History of Champagne

Until the mid-1600s, Champagne as we know it didn't exist. The region produced still wines, which were very popular with European nobility. But Champagne had yet to be discovered. The Champagne region in northern France has a cold climate, posing problems for growing grapes and winemaking.

Cold winters and short growing seasons mean that grapes had to be harvested as late as possible to get them as ripe as possible. That meant just a short time for fermentation, because the cold temperatures of winter paralyzed the yeast cells. So the wines were bottled before all the sugar had been converted to alcohol.

Then spring would arrive, and fermentation would begin again — this time in the bottle. When the bottles didn't explode from all the pressure that had built up from the carbon dioxide produced naturally during fermentation, the wines had bubbles. To the winemakers of the time, bubbles were a sign of poor winemaking.

Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk who's often called the inventor of Champagne, was one of those winemakers. He spent a good deal of time trying to prevent the bubbles. He wasn't successful, but he did develop the basic principles used in Champagne making that continue to this day:

  • He advanced the art of blending to include different grapes and different vineyards of the same grape.

  • He invented a method to produce white juice from black grapes.

  • He improved clarification techniques.

  • He used stronger bottles to prevent explosions.

Madame Clicquot, a young widow who ran her husband's Champagne house after his death in 1805, was the first to solve the sediment removal problem. She cut a series of holes in her dining-room table so that the bottles could be positioned upside down at 45-degree angles. After several weeks of turning and re-angling the bottles, all the sediment collected in the neck.

When Dom Pérignon died in 1715, Champagne accounted for only about 10 percent of the region's wine, but it was fast becoming the preferred drink of English and French royalty.

A royal ordinance in 1735 dictated the size, weight, and shape of Champagne bottles as well as the size of the cork. Two historic Champagne houses came into existence: Ruinart in 1729 and Moët in 1743. By the 1800s the Champagne industry was in full swing.

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