Early sparkling wines were produced by the méthode ancestrale, with the carbon dioxide gas arising from fermentation in the bottle. The méthode ancestrale is still used in certain parts of France such as in Gaillac and Limoux in the Languedoc. But as the lees (accumulations of dead or residual yeast) are not removed from the bottle, the end product can be quite cloudy.
Historically in the Champagne, cold weather halted fermentation, which then restarted in the spring. If the wine had been bottled, the carbon dioxide gas produced by this second fermentation of sorts often shattered the bottle. And if the bottle survived intact, the result was a sparkling wine more or less similar to modern champagne. However, the Champenois considered this sparkling wine to be faulty, and even called it vin du diable (devil’s wine).
In contrast to the Champenois, the British acquired a certain taste for this accidentally sparkling wine and eventually introduced the fashion into the court of Versailles, then under the regency (1715-23) of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans. The Champenois rose to meet the increasing demand for the sparkling wine, but they found it difficult to control the process and could not source bottles strong enough to reliably withstand the pressure.
The solutions to these problems came not from Champagne but from across the Channel. In 1662 Christopher Merret FRS presented a paper in which he correctly maintained that any wine could be made sparkling by the addition of sugar prior to bottling, and it is very likely that the English were making the wine of Champagne sparkle long before the Champenois. English glassmakers of the 17thcentury used coal- rather than wood-fired ovens that resulted in a stronger glass and stronger bottles. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers (lost after the fall of the Roman Empire), which provided an airtight closure with which to cap their stronger bottles and seal in the sparkle.
Six years after Merret presented his paper, Dom Pérignon (pictured) was appointed cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers. Dom Pérignon thought of sparkling wine as faulty wine, and recommended using the pinot noir grape to minimize the tendency to sparkle. At the same time, he greatly improved practices of viticulture, harvesting, and vinification, and thereby modernized the production of the wines that became modern champagne. For example, he advocated aggressive pruning and smaller yields, early-morning harvesting, the rejection of bruised or broken grapes, rapid pressing to minimize skin contact, and the discarding of the fourth and fifth presses (the so-called vin de taille and vin de pressoir).
Until the early 19th century, champagne producers did not remove the lees from the bottle. This spared any sparkle from being lost, but could make for quite a cloudy and unpleasant wine. The veuve (widow) Cliquot and her cellar master addressed this problem by developing the process of riddling to remove the lees with minimal loss of sparkle. This process, which is still in use, involves progressively moving the lees into the neck of the bottle and then ejecting it under the pressure of the wine.
The small amount of wine that is lost through riddling came to be replaced by a varying mixture of sugar and wine called the dosage, which then as today very much determined the final style of the wine. Throughout most of the 19th century, champagne was very sweet, and champagne destined for the Russian market was sweetest of all with as much as 250-330 grams of sugar. At the other end of the scale, champagne destined for the English market contained ‘only’ 22-66 grams of sugar. Today, brut with only 6-15 grams of sugar is by far the most popular style of champagne, and doux, the sweetest style of champagne, can contain as little as 50 grams of sugar.
Following the ravages inflicted by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century and a seemingly endless series of poor vintages, riots erupted in January 1911. Some producers had been making faux champagne with grapes from other French regions, and the Champenois grape growers intercepted the trucks carrying these grapes and dumped the grapes into the River Marne. To pacify them, the French government attempted to delimit the Champagne region, but the exclusion and then inclusion of the Aube provoked further riots which might have degenerated into civil war had they not been cut short by the outbreak of World War I. The Great War brought severe destruction to many buildings and vineyards, and some Champenois took refuge in the famous chalk cellars or crayères which are used to store and age champagne.
The Champenois had barely begun to recover from the wounds of war when the lucrative Russian market was lost to the Bolshevik Revolution, and then the US market to the declaration of prohibition. The Great Depression also hit sales, as did the advent of World War II. Since the end of World War II champagne has been in ever increasing demand. This has led not only to a quadrupling of production to over 200 million bottles per year, but also to a great number of imitators throughout France, Europe, and the New World and, back at home, to a controversial expansion of the Champagne vineyards…
——————Dr Neel Burton is a writer and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford. He runs the Oxford Wine Academy with James Flewellen. Through the Oxford Wine Academy, they are available for wine consultancy and for animating tastings in the UK and abroad.