"Come quickly ! I'm tasting stars!"
During the regular tastings run by Cumbria’s Master Sommelier Stephen Wilcock at the shepherds inn people have often asked about the origins of Champagne and how it became the wine of celebration. So with Christmas just around the corner and a good excuse to celebrate what could be better than a glass of Champagne .
The name derives from the Latin ‘campus’, ‘campania’ or field. In Old French this became ‘Champaign’; today, Champagne.
In the 1600 s we used to import wine from our nearest neighbour France and the only real method of transportation was by river, so the nearest wine region with access to a boat system was the Champagne region and the river of Marne which reaches the sea at le Havre.
The wine at this time was probably a white wine made from red grapes but without the cellar techniques we use today.
When the wine was brought up from the cellar to the table on a warm spring evening would resume its fermentation and become bubbly .
This appealed to the wine drinkers of the day and they asked for more of this sparkling wine .
So the French winemaking monks set about putting the sparkle into these wines. At this time some monks travelling from the south probably Spain came to visit the Champagne region and the stopper in their goats skin flask was made of cork. This enabled a stopper to be made that would keep the sparkle in the wine. In the Hautvilliers Abbey, a near-blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon was experimenting with the wine . He was the cellar master at the abbey and basically an accountant , he made up from his disability with his sight with a supreme palate. He was able to differentiate between grapes from different areas and their value but also he was able to blend the different grapes to build a superb wine ( now called assemblage).
Putting the still wine in a bottle it was possible to start a secondary fermentation by adding some more yeast and some sugar just enough to raise the alcohol by about 1% and give carbon dioxide to the wine . The fermentation was slow ( the longer the bubbles take to put in the longer they are to come out.) and took place in the deep chalk caves that the Romans excavated.
but the downside was that there were two other by- products one heat was allowed to dissipate by putting wooden lats between the bottles , and thicker glass meant fewer bottles exploded, and the other by-product was the dead yeast cells . this problem was that the dead yeast cells died and fell to the bottom on the bottle , this gave the wine a biscuity yeasty flavour but had to be got rid of before the wine was drunk .
This is where The "Veuve (Widow) Clicquot" in the early 1800s and at the age of 27 comes in she cut holes in her kitchen table and propped it against the wall allowing her to put bottles in horizontally and then gradually moving them to an upright position knocking the slight sediment and then the heavy sediment on top to the neck of the bottle . this enables the plug of sediment to be expelled without making the wine cloudy. So small bubles are suspended in the wine .When Dom Perignon first tasted the sparkle in his Champagne he said "Come quickly ! I'm tasting stars!"
It takes a long time to make a good bottle of Champagne and it should be savoured . Drink chilled but not too cold and in a tall flute glass to retain the bubbles.
The bubbles actually take alcohol in to the blood stream faster and so puts one in a party or celebratory mood faster .
This method of making Champagne i.e. fermented in the bottle is used in other areas of the world but not allowed to be called the closely guarded name of Champagne
The soil of Champagne is actually Kimmeridgean clay and it pops up again this side of the Channel in Kent allowing us also to make very good sparkling wine .
Othere noticeably areas of production are Italy with Prosseco, Spain with Cava ,Alsace and Loire that produce a more creamy mousse called Cremant and excellent sparklers from Franciacorta Italy .