You! Bubbly! Where’s Your Passport?

Tuesday was my annual foray into alcohol consumption. It’s the oddest thing – when they treat you for depression, they don’t want you taking things that depress your brain. Go figure.

Prior to college, I did not know that all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparking wine is champagne. I probably would have figured it out eventually. The free “champagne” toast the caterer offered at our wedding had no more claim to that title than it did to call itself toast. They should have been cited for wasting water.

Legally, champagne is a sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France (north-east section) created according to specific regulations. The Madrid System, part of an 1891 treaty, defined how a wine meets these criteria. The restrictions were reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles. I am sure you are all as relieved as I am that champagne was protected as well as future European security. Actually better, considering what happened next in Europe.

As of today, over 70 countries have adopted this legal protection. You know that it must be important because even the U.S. is participating. Sorta. No new wines can use the name champagne. Wines using the name prior to 2006 may continue to use it with its point of origin noted (e.g., California champagne). Some states completely ban producers in their states from using the word “champagne” in their wine names. So if a winery in Oregon has been making basically the same sparkling wine as a winery in California since 1990, it may be called champagne in California but not in Oregon. One more point for the wine snobs.

The Champagne region has some claim to being elitist (not that the French have ever been portrayed as overly modest). The Romans planted the first known vineyards back when it was their turn to stomp over the indigenous people of Europe. As Christianity spread, monks produced wine for Eucharist. French kings were anointed in Reims and champagne was central to the celebrations. All of which makes me wonder how it survived the French Revolution. It seems that some sort of lowly table wine would have been the required drink of the proletariat.

Did you know Dom Perignon invented sparkling wine? No? Good, because he didn’t. As is the case in many successes, champagne started as a failure. Some Benedictine Monks bottled their wine before the initial fermentation ended. When they opened it, it released the rest of the gases. Mass was probably a little more interesting that year.

Believe it or not, the English made the first improvement to champagne. And the second. In 1531, Dr. Christopher Merret discovered that adding sugar to a finished wine would create a second fermentation. You will note that his discovery occurred several centuries before doctors stopped bleeding patients to release evil spirits. At least they were spending their time on important research. Luckily, his timing coincided with English glass-makers creating glass that could withstand the pressure of the second fermentation. Not so luckily, the English did not possess the means to make actual champagne.

If you are not familiar with the French/English history, it will suffice to say that they have often behaved as siblings. Bratty siblings. They did not care to work cooperatively making champagne. Therefore, the first sparkling champagne in France came about by accident (yes, another one). Because French glass was inferior to English glass, the wine exploded the bottle during the second fermentation. So they had to bottle following the second fermentation. The French were unable to make champagne ferment in the bottle until the 19th century.

Originally, vintners added sugar to their champagne. One day, Perrier-Jouet decided not to sweeten his wine prior to shipping it to London. (He probably shipped the normal stuff to Paris.) The British decided they liked the “drier” taste. In 1876, the drier champagne began being called Brut Champagne. I can’t find a record of what the French thought of the “British” champagne.

The sweetness is determined by the ripeness of the grapes and the amount of sugar added after the second fermentation. The less sugar, the drier the wine. If you are going to try to impress someone with an expensive bottle of sparkling wine, I recommend determining their tolerance for dry wine. If they generally drink Boone’s Farm, forget the champagne.

The following terms are used to describe the sweetness of bottled wine:

  • Brut Zero (no added sugar and less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre)
  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre)
  • Brut (less than 12 grams)
  • Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
  • Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
  • Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
  • Doux (50 grams)

Last year we had extra dry champagne. This year we had Brut sparkling wine (from Italy). They were both excellent. I think the only ones you have to fear are the pink ones someone hands you in a plastic glass.