and place your thumb on the cork. While uncorking the bottle, make sure you don’t make a loud popping sound. It is bad manners.
If the base of the cork is wider than the head, it means the champagne is young, which is what it is in most instances.
More bubbles don’t mean better Champagne. The older and the more elegant a bubbly gets, the fewer bubbles you’re likely to see in your glass. In a top-end Champagne, the bubbles go up in a regular pattern and don’t make any noise.
Champagne doesn’t have a long life (ten years is the outer limit), unless it has come from the cellars of a large production house. The older a bubbly gets, the darker it becomes. If a rosé turns orange in a few minutes after the bottle being opened, it means it’s oxidised. A rose or an older Champagne must be served at 9-10 degrees C; 8 degrees C is the appropriate serving temperature for a regular Champagne.
If you’re serving a great vintage of a premium Champagne, don’t serve it very chilled – that will arrest the _expression of the aromas.
Very expensive champagne comes wrapped in yellow paper to protect it from light. Don’t remove it.
Champagne is best served in crystal glasses. The longer the taste lingers on your palate, the higher it is on the quality scale.
Much of this paper is based on my interactions with the CIVC and with senior Moet et Chandon executives in Epernay in 2001. I have also benefited subsequently from the immense knowledge of Daniele Raulet-Reynaud of Sopexa and Moet et Chandon’s wine-maker Benoit Gouez. In addition to my notes based on these interviews, I have referred to these extremely useful books:
Robert Joseph, French Wines: The Essential Guide to the Wines and Wine-Growing Regions of France (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1999)
Rod Phillips, A Short History of Wine ( London: Penguin, 2000)
Frank J. Prial, Decantations: Reflections on Wine by The New York Times Wine Critic ( New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2001)
David Burton, The Raj At Table (London: Faber & Faber, 1993)
Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India ( London: Abacus, 2001)